Lies and Incivility in Congress Before the Age of Twitter

Updated: Oct 17, 2020

We tend to think that Congress has reached a new high when it comes to incivility. But in 1859, the House of Representatives was fraught with tension as legislators discussed the ethics of slavery. As you read through this post, remember that in 1859, Republicans were for abolition, while Democrats were in favor of slavery.


­­­­On Roger Atkinson Pryor’s (D.-Va.) first day as a member of the Thirty-Sixth Congress, a storm was brewing in Washington, D.C., covering the city with sleet and rain. Inside, legislators were warmly greeting one another, introducing new members, and cracking jokes before they took their seats in the partisan sections. But thoughts of the hanging of abolitionist John Brown, which occurred five days earlier, cast a pall over the superficial brightness in the House chamber. On a mission from God to free slaves, Brown and eighteen men had sieged the arsenal in Harpers Ferry, Virginia and taken his countrymen as hostages. Brown anticipated that hundreds of slaves would join him in an armed insurrection of the South. When slaves did not appear, he hunkered down with the hostages. The Marines were called in. Colonel Robert E. Lee and his men captured Brown and his accomplices, less two men killed in the scuffle. Brown was summarily tried and convicted of treason. In the process, he turned “first into a sympathetic figure, then into a martyr, and finally into a saint—provoking outrage in the South.”


Tensions mounted as the congressional session was called to order. Pryor took a seat next to a fellow Democrat from Virginia. Impatiently, he tapped his foot and twiddled his long hair, curling it, tucking it behind his ears. The first order of business was to elect a Speaker of the House. Twelve members were nominated. Thomas S. Bocock (D.-Va.) received the most votes: 86 votes, but 30 less than needed to win the majority vote. The Republican’s official nominee was John Sherman (R-Ohio), with 66 votes.


It did not take long before the debates over abolition turned fractious. Representative John B. Clark (D-Mo.) moved that any member of the House who endorsed The Impending Crisis of the South and How to Meet It, written by Hinton Rowan Helper of North Carolina, was not fit to be Speaker of the House. In this booklet, Helper urged Southern whites to reject slavery and to boycott pro-slavery establishments. Clark implored legislators not to vote for Sherman because he supported the book. The legislatures adjourned to review Helper’s circular.


The debate continued during the next meeting. One of Pryor’s Virginian colleagues urged others not to vote for Sherman: “He is not only not fit to be Speaker, but is not fit to live.” Spectators applauded and hissed.


Sherman responded that he had not read Helper’s book, but he did not deny endorsing it. A Democrat from Virginia said to Sherman, “We are entitled to know whether we are to elect a man who, while I am here in the discharge of my public duties, is stimulating my negroes at home to apply the torch to my dwelling and the knife to the throats of my wife and helpless children.”


Thaddeus Stevens (R-Pa.), a stern 67-year old representative with a limp and a brown wig, asked whether the discussion should be suspended until the House chose a Speaker. He started to sit and reconsidered. He addressed the Democrats, implying that they were arguing over slavery in order to delay the vote until their absent colleagues: “These threats have suited your needs. You may frighten timid men with them—but we understand you.” Democrats leapt from their seats and crowded the aisles. Republicans followed. The Clerk spoke loudly. “The Clerk has no power to enforce order. He is powerless, and therefore throws himself upon the generosity of gentlemen upon both sides to assist him in preserving order.” A reporter later described it as “one of the wildest scenes that ever took place in the House.” A motion to adjourn was defeated two times. By a parliamentary ruling, the meeting was finally adjourned.


On Wednesday, the third day of the Thirty-Sixth Congress, a Republican from Illinois read aloud a New-York Tribune article written by Horace Greeley, about the first day of Congress. “The country must not hold the Republican side of the House responsible for the cowardly performance of to-day. The Democrats, of course, commenced agitating the negro question, as they always do, in order to waste time and enable their absentees to come in.”

A Democrat from Illinois criticized the direction of the discussion in a calm voice, saying, “I think the discussion is entirely out of place. It is calculated, or will eventuate, in kindling the fires of sectional discord.” He pressed on: “A few more such scenes, and we shall hear the crack of the revolver.”


After a lengthy and impassioned speech, Representative Thomas Nelson (O-Tn.) of the Opposition party, a slaveholder, proposed an end to the discussion of the slavery question so the House could elect the Speaker. Pryor immediately rose and said he supported the Union as long as it operated within the Constitution. He believed that the country needed the combined forces of the North and South. Pryor announced that the Southern legislators would never quietly submit Sherman to as the Speaker of the House because it would lead to secession.


Interpreting to Pryor’s threat as an invitation to duel, Nelson, countered, “I do not belong to that class who adopt the code of dueling as their mode for settling disputes; nor am I in the habit of indulging in menace or bravado. I will add, however, that I am competent to protect myself against any assault either in the House or out of it.” The House erupted in applause.

Pryor retorted, “I say to the gentleman that he may dismiss his apprehensions. I am not going to assault him.” Democrats laughed.


Nelson turned and spoke to the legislators as though Pryor were not present. “The gentleman and I concur in one sentiment—a sentiment he uttered while he was conducting a newspaper in this city.”


“What was it?” legislators cried.


“From the byways and highways of the Government the rottenness of corruption sends forth an insufferable stench.” The crowd roared with laughter.


Nelson said Pryor did not speak for all Southerners. Pointedly, Pryor asked Nelson what he would do if Sherman were elected. Nelson replied, “I think we ought to wait until we see whether he would do anything hostile to the rights of the South.” The gallery broke out in disorder. When the vote for Speaker was called again, Sherman was in the lead but still did not have a majority vote.


After weeks of debate and 34 votes, Representative John Hickman (D. Pa.) claimed the House was deadlocked: “Is another ballot necessary? Are we to engage day after day in this useless and worse than this ridiculous farce of balloting, when we all know perfectly well that the election of a Speaker is impossible as we stand now?” He contended, “Everything that has transpired here for the last six weeks means but one thing and will bear but one interpretation: This House shall not be organized, and the reign of terror has already commenced and that disunion is budding and blossoming and is soon to bear its fruits.” Hickman recommended that the House allow the election of a Speaker by plurality vote. He claimed that the Southern legislators who were in the minority had hijacked by the ballot. Pryor objected, stating that the Democratic nominee had thirty more votes than Sherman. “We, sir, are the majority; he is the minority.” He concluded, “I am determined, so long as I have any physical strength left, to protest and defeat Sherman’s election.”


Once again, Northerners interpreted Pryor’s statement as a challenge to a duel. Pryor assured Hickman that he did not invite him to duel. “He is mistaken. His vivid imagination has created perils which never existed.” Laughter arose from the gallery.


Hickman retorted, “Then the gentleman from Virginia should be more guarded in his language. I repeat that when a southern gentleman makes use of a language of that kind, it can be understood but in one way.”


The next day, James Gordon Bennett, Jr. published an editorial in the New York Herald describing Pryor as a filthy liar, a “mental shoulder-hitter, a philological pugilist, [and] a moral bully.” Pryor responded that Bennett “is a miscreant…; a foul and loathsome creature, whose name is the [excoriation] of both continents, and from whose contact truth and virtue shrink as from the touch of leprosy.”


To make matters worse, a Herald reporter had inserted comments into an Associated Press article that purported to be a verbatim transcript of the House debate. For example, the reporter randomly added: “ROGER A. PRYOR, the beastly liar and slanderer of the benign Mother of Presidents, didn’t say a word.” A Southern Democrat introduced a resolution to expel Herald reporters from the gallery, saying that the article “was the most foul and infamous assault that I have ever known to have been perpetrated upon a member of any deliberative body.” He withdrew the resolution as, without a Speaker, the House could not conduct business.


On January 30, 1860, Sherman withdrew his name as a Speaker candidate and urged his colleagues to vote for William Pennington (R-N.J.). Congress conducted the fortieth ballot for Speaker, and again no candidate received a majority. That evening, the Democrats changed their official nominee to John McClernand (D-Ill.). The next vote was Pennington (116) and McClernand (91), but still, neither candidate had received the 117 votes needed for a majority. Finally, on February 1, the forty-fourth ballot was distributed, and Pennington became the Speaker.


On April 5, 1860, Congressman Owen Lovejoy (R-Ill.) addressed the House on abolition. He was passionate about the subject because his brother Elijah, publisher of the St. Louis Observer, an abolitionist newspaper, had been murdered by an angry pro-slavery mob. Lovejoy’s eyes flashed as he said, “There is no place in the universe outsides the five points of hell and the Democratic party where the practice and prevalence of enslaving human beings because they are inferior would not be a disgrace.” The legislators chortled. “If the strong of the earth are to enslave the weak here, it would justify angels in enslaving men, because they are superior; and archangels, in turn, would be justified in subjugating those who are inferior in intellect and position, and ultimately…”


As he was talking, Lovejoy strayed into the area in front of the Democrats. Angered, Pryor rose from his seat. His long black hair fell from behind his ears, his steel-gray eyes flashed dark and menacing, and his sharp nostrils flared. He advanced toward Lovejoy. “The gentleman from Illinois shall not approach this side of the House, shaking his fists and talking the way he has talked. It is bad enough to be compelled to sit here and hear him utter his treasonable and insulting language; but he shall not, sir, come upon this side of the House, shaking his fist in our faces.”


John Potter Jr. (R-Wis.), interjected, “Lovejoy shall speak! We listened to gentlemen on the other side for eight weeks, when they denounced the members upon this side with violent and offensive language. We listened to them quietly and heard them through. And now, sir, this side shall be heard!”


Pryor repeated, “He shall not come upon this side gesticulating in a menacing and ruffianly manner.”


“You are doing the same thing.”


Another representative suggested that Lovejoy speak from his side of the House, adding, “We all know him to be a man of courage who cannot be intimidated.”


“No one wants to intimidate him,” Pryor said.


“No one can intimidate me,” said Lovejoy.


Dozens of legislators circled Pryor and Lovejoy, yelling. Some representatives patted their weapons, assuring themselves they were at the ready.


“Order!” The Chairman banged his gavel to no avail.


“Order that black-hearted scoundrel and nigger-stealing thief to take his seat, and this side of the House will do it,” yelled a Democrat. Cries of “Sit down!” filled the House chamber.

The Speaker called the sergeant-at-arms, but he was missing. The assistant threatened the congressmen with a mace. Even the threat of the glistening staff did not quell the disorder. It took five minutes for the House to quiet.


“We now are in very good order,” joked Sherman. House members burst into laughter with relief.


Claiming that he no longer had a seat, Lovejoy sat down at the Clerk’s desk and continued his remarks: “I was stating, when interrupted, that the principle upon which slaveholding was sought to be justified would, if carried out transform Jehovah, the Supreme, into an infinite Juggernaut, rolling the huge wheels of his omnipotence amid the crushed and mangled, and bleeding bodies of human being on the ground that he was infinitely superior…”


“The man is crazy,” someone yelled.


Lovejoy ignored him. “Slaveholding has been justly designated as the sum of all villainy. Put every crime perpetrated among men into a moral crucible, and dissolve and combine them all, and the resultant amalgam is slaveholding.”


“You are joking.”


Lovejoy replied, “No, sir. I am speaking in dead earnest. It has the violence of robbery, the blood, and cruelty of piracy; it has the offensive and brutal lusts of polygamy, all combined.”

He taunted the Democrats: “Are we, for [speaking out on slavery], in these United States, to be subjected to violence, outrage, tar and feathers, burning, imprisonment, and the gallows? Answer that question.”


“No, we would hang you!”


Lovejoy continued: You raise “the mad-dog cry of abolition…”


“The meanest slave in the South is your superior,” shouted a Democrat.


“I want to know by what right you can come and make me a slave? Where is the wretch that would dare to go up and take that child from the bosom of its mother and say, ‘It is mine; I will sell it like a calf; I will sell it like a pig?’”


“You steal them,” a member shouted.


Lovejoy admitted, “I tell you I have no more hesitation in helping a fugitive slave than I have in snatching a lamb from the jaws of a wolf.” He spoke for another fifteen minutes.


“Now gentlemen,” Lovejoy said, turning toward his audience and smiling. “I know you are in a mood to take a little advice.”


His colleagues chuckled. “I tell you I love you.”


“I utterly repudiate your love,” a Democrat muttered.


Lovejoy answered, “Sinners did that of Christ, but he loved them still.” Laughter erupted.

“I do not think he loves you much,” someone cried out.


A legislator cocked his gun. Another threatened: “If you come among us, we will do with you as we did with John Brown—hang you up as high as Haman. I say that as a Virginian.”

“I have no doubt of it,” Lovejoy responded.


The Clerk adjourned the meeting. That night, “all of Washington was aflame with gossip. The names of Lovejoy, Potter, and Pryor were buzzed about in the barrooms and boardinghouses along the Potomac. Telegraph keys clacked accounts of the speech over the wires.”


When the congressional record was published a few days later, Pryor read the portion of the transcript where he told Lovejoy not to come on the Democratic side of the chambers. Potter’s statement to Pryor, “And now, sir, this side shall be heard,” was followed by a new phrase: “let the consequences be what they may.” Pryor accused Potter of editing the congressional record to add this statement. Potter admitted that he had added the phrase to correct the reporter’s omission.


Pryor was incensed because he did not believe that Potter had uttered the words. He sent a note, challenging Potter to duel. Duels among Southern gentlemen were not uncommon. It was part of the “Code of Honor of the South.” To the contrary, Northerners regarded duels as “a relic of past barbarism.” A reporter claimed that Northerners had “long been deluded with the notion that every Southern was a walking, pent-up volcano, ready to belch forth fire and death at a touch.”


Duels also were common in Congress. About twenty-five challenges to duels among Congressmen had been issued by 1860. Senator Preston Brooks (D-S.C.) had caned Senator Charles Sumner (R-Mass.) until he fell unconscious on the Senate floor. To commemorate the event, his fellow senators gave him a cane inscribed with “Hit Him Again.” Sam Houston, then a representative for Tennessee, had shot General William White in the groin. Representative William Graves had fatally shot Representative Jonathan Cilley after a discussion over a newspaper article that accused him of bribery.


Both Pryor and Potter had previously participated in duels. With the build of a prizefighter and the tenacity of a bulldog, Potter was a formidable foe. Two years earlier, a fistfight had broken out on the floor of the House. He threw “side licks, backhanders, and stomach winders” and reached for a Congressman’s hair and tore off his wig instead. A delighted observer shouted: “Potter has taken a scalp!”


In contrast, the Mobile Register described Pryor as “frail, delicate, little fellow” who appears “a pretty, bouncing, spirited girl.” The Spirit of Democracy of Ohio called Pryor a Lilliputian: “a small, slight man of youthful appearance, who is often taken for a boy.” The New York Times said, “Involved as a participant in many duels he may be styled a permanent Professor in the College of Honor.”


Neither Pryor nor Potter attended the next meeting of the House. In their absence, legislators joked. During Congressional roll call, when Potter’s name was called, a representative shouted: “He is keeping a Pryor engagement.” When the Clerk called Pryor’s name, someone shouted, “He has gone to be made into Potter’s clay.” Police arrested Potter and Pryor before they could battle out their differences. They were released on bonds of $5,000.


Within a few weeks, Pryor would travel to Charleston to urge the Confederates to open fire on Fort Sumter to force Virginia into secession. The New York Times later described his speech as the “match that exploded the powder magazine and brought on the war.”


Other Posts in this Series:

The Beer Summit: America’s Hesitancy to Talk About Race

Lies and Incivility in Congress Before the Age of Twitter

A Fearless and Penetrating Discussion of America’s Greatest Problem: Race

Synopsis of From Superman to Man


It’s Not Easy as Black or White

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