Saturday, October 25, 2014

Historic Senate Etiquette Breaches

Depiction of  U.S. Senator Henry S. Foote ("a voluble, unscrupulous, sharp and successful stump speaker") drawing a pistol on the Senate floor and attempting to shoot a fellow politician. Foote is the only senator in American history to attempt such a thing. WASHINGTON, Sept. 14, 1852 "It is a pity that there are not enough self-respecting gentlemen among the members of the United States Senate to put an end to the disgraceful breaches of decorum and common decency which are now of almost daily occurrence in that once honorable body." –The New York Times

"Senators Rhett and Clemens have contributed largely, in their recent collision, to that unworthy-spirit which is been infused into the United States Senate within the last ten years, and which threatens, unless checked, seriously to impair the character and influence of that distinguished body. They have indulged in personal accusations, and in the use of epithets of the most offensive and reprehensible character. Language, which no man having respect for the ordinary courtesies of life would permit himself to use in private intercourse, has been freely bandied from one to the other upon the floor of what has been styled often times, and with justice, the most dignified deliberative body in the world. Charges of knavery, lying and cowardice have been hurled from one to the other, in open Senate, with all the volubility, and more than the vulgarity, of Billingsgate. Other Senators, so far from preventing these insults and outrages upon the character of that body, took special pains to encourage the actors in them, and to prompt their repetition.

When the degradation in the manners of the Senate shall be complete, and that body shall have been converted into the prize-fight ring to which by such scenes it seems to approximate, the public temper will inevitably sink to a corresponding level. Much of the popular respect for law grows out of the feeling of confidence in those who make it; and nothing is more important to the preservation of a healthy and conservative spirit among the people, than a dignified, decorous, and impressive demeanor, on the part of our highest legislative bodies. When the Senate becomes simply an arena for personal quarrels, -- when attacks upon personal character take the place of deliberation and discussion on themes of national importance, the whole tone of popular feeling will be lowered and the public morality will suffer disastrous change.

What have personal controversies to do with public interest? What right have Senators, met to consult for the common good, to bring their paltry personalities -- their private differences, upon the high platform of national affairs, to be canvassed and adjusted in sight of the world? Mr. Seward never stated a more pertinent fact, than when he said a year or two since, but no man's personal affairs or opinions were worth ten minutes of the time that belongs to the nation. Ten or fifteen years ago, when such men as Clay and Calhoun and Webster gave tone and character to the deliberations of the Senate, such a thing as a low personal squabble was unknown upon that floor. Personal attacks were made and repelled, -- but only upon grounds of important public principal, and in a tone and terms befitting that high position. 


With the advent of Senator Foote, of Mississippi, commenced a new era in the history of the American Senate. He had established a reputation at home as a voluble, unscrupulous, sharp and successful stump speaker; and he evidently regarded the Senate as only a higher field for the exercise of his peculiar gifts. He talked to the Senate just as he had talked to mass meetings at home. He teased and bullied members of the opposite party, -- he hurled epithets and scattered accusations against all with whom he differed, -- he bandied names and drew pistols upon his fellow members, as he found each species of argument most convenient and serviceable for the special occasion. His whole career in the Senate was a systematic crusade against the dignity and decorum of that body. His spirit has lingered behind his retiring steps. And the Senate now has half a dozen members equally lacking in self-respect and in regard for the reputation of the body to which they belong.

Neither house of Congress seems at all sensitive to the degradation which such practices are bringing upon both. From neither are any measures to be expected, which will correct the evil, or check the downward tendency of Congressional manners. The only remedy is in public sentiment, and the Press as its chief organ. It is the duty of the Press never to allow any such outrage upon propriety, to pass unscathed. When members of Congress, in either branch, shall come to feel that no breach of propriety can escape severe censure from the public press, and that neither party adhesion nor personal regard can procure immunity for such offenses, they will be more careful in their conduct, and pay a steadier regard to the requirements of decorum and self-respect. " 1852




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