Thursday, October 23, 2014

Bad Manners and Congressional Brawls

Famous depiction of Brooks caning Sumner ~ On May 22, 1856, in the United States Congress, Representative Preston Brooks attacked Senator Charles Sumner with his walking cane. Fellow South Carolinian Congressman Lawrence Keitt famously yelled, "Let them be!"while Brooks beat Sumner senseless. This was said to be in retaliation for a speech given by Sumner two days prior. The beating nearly killed Sumner. The sharply polarized response from the American public that this beating drew, on the subject of the expansion of slavery in the U.S., was considered highly symbolic of a breakdown of "reasoned discourse" which eventually led to the U.S. Civil War

Our Social Manners

Congressman and bully, Preston Brooks
The episode which occurred on Saturday morning, in the House of Representatives at Washington, has a social, as well as political aspect, which a sensitive people like ourselves would do well to consider. We allude to the probable effect of these "little difficulties" upon the world's opinion about ourselves and our civilization. Of course, we think it right, before we say a word on the subject, to protest that we need not care a six-pence about the world's opinion. Lords of the Alleghenies and the Cordilleras, of the Mississippi and the Hudson, of the broadest lakes and the most interminable prairies of the earth, we naturally are to despise and condemn the effete criticism of all the human race besides. Our innumerable banks and our indefinite railways make us independent of foreign nations, as of foreign cash. Unfortunately, however, all things are not as they should be, even in our model country, and we particularly do care a great deal more than we are always ready to admit, what Englishman and Frenchman say of our manners and customs. We are always on the look-out for any little scrap of comment upon us that a foreigner happens to let drop. If it is favorable we purr beneath it, like a well-stroked cat -- if unfavorable, our fury is a frightful thing to see. The faintest insinuation that our men are not all "high toned" and chivalrous, and our women are not all graceful and handsome, throws us into convulsions. If a roving English tourist hints that somebody he met at Washington eats peas with his knife, the peaceful relations of the two countries are immediately endangered. If a London penny-a-liner throws out an insinuation that the stewed prunes on board a Collins steamer are not so good as on the Cunard line, the whole nation rises in frenzy. In short, there is not a fool or knave, from Maine to California, who is not sure of having his absurdities or rascalities defended to the death by the whole of this republic, if you can only get a foreigner to print unkind remarks about them.
A "Harper's Weekly" depiction of two observers in the gallery, commenting on the fracas described in this New York Times article ~ Lawrence Keitt, the man who yelled "Let them be!" while Brooks beat Sumner 2 years earlier, got into a fight of his own in 1858. During a very late, 2 a.m. House session, Republican Galusha Grow wandered over to the Democrats' side of the aisle, and Keitt reportedly yelled, "Go back to your side of the House, you Black Republican puppy!" Grow retorted, "No negro-driver shall crack his whip over me." The resulting brawl embarrassingly involved 50 members of Congress. 
Such being the state of affairs, the manners and customs of our leading men, upon whom the eyes of the world are most apt to fall, really assume a portentous importance. What is to be done, if our Solons want conduct themselves with propriety? If they will treat themselves in the Legislative halls to "a rough-and-tumble and drag-out fight," Punch will make fun of us, the London Times will jeer at us, and many of the rotten and worn-out Aristocracies of the Old World, whom we despise in our hearts, will say that there are no gentleman among us. Here, for half a century we have been bragging to all of Europe of the exquisite polish and chivalric refinement of our Southern seaboard planters, of our Carolinian Huguenots and our Virginian Cavaliers. We gave up the Yankees; from the sons of the Roundheaded Puritans nobody could look for anything better than gaucherie and inquisitive impertinence. But our "proud answer to the despot and the tyrant," to the old fogies of London, and Paris, and Vienna, when they boasted of their society and their manners, was a warning to wait till his fortunate stars should bring him into contact with the chivalry of the Old Dominion or the Palmetto State. We had gradually convinced ourselves and almost all the world as well, that our rice-swamps and our tobacco-fields were stocked with a noble army of plantation Bayards and of "mute, inglorious" Sidneys. It was a dreadful shock to all of us that Brooks, of the line of Butler, gave when he behaved like a pot-house bully in the Senate Chamber, and listening lords and ladies of his native State applauded. People began to think our "chivalry" in someway connected with the celebrated "Mrs. Harris," but we tried to stifle all their doubts by asserting that Brooks had derogated through overmuch drink, and that it was only very vulgar people who clubbed together to buy him canes. And now comes up Mr. Keitt, another "gentleman" of our "well-known style," and plunges us into a worse scrape than the first. He has behaved so very much like a man who is been bred "behind" the bar and so very unlike a man who has been accustomed to behave himself in decent company, but unless we can make it appear beyond a doubt that he always was considered a low fellow even at home, and that they sent him to Congress to get him out of Carolina, we may be obliged to go to war to prove that we are well-bred people; unless indeed, we adopt a hint from the "World Exhibition," and, as soon as Kansas shall have been fairly pacified, pick up a few specimens of the "real high-toned chivalric gentleman," and send them over properly ticketed, guaranteed and indorsed, to be shown at Willis' rooms or the Conservatoire, under the supervision of the United States Minister.             Originally printed in The New York Times February 9, 1858