The 6 Most Childish Things Ever Done in Congress
As an institution, you can't get much less respect from the public than the U.S. Congress does. Ask people why and they'll talk about under-the-table deals, lobbyists and in general not doing a whole lot to fix everyday problems of the working man. And that's too bad, because that's ignoring the fact that sometimes that shit gets truly ridiculous.
And we're talking "drunken bar brawl" ridiculous here.
Congressman Lyon Yields the Floor with Congressman Griswold's face
There's a lot of tough talk on the floor of the House of Representatives, but how often do these loudmouths actually back it up with their fists? Almost never. Almost.
This brings us to the skirmish between congressmen Roger Griswold of Connecticut and Matthew Lyon of Vermont on Feb. 15, 1798. It all started when Griswold started pushing Lyon around by making frequent -- and at the time hilarious -- remarks about Lyon having to go into battle with a wooden sword, which back then was a way to accuse somebody of being a shitty soldier (sort of like asking a cop if he carries a toy gun).
"Yes, as a matter of fact, and I'll thank you not to make a fuss of it."
Defending your manhood was a big deal on the floor of Congress back in those days, so Lyon replied that he had been in many a fight with people from Griswold's state. Griswold's answer ("with your wooden sword?") was followed by Lyon spitting in Griswold's face.
It was on.
Despite having just mocked the man about that whole "wooden sword" business, Griswold immediately rushed for the unarmed Lyon with a hickory walking stick. Lyon was subsequently forced to endure the humiliating experience we all know of being clobbered by a piece of wood while at work.
However, the man's presumably cocaine-heightened 18th-century senses worked just as well for him as the Force. Lyon rushed for a nearby fireplace and equipped himself with a pair of iron tongs, which turned the tables of the battle, to the delight of the Vermont delegation.
The dude in the armchair appears to be having the time of his life.
The two were broken up but continued the fight a few minutes later in the halls outside the House chamber. Despite Lyon catching Griswold unarmed this time around, the reports show Griswold undoubtedly won the fight.
Strom Thurmond and the Piss Bucket
When the U.S. Senate absolutely does not want to get anything done, it has always relied on the filibuster. For those of you who don't remember any of your civics classes, the filibuster is when, in order to stop a popular piece of legislation from passing, a senator just delays the vote. By talking. Forever. He just keeps going until either supporters of the bill come up with the extra votes it takes to stop a filibuster, or the sun swallows the Earth.
"If elected, I promise to incessantly quote golf statistics until my opponents give up and go home."
Today the technique has advanced to where they don't require the filibustering side to actually give a speech that lasts for infinity -- the threat of filibuster is enough to do the job. But back in the old-timey era, if you wanted to stall a bill you'd better believe that you were expected to stand on your feet and start talking. Since actual relevant subjects run out pretty quickly, this means they would just start rambling. For instance, back in the 1930s, Sen. Huey Long (D-La.) filibustered several bills by using such tactics as "reading Shakespeare, reciting shrimp and oyster recipes, and talking about 'pot-likkers.' "
"No, I don't know what a pot-likker is. Why do you ask?"
He was so obnoxious that the Senate passed a rule specifically because of his behavior to require that debate be "germane to the issue being debated."
The king of senatorial jackassery, however, has to be Strom Thurmond (D-S.C.), who holds the record for the Senate's longest filibuster: 24 hours and 18 minutes. What got his panties in a wad so much that he chose to speak for over a day on the Senate floor? The Civil Rights Act of 1957.
"I wasn't nearly as kindly as I look."
But his ultimate enemy that day? His bladder. If the senator has to leave the Senate floor to go take a leak, his speech is over, and so is the filibuster.
That's why, in order to keep the civil rights dragon at bay, Thurmond prepared for his filibuster by taking a steam shower to sweat out any excess fluids. For 24 hours, he rambled: He read the Constitution and the phone book and ranted random musings about random shit.
Oh, and just in case his bladder turned on him, he made an intern hold a bucket in the Senate cloakroom, so that Thurmond could piss in it while keeping one foot on the Senate floor. As internships go, suddenly making photocopies doesn't seem so bad.
"At least these are filled with coffee."
He finally gave up, and the bill passed. The people of his home state knew he had done his best, however, and they proceeded to re-elect Thurmond every six years until 2003, when he died at 100 years of age.
Thomas Brackett Reed Incites a Congressional Stampede
Every legislative body everywhere has a rule that a certain number of members have to be present in order to vote -- otherwise, two dudes could get together and vote themselves king. Back in the day, you needed exactly half of the members of the U.S. House to answer "present" during a roll call to achieve quorum (enough people present to act). But this led to the truly idiotic phenomenon known as the disappearing quorum. When a piece of legislation came up that members didn't like, they just wouldn't answer when the roll was called. So they'd get counted as absent even though they were plainly sitting right there in front of the House speaker.
At one point in time, Congress had the same high standard of discourse as third-grade recess.
This tactic successfully stalled or complicated several fairly dry bills over the years, most often causing the speaker to take roll numerous times until enough people would admit to existing to constitute a quorum. One time they had to call roll 101 times in the same day to get a bill passed.
Such was the unofficial law of the land for 100 years, until Jan. 29, 1890. The new speaker of the House, Thomas Brackett Reed (R-Maine), figured "enough of this bullshit" and cracked down on the horseplay. Reed implemented a rule where you could -- gasp -- just mark a member as "present but not voting" if he was there but refusing to participate. He'd still count toward quorum, and the vote could continue. It was a revolutionary idea that took Congress only a century to figure out.
Congress: Getting it right eventually, occasionally.
Sure enough, Reed's move flummoxed the shit out of the Democrats. When the minority party attempted to block the inclusion of four new elected Republicans from the South, including two African-American senators, Reed called roll and noted that those not speaking up would get counted "present but not voting" unless they declared out loud that they were in fact not present.
All hell broke loose. The congressmen made a rush toward the speaker's podium (with one ex-Confederate congressman actually leapfrogging from desk to desk), where Reed calmly waited for them and/or ignored them. Some congressmen resorted to hiding under their desks to avoid being counted. Others tried to run away, but Reed had another ace up his sleeve: He had the House doors locked long enough to have his way with the Democrats, including congressman "Buck" Kilgore of Texas, whom Reed "calmly" marked "present but not voting" as he kicked down the door to escape.
Congressman Kilgore would go on to invent every Texan stereotype.
Sen. Charles Sumner vs. the State of South Carolina
South Carolina, better known as the Crazy State, has historically enjoyed a reputation as the New Jersey of the South. It was the first state to secede from the United States of America, fired the first shots of the American Civil War and prompted one South Carolina congressman to describe the state as "too small for a republic and too large for an insane asylum."
He added, "Also, Myrtle Beach is about as exciting as a used condom on the sidewalk."
With that said, it was apparently at one time dangerous business to insult the state from the floor of the Senate. In 1856, Sen. Charles Sumner (R-Mass.) delivered his legendary "Crime Against Kansas" speech in protest of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. One of the authors of that act was none other than Sen. Andrew Butler of South Carolina, whom Sumner had recently -- and hilariously -- made fun of on account of his stroke. Therefore the Senate was packed with spectators when Sumner delivered his scathing rebuke, saying Butler:
"... has chosen a mistress who, though ugly to others, is always lovely to him; though polluted in the sight of the world, is chaste in his sight -- I mean, the harlot, Slavery."
Butler looks like the kind of dude who would shack up with the physical embodiment of human bondage.
Naturally, since just about everyone in South Carolina had Sen. Butler as their uncle, Sumner pissed off more than a few of Butler's nephews in the state's congressional delegation. Among them was congressman Preston Brooks, who approached fellow South Carolinian Rep. Laurence M. Keitt about dueling etiquette in their state. Instead, the gentlemen opted for the tried-and-true beat-the-shit-out-of-an-unarmed-man approach that the Southern economy ran on.
On May 22, Rep. Brooks, Rep. Keitt and a third Southerner who we imagine was Butler's nephew as well, confronted Sen. Sumner as he sat alone at his desk in the Senate. Brooks called Sumner's speech "a libel on South Carolina" and, of course, an insult to his uncle, and proceeded to beat the shit out of the man with a gold-tipped cane while Rep. Keitt nobly used a pistol to keep people from helping him.
The beating ended only after Brooks' cane broke in half, which we think may be on account of Sumner actually being a Terminator.
This actually happened.
Sumner had to spend three years in Pescadero State Hospital to recover from the attack, during which his Southern colleagues mocked him for not being able to take a piece of wood to the face like a man. As for Brooks, his asshole friends rewarded him with the finest canes a slave-owning economy can afford as a sign of support. Seriously, people mailed him canes in the multitudes as a "sign of admiration."
The Massachusetts General Court re-elected Sumner in November 1856, while he was still in traction, just so he could return to the Senate in 1859. Although still suffering from what we now know to be PTSD on account of his caning, he nevertheless felt strong enough to make his first act back in office a speech called "The Barbarism of Slavery," which we imagine he delivered while giving the South Carolina delegation in both chambers of Congress both fingers.
How any cane could break through that helmet of hair is a mystery.
Congressman Daniel E. Sickles Gets Congress to Commemorate a Murder He Committed
In 1858, Philip Barton Key -- the son of the Star-Spangled Banner guy -- began a not-so-secret affair with the saucy Italian wife of congressman Daniel E. Sickles (D-N.Y.). Sickles received an anonymous tip on Feb. 26, 1859, that his wife was fooling around. After Teresa 'fessed up to the affair, Sickles spotted Key on a bench outside his home in Lafayette Square the next freaking day.
After Key made a gesture to the congressman's wife that in some way conveyed his intentions to have sex with her again -- we're guessing the old in-out with his fingers -- Rep. Sickles drew a pistol. In plain view of the city, in broad daylight and in front of the White House, he unloaded on Francis Scott Key's son until the man was no longer alive.
Note the fence behind them. It will be important later.
Sickles was charged with the public murder of the son of a national hero over a saucy belladonna, which resulted in nothing short of one the most star-studded, entertaining and influential trials in American history. In the end, Sickles managed to pull one of the greatest Hail Marys in legal history by becoming the first person in the United States to plead temporary insanity, and holy shit ... it worked!
Although he murdered the son of a cultural icon, Sickles was eventually heralded as a hero for "saving all the ladies of Washington from this rogue named Key." He eventually forgave his wife, enlisted in the Union Army in the Civil War and famously lost his leg during a maneuver as brilliant as it was crazy at the Battle of Gettysburg.
Beating 350 enemies to death with his own leg was just the beginning.
So where does Congress come in?
Well, after the war, a redeemed Daniel E. Sickles returned to politics and was re-elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. Now back in the chamber he'd had to leave after that whole "murder" thing, Sickles petitioned that he be awarded the Medal of Honor for heroism at Gettysburg -- which he got -- and he played a key role in preserving the Gettysburg battlefield as a national military park.
Then, in one of the most brazen and/or ballsiest moves ever attempted on Capitol Hill, Sickles passed a joint resolution on Oct. 12, 1888, donating to Gettysburg the very same fence from Lafayette Park, the one just feet from where he smoked his wife's lover cold. Was it a final "screw you" to Key, in some vain hope that screw yous could be received in the afterlife? We'll never know. But the Sickles Fence can still be found there today.
Dude could have at least rinsed the blood off first.
The Emancipation Altercation
The closest an airing of C-SPAN could ever come to looking like something we would pay good money to see on pay-per-view would be if it reenacted what occurred in the U.S. House of Representatives on Feb. 5, 1858, at 1:30 a.m. During an all-nighter in which several congressmen were "quite visibly drunk," a Rep. Galusha A. Grow of Pennsylvania aimlessly wandered over to the Democratic side of the chamber, perhaps in search of a part of the room that wasn't spinning so much.
There is a reason why Rep. Grow is not shown from the waist down in this picture.
It was around this time that Rep. Grow crossed paths with the same Rep. Laurence Keitt who so embarrassed the nation during the Charles Sumner beating. Keitt woke up to Grow asking him if he could drive him to Sheetz, but instead Keitt got pissed and accused Grow of behaving like a "black Republican puppy." The gentleman from Pennsylvania replied: "No negro-driver shall crack his whip over me," at which point Keitt made a jump for Grow's throat.
A rumble between the abolitionist North and the slave-loving South broke out in a who's who of 50 or more 19th-century U.S. congressmen: Rep. Keitt was floored with one punch, congressman John F. "Bowie Knife" Potter (R-Wis.) leaped into the fray "striking right and left with vigor," brothers Elihu B. Washburne (R-Ill.) and Cadwallader Washburne (R-Wis.) tag-teamed all Southern comers, and congressman John Covode (R-Pa.) seized a nearby spittoon and threatened to "brain" someone with it.
Don't let the bow tie fool you. He's reaching for the spittoon in his shoulder holster.
The speaker was virtually helpless to control the brawl, but perhaps realizing that there was more than one use for his gavel, he dispatched the sergeant-at-arms to the scene wielding the House mace.
The battle ended only when one of the Washburne brothers seized Rep. William Barksdale (D-Miss.) by the hair and failed to fell him with "a roundhouse right." At this moment, the entire country learned the hard way that the gentleman from Mississippi had been wearing a wig for years. The brawl ended like a Saturday morning cartoon with everybody laughing, completely oblivious to the goddamn Civil War that they would soon be shooting each other over.
Want to learn how to fight like a congressman? Then check out The 10-Year-Old's Guide to Fighting and 5 Insane Fighting Manuals (You Probably Shouldn't Listen To).
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