Home » Law & Government » What Caused the Brawl in Congress in 1858?

What Caused the Brawl in Congress in 1858?

Republicans and Democrats have opposing political views that often lead to heated debates and arguments despite their shared goal of working towards the good of the country. But did you know that there was an instance where the two parties expressed their differences physically?

The brawl in Congress in 1858 was known as the most infamous floor brawl the House of Representatives ever witnessed. It erupted over their discussion over slavery and ended in laughter when a democrat wore his wig backward.

The Infamous Brawl in Congress

In 1858, President Buchanan persuaded Congress to admit Kansas as a new slave state. However, some Republicans, including Congressman Galusha A. Grow, strongly opposed the move. The concern was referred to a special committee, and heated debates ran back and forth well into the night of February 5.

According to Grow’s account, he was asked to lead the debate of blocking the admission of Kansas as a slave state since he was the chairman of the Committee on Territories of the previous Congress. Grow accounts that at around 3 am, he crossed over to the Democrats’ side of the floor to consult with Pennsylvania Democrat John Hickman. 

At the same time, Mississippi Democrat John A. Quitman asked to speak and make a few remarks on the issue. Grow objected to Quitman’s request because the Republicans only wanted to continue voting. Grow’s objection was met by an aggressive statement from Lawrence M. Keitt, ordering him to return to his designated place.

Grow counters the order saying that everybody has a right to be where he pleases. In a rage, Keitt stood and marched towards Grow, demanding him to explain his comments. Grow responded that he meant. Keitt attempted to reach Grow’s throat, claiming that he was a damned, black Republican puppy.

Grow parries Keitt’s hand while responding, never mind what I am, no negro-driver shall crack his whip over me. This response enraged Keitt, who again tried to subdue Grow by reaching for his throat, to which Grow responded by striking a blow, making Keitt fall. (Source: Saturday Evening Post)

The Congressional Globe reported that the House was in the greatest possible confusion in an instant. Around thirty individuals fought on the floor. Speaker James Orr furiously gaveled, requesting for order. He also ordered Sergeant-At-Arms Adam J. Glossbrenner to arrest non-compliant members.

Glossbrenner walked into the ensuing fight with the speaker’s gavel held high to restore order. At the same time, Wisconsin Republicans John Bowie Knife Potter and Cadwallader Washburn ripped the wig off Mississippi Democrat William Barksdale.

Barksdale picked up his wig and put it on backward. This resulted in laughter amidst the representatives, ending the fighting and restoring the peace of the House. (Source: United States House of Representatives)

The Caning of Charles Sumner

The Brawl of 1858 was not the only violent instance Congress has seen occurring on its floor. Two years prior to the brawl, a violent act was committed, clearly showing the division of the House concerning slavery.

In 1854, debates over whether slavery should be allowed in the new state of Kansas resulted in the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the act which left Kansas settlers to vote for the decision in the matter of slavery. The act significantly contributed to division and tension in the next following years.

During the time, Senator Charles Sumner criticized the act, calling for Kansas to be admitted as a free state. His speech insulted Preston Brooks, a pro-slavery Democrat and relative of one of the act’s authors. On May 22, 1856, Brooks and Keitt and Congressman Henry Edmundson approached Sumner’s desk. Brooks struck Sumner with a thick wooden cane. He repeatedly did so until the cane broke, and Sumner became unconscious. (Source: Hein Online)

Leave a Comment