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Passions between lawmakers spilling into violence are nothing new on Capitol Hill

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Tennessee Republican lawmaker Tim Burchett says Kevin McCarthy elbowed him in the kidneys in retaliation for voting to oust him as speaker of the House.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TIM BURCHETT: What kind of chicken move is that? You're pathetic, man.

MARTÍNEZ: The altercation came on the same day - this past Tuesday - that a Senate hearing nearly turned into a brawl when Senator Markwayne Mullin challenged the president of the Teamsters Union, Sean O'Brien, to a fight.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARKWAYNE MULLIN: You want to do it now?

SEAN O'BRIEN: I'd love to do it right now.

MULLIN: Well, stand your butt up, then.

O'BRIEN: You stand your butt up.

BERNIE SANDERS: Oh, hold it.

MULLIN: Hey, guy...

SANDERS: Hold - stop it.

O'BRIEN: Is that your solution?

SANDERS: All right. No, no. Sit down, please.

MARTÍNEZ: That's Senator Bernie Sanders trying to de-escalate the situation. And at a House oversight committee the same day, Republican Chairman James Comer of Kentucky clashed with Representative Jared Moskowitz of Florida at a hearing belittling his blue suit.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JAMES COMER: You look like a Smurf here just going around and all this stuff. No, listen...

JARED MOSKOWITZ: Mr. Chairman, you have...

COMER: No, no, I want to tell you something...

MOSKOWITZ: No, no. Hold on. If we're...

MARTÍNEZ: Passions spilling into violence are nothing new on Capitol Hill. Yale historian Joanne Freeman has documented more than 70 cases of fisticuffs, stabbings and duels between hot-tempered lawmakers. She wrote about them in her book, "The Field Of Blood: Violence In Congress And The Road To Civil War." Joanne, so your book covers a 30-year period leading up to the Civil War. Do you see any similarities to today, and what lessons, if any, can be drawn from all that?

JOANNE FREEMAN: Well, certainly there are a lot of similarities, which is not to say that we're on the brink of civil war, but the idea that not only are we polarized, but that one side, certainly in Congress - the right at this particular moment - seems to have embraced a rhetoric of violence, appears to be willing to do whatever they need to do to get what they want at this moment, are not really abiding by some of the rules and norms of Congress and certainly what you saw in Congress in the 1850s was Southerners who were operating under the same principle. They were going to do whatever it required to get what they wanted, and they certainly were not willing to talk. It seems comical in some ways, but, you know, it also represents kind of a scorning of some of the pretty basic components of how a democratic legislature should work.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, the period leading up to the Civil War was a very polarizing time in America that included the infamous Brooks-Sumner affair. Can you remind us what happened with the Brooks-Sumner affair?

FREEMAN: Sure. Charles Sumner was an abolitionist senator from Massachusetts, and he gave a very assertive anti-slavery speech in the Senate. And Preston Brooks of South Carolina was offended by it as a slaveholder and violently caned Charles Sumner to the ground. And it certainly, as you suggested at the outset, wasn't the first instance of violence in Congress, but it was a particularly dramatic one, coming as it did in 1856. By that point, it was getting very close to the, really, eruption of the fact that there was absolutely no way for anyone to even talk about slavery in Congress.

MARTÍNEZ: When these fights happen - these congressional fights, who started it? Who has tended to start at these congressional fights more frequently?

FREEMAN: More often than not, it was actually Southerners. And not surprisingly, a lot of them had something to do with slavery. The South - Southerners in Congress tended to - anyone who threatened the institution of slavery, they would use threats of violence, they've - threats of duel challenges. And one way or another, they would try to intimidate Northerners into silence or compliance on the issue of slavery. And for a time, it worked quite well. There were people who wouldn't stand up and confront a Southerner, knowing that this is what was waiting for them on the other end. You can see in the record and you can see in people's diaries and private letters people explicitly saying that they would rather not talk than have to stand up and face that kind of threat.

MARTÍNEZ: Joanne, why do you think we don't learn from history?

FREEMAN: Oh, wow. That's a big question. Well, I mean, I think, in part, there's a belief among a lot of people that, you know, the United States will always be OK, that we're exceptional in some way, that whatever is happening now is not serious. Everything will be fine. And perhaps it will be, and I certainly hope so. But I think that, generally speaking, speaking as a historian, that's not a smart way to proceed. I think you have to keep your eyes open. And I think knowing history and being aware of history and being willing to say, OK, this happened in the past, history doesn't repeat, but as you just suggested, we can learn from it. We have to learn from it, and we need to get past the idea that somehow what's happening in the present doesn't count because bad things don't happen to the United States. Sometimes they do, and to avoid them, we need to be aware of how we got to where we are, how things have worked in the past and what we can do in the present to avoid bad things in the future.

MARTÍNEZ: That's Yale historian Joanne Freeman. Thank you very much.

FREEMAN: Sure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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