Comments about technological history, system fractures, and human resilience from James R. Chiles, the author of Inviting Disaster: Lessons from the Edge of Technology (HarperBusiness 2001; paperback 2002) and The God Machine: From Boomerangs to Black Hawks, the Story of the Helicopter (Random House, 2007, paperback 2008)

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Life in the Early Congress, Part Two: "The most contemptible and degraded of beings"

In honor of the new political season, I'm reprinting an article I wrote for Smithsonian in 1995:

The first part is here:

The camaraderie of boardinghouse life mattered enormously, because for decades there were few respectable things to do in Washington at night. Social life picked up over the years--and so did the social reputation of politicians, particularly members of the House, who were initially snubbed as yokels by such few Washington hostesses as there were. (Senators, always more staid than Congressmen, got a bit more respect.) But for years, by far the biggest nighttime diversion was cards--whist, faro and brag--played at those boardinghouses whose rules permitted it. One unhappy Congressman reported losing $3,500--more than a year's salary circa 1856--in a single evening.

Whenever they really got fed up, Congressmen agitated to move the nation's capital (it had been moved twice already), claiming that anywhere would be better than Washington in summer. During an early debate on the question of moving the capital, when citizens opposing the move turned up in the gallery, Senator James Jackson of Georgia threatened to call in the military and have them all shot. Threats of violence, however, were usually directed at other Congressmen. The House, particularly, was rough and raucous. The chamber's high, elliptical ceiling echoed and amplified every stray sound, from mild chatter and rustling newspapers to shouts. With all the noise, it was said at the time, no more than one-third of the members had any idea what was going on. With little chance, compared with today, of being instantly heard, either by colleagues or constituents, some members saw no need to curb their language. According to Augustus Foster, aide to England's minister to the United States, to "judge from their Congress, one should suppose the nation to be the most blackguard society that was ever brought together."

Whether they acted well or badly, Congressmen didn't expect to stay around very long. There were no term limits, but voters, then as now, were a fickle lot. More important, before the great increase in federal power that set in after FDR and World War II, much of the political action was back in the state capitals. During the first four decades of Congress' existence, 41 percent of the House, on average, dropped out every two years.

Even so, both houses had their share of memorable and often contentious characters, some short-run, many very long-run indeed. A relative short-runner was Davy Crockett, "fresh from the backwoods, half-horse, half-alligator," who served as Representative from Tennessee for three terms. This portrait by John Gadsby Chapman: 

Starting in 1827, Crockett made quite an impression, but he never managed to pass the bill he cared about, opening government land in Tennessee to poor settlers. After losing his seat in 1835 Crockett told voters they could all go to hell. For his part, he was going to Texas (where he died--at the Alamo--within a year).

South Carolina's John C. Calhoun had been in the House for five years when, in 1816, Congress voted to give itself a substantial pay increase. The public was outraged, so the next year the measure was reversed. Calhoun, who predicted that men of high caliber would no longer seek Congressional office if salaries were not raised to equal or exceed those of Presidential appointees, resigned --to take on the higher-paying job of Secretary of War. Eventually, though, he returned to Congress, becoming one of those men who spent entire careers--or significant chunks of them--on Capitol Hill. After serving as Vice President from 1825 to 1832 under both John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson, Calhoun went to the Senate, and remained there, minus one year as Secretary of State to President John Tyler, until his death in 1850.

Daniel Webster, the renowned legal orator who could outwit the Devil himself, chose not to run in 1816. Seven years later, he was reelected to the House, went on to a seat in the Senate, where--despite being famously eloquent on the subjects of the sacredness of the Union and the need for abolition--he remained, off and on (mostly on), until 1850.

Calhoun's and Webster's careers resemble those of today's Congressional stars--rising from the House to the Senate or positions in the Cabinet--but their careers were unusual for their time. Today, most Senators voted out of office would sooner retire from politics than run for a seat in the lower house. But back then, the House of Representatives was where the real political power in Washington lay, and there were no high-paying lobbying firms, consulting groups or think tanks to absorb out-of-work politicians.

A spectacular example was John Quincy Adams, who got himself elected to the House after leaving the Presidency in 1829. Adams, a great public servant and defender of the citizen's right of petition, was appalled when, in 1836, Congress imposed a ban on the reading of abolitionist petitions--or any petition regarding slavery--in session. In protest, for nine years running, Adams opened each new session by reading aloud petitions he had received on the issue. "Nothing daunts him," said an observer at the time; "the House may ring with the cries of 'Order, order!'--unmoved, contemptuous, he stands amid the tempest, and, like an oak that knows his gnarled and knotted strength, stretches his arms forth, and defies the blast." Adams' dramatic brand of civil disobedience led to the repeal of the gag rule in 1844.

John Randolph of Virginia, another career Congressman, also took full advantage of his freedom of speech. Tall and pale, with black hair, Randolph dressed in buckskin riding clothes, carried a riding crop and often strode into the House with one or two hunting dogs at heel. But what truly distinguished him was his savage wit. He had a habit of pointing an index finger like grim Death while hurling remarks at adversaries. He once described a colleague as "the most contemptible and degraded of beings, whom no man ought to touch, unless with a pair of tongs."

First elected to Congress in 1799, Randolph was a brilliant orator, a strong defender of states' rights and a political maverick, holding seats in the House or Senate for most of the years until his death in 1833. Eventually, his language grew so sarcastic and abusive that many Senators simply left the chamber when he was speaking.

The one man in Congress who could control Randolph, it was believed, was Henry Clay of Kentucky, the "Western Star," who was elected Speaker by his colleagues on his very first day in the House in 1811. He served in that office for six terms--the longest tenure as Speaker of the House in the 19th century--his popularity due in part to his ability to squelch Randolph. 

The Clay-Randolph feud began in 1812, when Clay refused to entertain Randolph's resolution against the declaration of war. In 1820, after the House approved the Missouri Compromise--which temporarily helped maintain a balance between slave and free states--Clay again thwarted Randolph, this time refusing his motion to reconsider the bill. Not that Clay thought the action would change the vote--he simply didn't want to give Randolph the satisfaction of seeming to control the business of the House. At every turn, the two men butted heads. In 1826, they finally faced off in a duel.

Randolph--who despised Clay, but also secretly admired him--accepted Clay's challenge, declaring that he preferred "to be killed by Clay to any other death." But after two volleys, with the only injury a hole drilled through Randolph's flowing white coat, the two shook hands. ("You owe me a coat, Mr. Clay," Randolph said, to which Clay--then the Secretary of State--replied, "I am glad the debt is no greater.") It was, according to Senator Thomas Hart Benton (who had taken part in a few duels himself), "about the last high-toned duel that I have witnessed."

We think of duels as being fought with pistols or swords, but at least one Congressional duel was fought with rifles at a distance of 100 yards. After this particularly tragic encounter, dueling was outlawed in the capital. In 1838 Jonathan Cilley, a freshman Democratic Representative from Maine, made some comments in session that offended another first-termer, Whig William Graves of Kentucky. As was the custom, Graves challenged Cilley to a duel. The whole matter might have ended with everyone's honor and health intact, had it not been for a Tyler Democrat named Henry A. Wise, who represented the state of Virginia.

A fiery defender of slavery, Wise--who later, as governor of Virginia, would have John Brown hanged--was, by all accounts, an angry, abrasive fellow. According to Benjamin Brown French, the Clerk of the House, Wise had "shot his former friend, Coke, through the arm, in a duel. His wife and brother have died, his house has been burned, he has been either a principal, or second, in three duels, in each of which blood has been shed."

Wise was even more riled up by Cilley's comments than was Representative Graves, and offered to serve as second to Graves, encouraging him to "kill that damned Yankee." On February 24, 1838, the two contestants met on the old dueling grounds in nearby Bladensburg, Maryland. Each took two shots at a distance of 100 yards. Both missed. That would have satisfied honor had not Wise insisted the duel continue. On the next round, Graves killed Cilley.

Congress, and the public, were shocked. The newspapers made much of Wise's murderous role. The next year, Congress passed a law banning the giving, delivering or accepting of a challenge to a duel in the District of Columbia.

Over the next ten years, Congress continued to lose its insularity. In 1848 a telegraphic network called the Associated Press began flashing accounts to newspapers all over the Eastern Seaboard. A few years later, the new Pitman system of speed stenography allowed Capitol Hill reporters to capture every word of Congressional debate. Transport and accommodations improved. Wives and families came to Washington, and a whole new, somewhat more decorous, social life expanded. The boardinghouse life was fading. By 1850, less than half of the Senators still lodged in the old communal fashion.

Despite all the altercations, the early Congresses managed to cover a considerable amount of legislative ground, ranging from what paintings should hang in the Rotunda to a tariff on imported pasta to the construction of a national road (from Maryland to Illinois) to the settlement of international boundary disputes with Spain and Britain. Congress also brought increasing order to its dealings in the form of a growing body of precedents, committees and subcommittees--during a period when the country, and its Congress, more than doubled in size and complexity.

Yet the ire of the men Dickens called "desperate adventurers" did not fade, especially as the struggle over the ratio of new slave states to free states began to burn hotter still. During debates on the Compromise of 1850--through which Congress hoped to avoid civil war--Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri, who favored compromise, advanced in a rage on Senator Henry S. Foote of Mississippi. Foote pulled out a big pistol. Benton, safely restrained by his colleagues, shouted, "Let him fire!. . . I have no pistol! I disdain to carry arms! Stand out of the way, and let the assassin fire!" One Senator said that during the stressful 1850s the only members not carrying a knife and a revolver were those carrying two revolvers.

The Compromise--an attempt to resolve disputes over slavery in the Western territories lately gained in the Mexican War--allowed Congress to avoid the issue for several years, but in the end, it did not work. Six years after its passage, Representative Brooks brutally beat abolitionist Senator Sumner. It took three and a half years for Sumner to recover fully, and by then, the country was on the brink of civil war.

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