In my book Wicked Capitol Hill, I wrote of a number of attacks between members of the Senate, but none on the floor of the House. Not that there weren’t anything, as a quick look at Wikipedia will show. What both this article as well as mine miss is one of the first attacks in the House of Representatives, a brief tussle that ended up with tragic consequences.
It all began on April 23d, 1844. Representative John White of Kentucky was speaking and mentioned that a ‘certificate’ that had been signed by five Representatives regarding statements that had been made in 1820 was false. One of the five signers, who had misunderstood which part of the ‘certificate’ White was complaining about, attempted to protest, but was not allowed to speak. Instead, Representative George O. Rathbun of New York said something on the order of “Never mind, we can prove it all round (or all over) the House.”
These words raised the hackles of Rep. White, who replied “If you do, you will prove a damned lie,” which in turn caused Rathbun (who sat directly in front of White) to stand up to demand if White had called him a liar, which White assented. Rathbun then “thrust his hand towards Mr. White, and against the upper part of his chest, and a personal conflict ensued.”
The nature of the conflict is not further described in the official report from which the above quotation is taken. Further testimonies indicate that White had, at the very least, attempted to strike Rathbun, but it was unclear whether the blow had landed – or if Rathbun had attempted a counter-strike. Certainly, the other members had managed to separate the two hotheads before any real damage could be done.
Over the next two weeks, testimony was taken from some 51 individuals to get to the bottom of this altercation. It became clear that a) the statement that had originally caused the fracas had to do with slavery and b) that Rathbun had failed to understand exactly which part of the statement White was complaining about and thus the whole affair had been based entirely on a misunderstanding.
In fact, the quotation had been Charles Rich, Representative from Vermont, stating that he had taught his sons to work the soil, and his daughters to make clothing and cook – this was to counter Henry Clay’s (pic) assertion that slaves were necessary to “cut our fire-wood, and black our shoes and … work in the kitchen.” What was so controversial about either of these statements is unclear, but given the tinderbox nature of the argument about slavery, it is hardly surprising that any mention of the subject was likely to arouse protest one way or the other. In fact, until later that year, the infamous Gag Rule was in place, which prohibited even the discussion of slavery in the House of Representatives.
Both men subsequently apologized. White, who had previously been Speaker of the House, was appointed a Judge in his home state the following year, but died not long thereafter. Rathbun continued to serve in the House until 1847, before returning to his law practice in Auburn, NY, where he died in 1870.
In short, the whole “rencounter” (as it was referred to in the original report) was hardly worth reporting on, had it not been for a tragic occurrence that happened while the two men tussled, an occurrence that I will look at next week.