There were other ways to stand down Southern bullies. John Parker Hale of New Hampshire used humor. When confronted by raging Southerners, he responded with good-natured jokes and gibes, deflating Southern bravado with laughter. His flawless comic timing was apparent in 1848 when he asked for a dictionary to find an insult’s meaning; playing up the comedy of the moment, he brought down the house. John Quincy Adams used his parliamentary prowess and the weight of his authority to cow Southerners, outsmarting and out-bullying them when they were on the attack. Congressional peers were well aware of his “sledgehammer” eloquence.
Still, the bullying went on—not least because it paid dividends back home. The nation was watching, and it mattered. In an age when many congressmen were one-term wonders, Southern “fighting men” often were reelected, their constituents clearly approving of their aggressive tactics. And in time, that logic spread. The intensification of the nation’s ongoing slavery crisis fueled a spike in Southern bullying in Congress, and that anger proved contagious.
Technological innovations spread that contagion. The telegraph circulated news from Washington with remarkable speed, confronting increasing numbers of Americans with images of raging slaveholders holding dominion in Congress. In the face of such evidence, and with the slavery crisis peaking, Northerners began urging their representatives to fight back, sometimes even sending them weapons.
By the late 1850s, Northern congressmen were defending themselves and their interests with a new power, using not only harsh words, but occasionally fists and guns as well. Southerners fought all the harder in response.
This fighting wasn’t just for show. By the late 1850s, most congressmen were armed; as early as 1850, some congressmen guessed that roughly 30 percent of the House carried weapons, and those numbers increased over the course of that eventful decade. Eager to protect the interests of their party, state, and section; worried about constituent approval; and all too aware of the high stakes of the battle over slavery’s future, congressmen warred within the walls of the Capitol, stoking rage inside and outside Congress in the process.
Thus did Southern bullying pave the road to civil war. Rage begat rage, and Northern noncombatants became fighting men, making cross-sectional discourse ever more difficult. As one Northerner put it, given the ongoing Southern “threats and menaces” in Congress, cooperating with Southerners “would destroy their position at home” by suggesting that they had voted “under the influence of these belligerent taunts.” Anger, entitlement, manhood, and politics: This potent brew shaped the nation’s sectional crisis.
Now it is shaping our current crisis. Emotions are rising every day, with social media leading the way. Within the past few weeks alone, Rand Paul voiced concern that someone will get killed, and Jerry Falwell Jr. took to Twitter to urge the election of fighting men to beat “the liberal fascists Dems.” “Conservatives & Christians need to stop electing ‘nice guys,’” he tweeted on September 28. “They might make great Christian leaders, but the US needs street fighters like @realDonaldTrump at every level of government … & many Repub leaders are a bunch of wimps!” The echo of the 1850s is deafening; the implications are alarming. Politics is becoming war by other means.