The Bloody History of the U.S. House of Representatives

Recent conflict over gun-control legislation recalls antebellum-era congressional melees.

Carlos Barria / Reuters

For much of the first half of the 19th century, almost every House session had at least one mass rumble. (The smaller, more intimate, more genteel Senate favored duel challenges.) Time and again, a heated debate between two congressmen would turn nasty. Angry words would shift to insults and taunts. Colleagues would get swept up in the swirl of emotions, some joining in, others standing on desks to watch. And in no time, the House was a howling fury.

This week’s Democratic sit-in in the House had its moments of fury. The impassioned speeches; the personal confrontations; the yelling, chanting, and singing; the dramatic battle for the floor: The 25-hour protest created some remarkable political theater. Media commentators were quick to claim that this was something new. But in truth, the roiling swarm of angry people crowded in front of the Speaker’s platform Wednesday night looked remarkably like drawings of antebellum congressional melees.

Attempts to denounce slavery almost guaranteed mayhem. In 1842, the abolitionist Theodore Dwight Weld described one such storm provoked by the antislavery advocate John Quincy Adams, who served in the House for 17 years after his presidency. “Such a scene I never witnessed,” Weld marveled. Scores of slaveholders shouted points of order, “every now and then screaming at the top of their voices: ‘That is false.’ ‘I demand Mr. Speaker that you put him down.’ ‘What are we to sit here and endure such insults?’” Hoping to silence Adams, a pack of glowering Southerners gathered round his seat, but their threats and interruptions only earned them scorn from Adams, who shot back barbed comments, like: “I see where the shoe pinches, Mr. Speaker, it will pinch more yet.” The din was so deafening that reporters couldn’t hear a word. In his diary, Adams had a one-word shorthand for such antislavery outbursts: “explosion.”

In the 1850s, news of these explosions spread with lightning speed due to the telegraph, a relatively new technology that achieved widespread usage just as America’s slavery crisis began to peak. Before the telegraph, a congressman’s words traveled a slow road to his constituents. Reporters in the House and Senate wrote lengthy accounts of congressional debates that were printed in newspapers around the country. Congressmen also printed pamphlet editions of their best efforts and mailed them to the folks back home, who responded with petitions, plaudits, protests, and newspaper writings of their own.

The telegraph changed that conversation. With the slavery crisis in Congress raging full force, antislavery advocates appealed to a watchful and far more immediate national audience in the hope of furthering their cause and mobilizing people to take action. And they didn't only denounce slavery. They also protested that they were being silenced, unable to freely and openly debate slavery on the House floor. For Northern onlookers who weren’t compelled by the fight against slavery, a threat to their fundamental constitutional rights had real power.

The parallel with the events of this week is striking. Appealing directly to a national audience using smart phones and social media apps, Democrats demanded a vote on gun legislation, but with the House cameras turned off, they also complained of being cut off from their constituents. Their fundamental rights as representatives were being violated, they insisted—an argument likely to galvanize Democrats regardless of their stance on pending gun control legislation. Ironically, in turning off the cameras, Speaker Paul Ryan enabled Democrats to coat their cause with a constitutional patina, much as Republicans have done fighting gun control. In defending the Second Amendment, Republicans armed Democrats with a First Amendment argument.

The immediate impact of last week’s events is yet unclear. But one long-term effect seems likely. During the sit-in, members of Congress directly appealed to their constituents en masse, live and unscripted, without the intervention of the press. And the American public responded in real time. As Representative Scott Peters explained on CNN, towards the start of the protest, he fiddled with live-streaming on his smart phone but stopped, only to receive a flood of tweets asking for more. One long-term legacy of this week’s sit-in may well be technological. As Representative John Lewis said at the close of the protest, “social media told the story.”

But perhaps the most important impact of the Democratic sit-in is its message. Antebellum firestorms often resulted in violence. Many a melee involved congressmen throwing punches and wielding weapons; Bowie knives and pistols were particular favorites. But a sit-in—however difficult to sustain in the face of violent resistance—is a peaceful form of protest, a powerful reminder during a particularly bloodthirsty presidential race that violence and political protest do not go hand in hand.