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.”