“Reasoned Discourse vs. Uncivil Behavior”
On September 9, 2009 Representative Joe Wilson (R-SC) interrupted a speech by President Barack Obama by shouting “You lie!” when President Obama stated that his plans for health insurance reform would not provide benefits to illegal immigrants. People were shocked at the lack of civility, but has behavior in Congress always been civil in the past?
Possibly the most egregious example of uncivil behavior in the Capitol occurred on May 22, 1856, when Representative Preston Brooks (D-SC) approached Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts and, according to a House report, “assaulted him with considerable violence, striking him numerous blows on or about the head with a walking stick, which cut his head and disabled him for the time being from attending to his duties in the Senate.” Brooks acted in response to a speech Sumner had made a few days before criticizing slavery and specifically deriding the pro-slavery views of Senator Butler of South Carolina, a relation of Representative Brooks. Senator Sumner was sitting at his desk writing when the attack began. “Stunned and blinded by the first blow, Mr. Sumner made several ineffectual efforts to rise, and finally succeeded by wrenching his desk from its fastenings. The blows were repeated by Mr. Brooks with great rapidity and extreme violence, while Mr. Sumner, almost unconscious, made further efforts of self defense, until he fell to the floor under attack, bleeding and powerless.”
According to the committee print Thirty Minutes of Senate History, the House failed to censure Brooks who subsequently resigned, was reelected and died shortly thereafter at age thirty seven. The nation, “suffering from the breakdown of reasoned discourse that this event symbolized, plunged towards the catastrophe of civil war.”
On June 16, 1992, Senator Robert Byrd said, “Anyone really wanting a quick insight into the decline of cultured, reasoned discourse in our country today, or wanting to witness the state of culture itself, need only to flip from one channel to the next on the television remote control.”
LexisNexis Congressional is an excellent starting place for anyone wanting to understand both sides of every issue and form their own opinions based on reason and fact.
Sources cited in this article:
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- Assault on Senator Charles Sumner, June 2, 1856, Serial Set Digital Collection; House Report 182 (34-1) http://www.lexisnexis.com/congcomp/getdoc?SERIAL-SET-ID=868+H.rp.182
- Thirty Minutes of Senate History, Committee Prints, Nov. 1997, LexisNexis Congressional Research Digital Collection; CIS-NO: 98-S942-5; SUDOC: Y1.3:S.PUB.105-33 http://www.lexisnexis.com/congcomp/getdoc?CRDC-ID=CMP-1997-SEN-0010
- For the Robert Byrd quote, see "Are the Dark Ages Returning?" LexisNexis Congressional Record Permanent Digital Collection; 138 Cong Rec S 8233, June 16, 1992, REFERENCE: Vol. 138, No. 86, SECTION: Senate, Daily Congressional Record, LexisNexis Congressional http://www.lexisnexis.com/congcomp/getdoc?CONG-RECORD-ID=CR-1992-0616