Rep. Kevin McCarthy’s, R-Calif, bid for speaker nearly caused a fistfight as Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., had to be restrained in a confrontation with Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., but it would’ve been far from the first time a disagreement among lawmakers came to blows in the Capitol.
Both the House of Representatives and the Senate of a checkered history of lawmakers attacking one another over various disagreements, with the fights ranging from a single punch or a beating with a cane to the drawing of firearms on the floor.
One of the first widely recorded incidents came in 1798 between Roger Griswold and Matthew Lyon, a pair of lawmakers from Connecticut and Vermont respectively. Griswold called Lyon a “scoundrel” during a disagreement, considered an aggressive curse at the time. Lyon responded by spitting in Griswold’s face, and the two then went at it until their colleagues separated them.
The pair weren’t done, however, as Griswold again attacked Lyon a few weeks later, this time using a cane. Lyons defended himself using a pair of fire tongs, according to the Congressional record.
Unsurprisingly, many fights between lawmakers centered around debates over slavery just prior to the Civil War. In 1850, Thomas Benton of Missouri, a Democrat who opposed slavery, drew a pistol and pointed it at his colleague, Henry Foote of Mississippi during a long disagreement about the topic. Benton’s colleagues were able to talk him down before he fired, however.
Soon after in 1856, Congressman Preston Brooks of South Carolina, who was pro-slavery, severely beat one of his colleagues with a cane shortly after he had made a floor speech in the Senate. The victim, Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, had criticized a family member of Brooks’ and derided slaveholders as “pimps.”
While lawmakers attempted to intervene in the beating, Brooks’ fellow South Carolina Congressman, Sen. Laurence Keitt, drew a pistol and threatened anyone who attempted to intervene. Sumner was left unconscious and took years to recover.
Brooks’ attack preceded another that would come nearly 50 years later in 1902, this time a disagreement between senators of the same state. John McLaurin, South Carolina’s junior senator at the time, raced into the chamber on February 22 and condemned the senior senator, Ben Tillman, for spreading “a willful, malicious, and deliberate lie.”
“Standing nearby, Tillman spun around and punched McLaurin squarely in the jaw,” the congressional record states. “The chamber exploded in pandemonium as members struggled to separate both members of the South Carolina delegation. In a long moment, it was over, but not without stinging bruises both to bystanders and to the Senate’s sense of decorum.”
The largest fight that ever broke out among lawmakers occurred in 1858 and was once again about slavery. Lawmakers were debating the Kansas Territory’s pro-slavery constitution late into the night on February 5, according to House records.
The first sparks flew in the early morning hours of February 6, as Pennsylvania Republican Galusha Grow and South Carolina Democrat Laurence Keitt–a returning figure–threw insults at one another. The pair soon started throwing punches, and reports from the time say the House floor ignited into conflict as Northern Republicans fought with Southern Democrats, with 30-some lawmakers joining the frenzy.
Soon, the Sergeant-at-Arms waded into the fray and restored order, but not before a pair of Republicans ripped the wig off the head of Mississippi Democrat William Barksdale, according to the chamber’s records. Ultimately, the proposed pro-slavery constitution for Kansas would fail in Congress, and Kansas entered the U.S. as a free state in 1861.