Rep. Wilson's Outburst Is Nothing Compared to How They Used to Express Disagreement in Congress

Categories: History, Politics
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RFT managing editor Ellis Conklin offers his two cents on the latest political ramblings in Washington D.C.

Goodness, have you ever seen so much hand-wringing and over-the-top condemnation over Representative Joe Wilson's unfortunate discharge Wednesday evening when he derisively hooted, "You lie!" during President Obama's healthcare address?

Get a grip. Our democracy will survive, civility in the hallowed halls of Congress is not entirely dead, and somehow the nation will stumble forward. And besides -- despite all the radio and cable TV fuss -- the South Carolina Republican's prime-time outburst pales in comparison to how our chosen lawmakers once dealt with their disagreements.

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Here's a pen and ink (now hanging on my icebox) that I drew of the Benton-Foote fisticuffs.
Let's time-travel backward to 1850, when I was a young reporter covering politics. Back then the U.S. Senate was roiling over an issue they called slavery. During a particularly heated debate, Missouri's own Thomas Hart Benton, a rather large man and fierce opponent of allowing an expansion of slavery, became quite upset with a Mississippi's Sen. Henry Foote. When "Old Bullion" Benton charged toward him, Foote pulled out a pistol and pointed it at Benton, at which point the Senate was adjourned for the day. (Author's note: To this day -- 159 years later -- I'll never forget the look on Ol' Bullion's face!)

Cooler heads did not prevail on May 19, 1856, when Charles Sumner of Massachusetts made a slavery speech that in part criticized a South Carolina Congressman, Andrew Butler. A few days later, Sen. Preston Brooks of South Carolina (what is it about South Carolina?) appeared on the Senate floor, and with his cane, beat the bejesus out of Sumner for a full minute. Sumner bled profusely and nearly died from the attack. (Author's note: Some of the blood from that beating can still be seen on the soles of my penny loafers!)

Of course, our man Joe Wilson is surely not the first member of Congress to find himself in trouble for using the 'L' word. In 1902 Sen. Ben Tillman accused fellow senator John McLaurin of yielding to "improper influences" on a particular matter. McLaurin, speaking on the Senate floor, accused Tillman of a "deliberate lie." Tillman proceeded to punch McLaurin square in the face.

Oh yes, both men represented -- you guessed it, South Carolina!

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