Of course this was long before our modern media circus which includes Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and the 24-houra day cable news cycle. This was before we had the spectacle of celebrities like Robert DiNero and Alec Baldwin and members of Congress using the most language there is to describe the President of the United States and his policies. My father had me sit there so that I would “see what smart people sounds like.”
Today we are afflicted with a stunning lack of civility and common decency but there have been numerous historical instances where you would think that you had seen and heard everything.
John Adams was second president of the United States and one of the founding fathers of the republic. An intellectual giant in terms of his writings, Adams has one large blot on his record. It was during Adams’ administration that the Alien and Sedition Acts were passed. The Sedition Act was a particularly bad piece of legislation. It forbade “writing, speaking or publishing anything that was disrespectful to the president or to the congress or critical of their policies.” The act was a failure and a gross violation of first amendment rights.
Thomas Jefferson our third president wisely allowed the acts to lapse but there had been victims. Representative Matthew Lyon of Vermont was convicted and jailed under the Sedition Act. He was reelected to congress while he was serving his four-month jail sentence. This was the same Matthew Lyon who had fought Representative Roger Griswold on the floor of the House of Representatives. The men had gone at each other with walking canes, fire tongs and spit.
Andrew Jackson, our seventh president was no stranger to violence either on the battlefield or elsewhere. He was referred to during his lifetime as “The Old Hero” for his military deeds particularly his victory over the British at the Battle of New Orleans in 1815.
Jackson killed a man named Charles Dickinson in a duel in 1806. Jackson’s wife, Rachel, had been previously married but there had been a problem with the paperwork of her divorce and Dickinson accused Jackson of being a bigamist and Rachel of being a “fallen woman.” Jackson sustained a life-threatening wound in the duel. A fierce antagonist, an insult to his beloved Rachel was to seek death.
Jackson was shot twice in a duel/brawl in Nashville in 1813 with the Benton brothers, Thomas and Jesse. Thomas Benton would have a long career as senator from Missouri. He would become a friend of Jackson’s and one of his strongest supporters, not so much though in 1813.
Jackson died with bullets in him. In hopes of improving Jackson’s chronic poor health Benton’s bullet was removed from Jackson without anesthesia in 1832. Jackson sent the bullet back to Benton with a note in which Jackson apologized for having kept Benton’s property for so many years. There was probably not a day in the last thirty years of Jackson’s life when he was not in significant pain.
The Senate was treated to a savage display in 1856. Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts made a vitriolic speech against the southern position. His particular target was Senator Andrew Butler of South Carolina. Butler was not in good health having suffered a stroke and Sumner cruelly made reference to his aged opponent’s uncontrollable drooling.
Shortly thereafter at the end of the Senate’s day Congressman Preston Brooks of South Carolina, who was related to Senator Butler, entered the nearly empty Senate chamber and proceeded to beat Senator Sumner with his cane. He landed at least thirty strokes, almost killing Sumner. Sumner showed the effects of this attack for the rest of his life. Butler was reelected to his House seat and was sent many souvenir canes by admirers who approved of his defense of southern honor.
There were plenty of fireworks in the Senate when the foreign policy of President Grant was the issue during his first administration. Grant had submitted a treaty to the Senate proposing that the United States annex Santa Domingo. (Imagine what the country would be like if the Dominican Republic was a state.) Grant heard himself referred to as a “modern Caesar.” Grant was “first in war” but also first in gift taking, pretensions and first in “quarrel with his countrymen.”
There is a fine film called Bonfire of The Vanities (1990) directed by Brian De Palma. At the end of the film, Morgan Freeman, playing a judge scolds his crowded courtroom, “Decency is what your grandmother taught you. It’s in your bones….Go home and be decent.” Decency and civility can seem lost. Public political life has not always been gentle but perhaps now our lack of civility seems more constant and more visible.