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[Detail] Experience and personal narrative of Uncle Tom Jones...1858

Congressional Duels

Tensions ran high during the Congressional debates over slavery and many politicians made personal attacks on those who opposed their ideology. For example, in Horace Mann’s “Letters on the Extension of Slavery into California and New Mexico,” the author addresses the jokes made at his expense by Michigan Senator Lewis Cass. Instead of criticizing his colleague for his misconduct, Mann reciprocates with a series of puns on Cass’s last name such as “Small odds, 'twixt tweedle dum and tweedle-dee, And Cass means much the same, without the C,” (page 7).

Perhaps the most excessive examples come in Charles Sumner’s 1860 speech, “The Barbarism of Slavery,” when the Senator chronicles the “exhibition of Slave-masters in Congressional history” to prove that “at lawless outbreaks or official conduct, Slave-masters are always the same,” (page 53).

Some of the most egregious events come from the debates over the Compromise of 1850 when Mr. Foote, a slaveholder representing Mississippi, made a personal attack on Missouri Senator Benton: “Mr. Benton rose at once from his seat, and . . . advanced in the direction of Mr. Foote, when the latter, gliding backward, drew from his pocket a five-chambered revolver, full loaded, which he cocked,” (page 55). Although order was restored in the Senate chamber, the drawing of Foote’s gun was a precursor to his challenging Benton to a duel:

There are instances in the history of the Senator which might well relieve a man of honor from the obligation to recognize him as a fitting antagonist . . . if the Senator from Missouri will deign to acknowledge himself responsible to the laws of honor, he shall have a very early opportunity of proving his prowess in contest with one over whom I hold perfect control; or, if he feels in the least degree aggrieved at any thing which has fallen from me, he shall . . . have full redress accorded to him . . . . I do not denounce him as a coward . . . but if he wishes to patch up his reputation for courage . . . he will certainly have an opportunity of doing so whenever he makes his desire known in the premises.

page 56

Sumner explains that this was not the last time that a challenge was presented within a speech in the Senate chambers. He notes a number of such examples, including one instance that occurred during the current Congressional session, between the Senators of Mississippi and Vermont: “‘A gentleman,’ says the Senator, 'has the right to give an insult, if he feels himself bound to answer for it' and in reply to the Senator from Vermont, he declared, that in case of insult, taking another out and shooting him might be ‘satisfaction,’” (page 58).

Sumner concludes this section by criticizing the Fugitive Slave Act and declaring:

Let Senators who are so clamorous for "the enforcement of laws," begin by enforcing the statute which declares the Duel to be a felony. At least, let the statute cease to be a dead letter in this Chamber. But this is too much to expect while Slavery prevails here, for the Duel is a part of that System of Violence which has its origin in Slavery.

page 57

  • Do you think that Horace Mann’s puns and Charles Sumner’s examples from the Congressional record are appropriate conduct for the legislative branch of the federal government? Does the Congressional modus operandi of debate explain or excuse such conduct? Should there be laws barring these types of personal attacks from the Senate floor?
  • Why do you think that so many politicians resorted to personal attacks on one another at this time?
  • Is Sumner correct in his assessment that the threat of duels in Congress comes from the violence of slaveholders?
  • How do you think that these personal attacks compare with contemporary Congressional debates--or even contemporary presidential campaigns?
  • What does this comparison suggest about changes, or a lack thereof, in rhetoric and in concepts of debate, honor, and accountability?