Weird History

The Craziest Things That Have Ever Happened on the Floor of Congress  

Aaron Edwards
859 votes 246 voters 27.6k views 10 items

List Rules Vote up the most unbelievable things that have happened on the floors of the House and Senate.

While it's easy to point to the House of Commons as the craziest legislative body in the western world, the US Congress is no slouch. Brawls, filibusters, fights, and bizarre bills are among the more outlandish things you may have heard about Congress, and with more than two hundred years of history, Washington has seen it all. The craziest things that happened in Congress went down for all sorts of reasons, though mostly it boils down to a few people really hating each other.

Civil Rights bills, sex scandals, and corruption have provided plenty of impetus for drastic action in the past, much like a call to action against gun violence inspired members of the Senate to stage a sit in on the floor in June 2016. But if you think that was wild, just wait until you see some of the crazy stuff below.

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The Civil War Started with a Senate Floor Brawl
The Civil War Started with a S... is listed (or ranked) 1 on the list The Craziest Things That Have Ever Happened on the Floor of Congress
Photo: Political Graveyard/flickr/CC-BY 2.0

Shortly after the caning of Charles Sumner, in the lead up to the Civil War, tensions between northern and southern representatives worsened drastically. In this climate, a string of insults traded by Pennsylvania Representative Galusha Grow and Lawrence Branch of North Carolina erupted into a brawl. It was essentially a 19th century wrestling match on the floor. Representative Keitt hit the floor after one punch, Rep. John F. Potter (whose nick name was Bowie Knife) jumped into the brawl "striking right and left with vigor," and Congressman John Covade (R-PA) threatened to "brain" someone with a spittoon.

The fight eventually ended and tensions eased, that is, until it became the bloodiest war in American history.

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Senator Sumner Was Beaten with a Cane
Senator Sumner Was Beaten with... is listed (or ranked) 2 on the list The Craziest Things That Have Ever Happened on the Floor of Congress
Photo: Photographer Unknown/Creative Commons

Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner was passionately anti-slavery. As the tensions that led to the Civil War intensified, so did resistance to Sumner's position. After giving a volatile speech against Kansas joining the union as a slave state, Sumner called slavery a harlot and accused South Carolina Democrat Andrew Butler of being its pimp. Chuck was from Boston, what're you gonna do? That's how they roll.

Later the same day, South Carolina Representative Preston Brooks, in an effort to defend Butler's honor, beat the crap out of Sumner with his cane, knocking him unconscious. Brooks resigned shortly after, while Sumner served for another 18 years.

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Pistols Were Drawn Over a Slave Bill
Pistols Were Drawn Over a Slav... is listed (or ranked) 3 on the list The Craziest Things That Have Ever Happened on the Floor of Congress
Photo: Internet Archive Book Images/flickr/No known copyright restrictions

They say you know you're doing something right when you make enemies. In politics, that's especially true. Well, Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton and Mississippi Senator Henry S. Foote hated each other, so at least one of them was doing something right.

When tensions over the Compromise of 1850 (which was all about drawing lines regarding which states were free or had slaves) reached a breaking point, Foote drew his pistol and pointed it at Benton, who screamed "Let him fire! Let the assassin fire!" Foote was wrestled to the floor and disarmed him. Talk about drama.

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Matthew Lyon Spit in a Guy's Face and Fought Him with Tongs
Matthew Lyon Spit in a Guy'... is listed (or ranked) 4 on the list The Craziest Things That Have Ever Happened on the Floor of Congress
Photo:  Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Back in the early days of Congress, members had a bit of the British adventurous spirit. One of the most famous incidents of this era occurred in 1798, when Vermont Representative Matthew Lyon spit tobacco juice in Connecticut Representative Roger Griswold's face. Griswold, pissed, came at Lyon with his cane. Lyon grabbed a pair of fire tongs and the two had a quick duel before they were separated and expelled. What had the men so heated it came to spits and blows? Apparently, a debate concerning the diplomatic approach to France. C'est la vie.

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