THE UNION INCARNATE FOR BETTER AND WORSE
THE UNITED STATES CONGRESS
In the middle of December 1833, the thirty-three-year-old French set off for the nation’s capital and a new life as a clerk for the U.S. House of Representatives. Duty drove him more than anything else; as he explained in his diary, he needed to earn money to pay his debts. He was too extravagant with his earnings, he knew, and now he was paying the price. His wife—“all I love on this earth”—was back in New Hampshire. And he was trundling in a stagecoach, then three steamboats, then another stagecoach to Washington.1
During his trip, French bumped up against concrete evidence of just how localized the nation and he himself were. State banks printed their own currency, so interstate travel required preparation, and French wasn’t prepared. In Pennsylvania, he discovered that his New Hampshire bills weren’t much good. When his wife followed him to Washington a few months later, he had sage advice: “Use New Hampshire or Massachusetts money until you get to New Haven, and then begin upon your Southern money. I had some trouble in Philadelphia to get rid of my New Hampshire money.”2
Southern money in hand, French arrived in Washington on December 21, 1833—at 1:30 a.m. on a cold morning, to be precise—and he spent the day doing what any visitor would do; he toured the capital with fresh eyes.3 What he saw was a raw young city with pretensions of becoming something more.
A view of Washington from Capitol Hill in 1834, one year after French arrived. Pennsylvania Avenue is to the left. (By J. R. Smith and J. B. Neagle. Courtesy of the Library of Congress)
Planned in the 1790s and first serving as the seat of government in 1800, Washington was a new capital for a new nation. Boosters called it the City of Magnificent Distances; critics called it the City of Magnificent Intentions. Either way, it embodied big hopes and an uncertain future.
You could see the city’s rawness everywhere: in its sprawling dimensions and empty expanses; in its clusters of low wood houses and straggling rows of buildings pocked by vacant lots; in the odd isolated splendor of its scattered handful of large government buildings (as if “the British Museum … suddenly migrated to the centre of an exhausted brickfield”); in its broad unpaved avenues and its seemingly permanent blanket of dust from ongoing construction.4 As late as 1850, houses weren’t numbered, street signs weren’t mandatory, there were no streetlights, “and the visitor who wanted to find a residence had to depend upon the hack-drivers, whose method of memory seemed to be that each person lived ‘just a little way from’ somewhere else.”5 Thanks to poor planning, sewage pooled in low-lying areas; there was a “miasmatic swamp” near the White House, and in 1857 a sewage-induced dysentery outbreak in the National Hotel killed three and sickened dozens, including the president-elect.6 Cows, geese, and pigs roamed the streets. Over the years, French had countless livestock run-ins; on one evening in 1838, he was convinced that “nearly all the dogs in Washington” were behind his boardinghouse barking at cows. A few years later, a cow wearing a bell woke him night after night for months; even as he was complaining in his diary, the cow seemed to “gingle” her bell “as if she knew that I was writing about her.… D—n that cow.”7
In a city networked by more roads and alleys than New York or Philadelphia, the streets themselves seemed to rise up in rebellion.8 Crossing one of the broad avenues could be an adventure. When it rained, they were mired in mud. When it didn’t, the wind stirred up dust clouds so dense that people were choked and blinded. The wise Washingtonian carried a handkerchief to cover nose and mouth when crossing the street.9 (“You have no idea of the dust,” noted a clerk searching for a place to board that wasn’t enveloped in a thick cloud of it.)10 In the summer of 1856, Congress spent nearly $2,000 watering down Pennsylvania Avenue, roughly equivalent to $56,000 in 2017; French, commissioner of public buildings at the time, supervised the watering.
Of course, Washington changed during its first five decades, transforming from a town of roughly 8,000 people in 1800 to a city of more than 50,000 in the 1850s.11 But one thing didn’t change: Washington revolved around the openings and closings of Congress. Just before the start of every session, a migrant group of politicians and their families trouped to the capital, joined by a throng of hangers-on: “distinguished foreigners, gentlemen who are traveling for amusement, political demagogues, claimants, patentees, letter writers, army and navy officers, office hunters, and a host of gamblers and blacklegs”—not to mention socialites eager for fun.12 (One congressman included “lunatics” in this group, noting that Washington had more than its share because some government claimants literally went insane waiting for Congress to act.)13 To French, it was a “cloud … equalled only by the locusts in Egypt.”14
A view of the Capitol as seen from Pennsylvania Avenue in 1834. (By Milo Osborne. Courtesy of the Library of Congress)
French was part of that cloud in 1833. He spent his first day seeing the sights with two New Hampshire congressmen, including Franklin Pierce.15 The three men probably saw the White House and strolled down Pennsylvania Avenue, the city’s main thoroughfare (known as “the Avenue”), with its array of houses, hotels, churches, saloons, small businesses, and newspaper offices. But of all that French saw on that first day, one thing stood out: the United States Capitol. “I viewed it with thoughts and emotions which I cannot express,” he confessed in his diary that night.16
Perhaps he was struck by the grand sweeping architecture; the iconic statues and artwork in the rotunda; the look, sound, and feel of the House and Senate chambers. Perhaps he was anticipating this new phase of his life on an elevated stage. He was certainly excited to hear “the great men of the land debate.” But more than anything else, French was struck by the symbolism of his surroundings. Thus his reaction to viewing the Capitol for the first time: “will it always be the capitol of my happy country? I fear the seeds are already sown whose fruit will be disunion, but God forbid it!”17 French was responding to the Nullification Crisis of 1832–33, a standoff between the national government and South Carolina, which had nullified a federal tariff; for a time, the threat of federal military intervention had been all too real. French may have been looking at a brick-and-mortar structure, but he was seeing the Union incarnate.
The Capitol encouraged this kind of thinking by design. Not only was it an architectural anchor of the city—an enormous structure at one end of Pennsylvania Avenue, in a permanent showdown with the White House at the other end—but it was also a national monument of sorts, open to the public and filled with commemorative works of art.18 The exterior was adorned with “colossal” allegorical statues: the Genius of America, War, Peace, Hope, and Justice (though somewhat forebodingly, in 1842 “Justice” was damaged, her arm and hand—clutching the Constitution—broken off and smashed on the Capitol’s steps).19 The interior was filled with statues and portraits of Great Americans and paintings of Great American Moments, most notably John Trumbull’s iconic paintings in the rotunda: the Surrender of General Burgoyne at Saratoga, the Declaration of Independence, the Surrender of Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown, and General George Washington Resigning His Commission.20 American values, American heroes, and American history, all on display.
The building’s scope and scale were equally symbolic, designed to capture the spirit of American governance. The imposing rotunda with its impressive dome signaled the high ambitions—even the majesty—of popular representation, as did the House and Senate chambers, open to public view: the House, grand in scale, with a dramatic domed ceiling and crimson drapery; the Senate with its clubby intimacy and luxurious red Moroccan leather chairs. The concentric arc-shaped rows of simple desks in both houses captured the other half of the republican equation: a plainspoken, straightforward approach to business with little to no frippery to get in the way. (Newspaper ads seeking craftsmen to build them requested “strong, neat and plain” furniture “without any superfluous ornament.”)21 The desks were the only offices that congressmen had, aside from their paper-strewn boardinghouse or hotel rooms.22 In his first months in office French saw it all, touring the building from bottom to top, glorying in its wonders, and laughing at how the “superb” view from the dome made people in the rotunda look like “little squab looking fellows.”23
All in all, the Capitol’s structural design was intended to have an impact, and French got the message. He could think of “no more imposing spectacle” than an evening session of the House: the light “equal to that of at least 1,000 candles,” the galleries jammed with the Washington “gentility,” the “vast pillars,” the plush drapery that looked “richer, if possible, by artificial light than by the light of day.” If conditions were right—“If the House happens to be in good humor, & some interesting subject is under debate”—it was a magnificent sight, suggesting all that Congress was supposed to be.24
And Congress was supposed to be quite a lot; in the first half of the nineteenth century it had a particularly large role to play. By the time of French’s arrival in 1833, the government had been in operation for forty-four years. On the one hand, this was long enough to prove that one stupid policy or one sweeping crisis wouldn’t dash it to ruins. America’s survival through the War of 1812, the nation’s second war against Great Britain, suggested that the American experiment might just have legs. On the other hand, forty-four years wasn’t long enough to take things for granted; there were kinks to be worked out, fundamental understandings yet unreached, major decisions yet to be made, and large, looming power vacuums waiting to be filled. Here, too, the Capitol embodied the Union; it was still under construction, and would be into the Civil War and beyond.
There was also the destabilizing influence of national expansion. The young nation was still in its adolescence, spreading across the North American continent at a remarkable rate. Between 1840 and 1860, seven new states were added to the Union; in 1860, fifteen out of thirty-two states were less than forty-five years old. For many Americans, it was exciting and empowering, seemingly the groundwork of a future empire. It was also unsettling, because each new state raised fundamental questions about the nature of the nation. The question of slavery was front and center—would it, should it, spread and survive?—but it wasn’t the only one. What of native peoples who owned western lands? How far could new states go in setting their own terms? What was the relationship between periphery and center? And what about the logistics? How would this far-flung nation be interconnected? By toll roads? Canals? Railroads? Who would fund and manage their development, and how? And speaking of funding, how active should the national government be in harmonizing the nation’s unsteady and diverse economy as the Industrial Age began to unfold? What role should the government play in handling the period’s many financial panics? There were endless uncertainties, logical enough in a new and growing nation, but unsettling nonetheless.
Congress would help to answer many of these questions, establishing vital precedents. It would play a role in crisscrossing the continent with roads and canals. It would foster industry with protective tariffs on imported goods—or not, depending on which party was in power. It would weigh in on the terms of statehood for every new state, but not without turmoil; although the Constitution and subsequent legislation outlined this process, it left room for interpretation, and the question of slavery expanded to fill much of it. In one way or another, during the first half of the nineteenth century, Congress was shaping the scale, scope, and influence of the national government and how far it could go in shaping the nation.
And the American people knew it. Congress was where the action was. Although the presidency got its share of press coverage—and more during election years—Congress got the lion’s share of column inches.25 Newspapers routinely printed lengthy summaries of congressional debates as well as congressional commentary. Popular culture kept pace. By the 1850s, there was a virtual school of Congress-bashing in squibs, plays, cartoons, even mock epic poetry. All of these efforts were filled with inside jokes grounded on the assumption that the reading public was remarkably knowledgeable about the day-to-day happenings in Congress.
They were certainly well versed in the words of Congress’s star orators. This was the great age of speechifying, and the Senate was its national headquarters, though the House held its own. Oratory was a vastly popular form of entertainment through much of the nineteenth century. People would flock to hear stump speeches and lectures that went on for hours (testimony to the long-lost art of having a long attention span). This was the realm of Henry Clay and Daniel Webster, as well as a number of their peers who have since lost their luster. When these men were due to give speeches, crowds packed the galleries, Senate attendance improved remarkably, and Representatives migrated from the House to hear them. One 1848 speech by Clay—before the American Colonization Society, after hours in the House—attracted a crowd of thousands who not only filled every square inch of the chamber but packed the rotunda and the space outside the windows. (One disgruntled congressman quipped that Clay, a repeat presidential contender, “could get more men to run after him to hear him speak, and fewer to vote for him, than any man in America.”)26 Such grandstand performances didn’t necessarily change congressional votes. But they might change public opinion, and that could change everything. A reliable source of praise and fame, impressive oratory was political muscle. As one reporter put it, “Eloquence, in this empire, is power.”27
At their best, the best speakers voiced shared sentiments so eloquently and forcefully that their words became a kind of patriotic gospel; generations of schoolchildren memorized and delivered Daniel Webster’s speeches as American anthems. Even French, a firm Democrat when he arrived in Washington, almost genuflected at the mention of the mighty Whig’s name. Webster was a New Hampshire native and the voice of America: it was impossible for French not to be proud. When French was accused of attacking Webster in his newspaper column, he anxiously checked every column he’d ever written, breathing a sigh of relief when he came up empty-handed: he was “[t]oo proud of being a native of the same state with him to abuse him.” As much as he disapproved of Webster’s Whig politics, French considered him “one of the greatest men in this Union.”28
It’s no wonder that some people viewed Congress as the land of Great Men. French did at first. “The color of the rose was about everything I saw,” he later recalled.29 Even congressmen themselves could be impressed by some of their fellows. French’s friend John Parker Hale (D-NH) acknowledged as much when he asked big-name colleagues to frank his letters home so his wife could save their autographs.30
This was the Congress enshrined in the Capitol’s architecture and artwork, the Congress that took French’s breath away. But there was another Congress, a place of negotiating and compromising, of parliamentary power plays on the floor and politicking in back rooms, of ego, bravado, and boozy backslapping with an occasional ultimatum delivered behind closed doors. The man-to-man challenges and the sense of community; the heated debate and drawn-out pauses; the quiet asides, muttered insults, and fistfights: this was the ground-level workaday Congress, an often contentious, sometimes tumultuous, and occasionally even dangerous assembly charged with crafting policies and precedents that would shape the nation, a fitting reflection of a restless people pushing the bounds of empire.
THE “AUGUST PRESENCE” OF THE AMERICAN CONGRESS
As impressive as the House sometimes seemed to French, evening sessions rarely ended that way. Sometime around midnight, with the audience long gone and members straggling off, the mood often changed. The niceties of debate would break down. Men would become tired and testy. There would be interruptions and constant (desperate) calls to adjourn. The Speaker’s pounding gavel and screams for order would only add to the prevailing noise and confusion. Members would be sleeping in their seats or on the sofas bordering the room, some stretched out on the carpet behind the Speaker’s chair. (It wasn’t only the House that was sleeping; partway through a twelve-hour Senate session in 1843, the ever-energetic Thomas Hart Benton [D-MO] declared himself “quite fresh and vigorous,” having “just waked up from the sofa.”)31 At about 2:00 a.m., someone would make a call of the House, summoning all members to the floor; by 5:00 a.m., the sergeant at arms would be dragging them into the chamber half-dressed, their hair uncombed, their faces unwashed and unshaven, looking “as little like ‘the first gentlemen in America’ as possible,” French thought.32
It’s hard to imagine a more human Congress: an assemblage of sleepy, grouchy, disheveled men. But this was what most evening sessions were like. French saw “this farce” time and again. And this wasn’t the worst of it. Take, for example, the last night of the session in 1835. A military bill had been bouncing back and forth between the two houses all night, the Senate rejecting a House amendment granting President Andrew Jackson three million dollars to spend on the military, the House standing firm. Although a conference committee devised a compromise, it wasn’t enough for House Democrats, who defeated it by stopping any and all action until the session expired. To hasten the end along, they played the rule-stickler card, refusing to vote after the session’s formal closing hour of midnight; at various points, between seventy and one hundred Democrats left their seats in protest, and they didn’t leave quietly.33 Drunk and belligerent, they were, as French put it, “laughing and scolding, swearing and joking, hissing & cheering & all sorts of things.” Reflecting that he was “in the August presence of the American Congress,” French felt “a sort of sickness at the heart.”34 Here was rug-level politics at its best, or rather its worst: drunken chaos as a political ploy. And it worked. Nothing got done. And Congress adjourned at 3:00 a.m.35
This was hardly a typical day in the House.36 Even so, it reveals much about the routine dynamics of Congress. It reminds us that the everyday business of legislating had rough edges—sometimes very rough. Alongside the debating, discussing, conferring, and voting was a healthy (or rather, unhealthy) dose of belligerence, violence, and drunken swaggering with its own logic and tempo. The Congressional Globe often glossed over such things; its account of March 3, 1835, looks remarkably sedate. But they were there, and they shaped what Congress did and how it evolved.37 It’s an obvious fact with broad implications: What a legislature does and how it does it are direct reflections of how its members get along. Of course, “getting along” is a hard thing to measure, and that’s precisely the point. People are unpredictable, and for that very reason their interactions matter, affecting outcomes in unexpected ways.
Look closely at the Capitol’s working spaces in action and you can see the rough edges. These weren’t pristine stages for speechifying and voting. Take, for example, the House chamber. The Congressional Globe makes it seem calm and orderly, with a smattering of sniping and scattered interruptions, but in truth the chamber was a roiling sea of noise and motion. Members were continually coming and going, chatting and laughing and arguing, reading newspapers, writing letters, franking printed speeches, and tossing off quips at a speaker’s expense or urging him on. Men who wanted the floor were shouting to the Speaker and waving their arms; those already speaking were gesturing dramatically, pounding their desks, sometimes yelling to be heard. During the debate over Oregon statehood, Senator William Allen (D-OH) pounded his desk hard enough to draw blood, leading one newspaper to declare it “the first and only blood shed in the Oregon war.” (Allen must have been quite a performer; another paper described him as “a cross between William Pitt and an angry cockatoo.”)38
The crowded and chaotic House floor in 1857, not long before it moved to larger quarters (The Meeting of Congress—Hall of Representatives, December 1857, by Winslow Homer, Harper’s Weekly, December 12, 1857. Courtesy of HarpWeek)
All in all, the House was in a constant state of organized chaos. Looking down from the gallery, one reporter thought that a deaf man “would be apt to think himself in a spacious gymnasium” filled with men practicing “odd exercises of the arms and legs and head.”39 Add the comings and goings of clerks shuffling papers, the pages darting between desks running errands, and the buzz from the galleries, punctuated by an occasional hiss or cheer, and you get a sense of working conditions on the House floor.40
In part, this was a product of numbers; there were too many people in too small a space. When the chamber was completed in 1807, there were 145 seats representing seventeen states; fifty years later, there were thirty-one states represented by roughly 240 men: nearly a hundred more men, desks, and chairs crammed onto the floor. (French prided himself on learning their names faster than anyone.)41 The acoustics didn’t help matters. Ironically, the room’s symbolic grandeur wreaked havoc on the actual voice of the people. The high-domed ceiling created strange echoes and the crimson drapery absorbed sound, bouncing voices all over the hall or swallowing them entirely.42 The end result was laughable. People would call to the Speaker from one side of the room and he would turn to the other to recognize them, mistaking the echo for the voice. Whispers inaudible only inches away were quite audible in random pockets around the room; once, a young man’s “whisperings” from the “love corner” of the ladies’ gallery made it all the way down to the Speaker’s chair. New members had to learn the tricks of the chamber, the “modulations of the voice” and “turns of the body” that were likely to get them heard.43 Thus the “odd exercises” of the arms, legs, and head. People were battling the acoustics.
All this in a room that was hot, stuffy, and smelly. At the end of a typical day, with the galleries full and hours of body heat trapped in the chamber, French thought that reading aloud to members was like reading “with his head stuck into an oven.”44 When the House moved to larger windowless quarters in 1857, the acoustics improved but the air didn’t. This wasn’t just a matter of cigar smoke, whiskey fumes, and body odor. A series of climate studies revealed the scope of the problem: no air was circulating in the chamber, and the wisp of a draft that rose through the floor grates had to pass through a layer of “lint, dirt, tobacco quids, expectoration, and filth of every sort.”45 One member claimed that the “confined and poisonous” air had caused “much sickness and even several deaths,” and indeed, a handful of congressmen died during an average session, though not necessarily because of the air.46 Ongoing whimpering from the floor produced another study, this one demonstrating that it was thirty degrees warmer inside than outside and that the chamber smelled of sewage from the basement.47 Visiting the new chamber not long after it opened, French wasn’t impressed. The idea of “shutting up a thousand or two people in a kind of cellar, where none of God’s direct light or air can come in to them … does not jump with my notions of living,” he groused.48 Thirty years later, members still declared the House “the worst ventilated building on the continent.”49
Clearly there were limits to politicking on the House floor. Extended debates on fine points of legislation were difficult at best. Declaratory speeches were easier, assuming that you had mastered the acoustics and weren’t banking on the room’s rapt attention; often such efforts were aimed at a home audience. Group efforts were more effective. Tag-team obstruction was part of the parliamentary game and backup usually was right at hand. Anyone making a proposal, refuting a ruling, or hungry for a few extra minutes of speaking time only had to call out for the help of “political friends,” as did Francis Rives (D-VA) when denied a chance to refute an accusation; when he asked, “have I no friend in this House that will move a suspension of the rules, in order that I may be heard?” a “political friend” immediately did just that.50
Sometimes the hubbub was handy. If you played the acoustics right, you could confer quietly around the edges of the chamber without being overheard. And if you lowered your voice to just the right pitch, you could threaten someone on the sly. In 1840, Daniel Jenifer (W-MD) suddenly dropped his voice in the middle of a speech to deliver what must have been either a threat or an insult; witnesses didn’t know what he said, but they saw its impact on the victim’s face.51
This spat went no further, but that wasn’t always the case. Given conditions on the floor, it’s easy to see how angry words could spark a chain reaction. Colleagues on left and right were little more than an elbow away, some routinely wore weapons, many had short fuses (growing shorter all the time given the working conditions), and it was an easy slide from hard words to jostling, clenched fists, shoving, punching, and bowie knives.
The House floor didn’t always feel safe, and in fact it sometimes wasn’t; standing up for yourself meant running a risk. In 1837, when Committee on Ways and Means member Richard Fletcher (W-MA) asked John Quincy Adams (W-MA) if he should respond to a “coarse and abusive” verbal assault by Democratic committee-mates, Adams advised silence. The attack was a “party movement to bully down” Fletcher, he thought, and resistance would result in a fistfight or worse.52 Not only did Fletcher remain silent, but he resigned from the committee. As far as the Democratic bullies were concerned, it was a job well done.
The Senate chamber was a very different place, though it had some of the same problems. It was noisy, though to a lesser degree. (French was put out by the “buzzings” of ladies admitted on the floor, as they were from time to time.)53 And the heat and foul air did their damage. Sweating profusely in his shirtsleeves one July afternoon, the normally good-humored John Parker Hale was the absolute “picture of discomfort,” noted a colleague. Hale considered the Senate “the most unhealthful, uncomfortable, ill-contrived place I was ever in in my life.”54
Hot air of all kinds to the contrary, the Senate was generally calmer than the House. Smaller in size, with its acoustics in working order and its members a little older, more established, more experienced, and sometimes higher on the social scale, it was a true forum for debate as well as a proving ground for future presidential hopefuls. There was less competition to be heard on the floor; every senator had the right to speak for as long as his lungs could carry him. And there was more of a sense of community: senators put down roots because they served for six years, as opposed to the two-year terms in the House.
Debate in the Senate was thus more of a dialogue—long-winded, agenda-driven, and something of a performance, but a dialogue just the same. This doesn’t mean that the Senate was a haven of safety. It wasn’t. There were plenty of threats and insults on the floor. Henry Clay (W-KY) was a master. His attack in 1832 on the elderly Samuel Smith (J-MD), a Revolutionary War veteran and forty-year veteran of the Senate, was so severe that senators physically drew back, worried that things might get ugly.55 Clay called Smith a tottering old man with flip-flopping politics; Smith denied it and countered that he could “take a view” of Clay’s politics that would prove him inconsistent; and Clay jeered, “Take it, sir, take it—I dare you!” Smith defended himself, but when he later sought the advice of John Quincy Adams (clearly, Fight Consultant Extraordinaire), Smith was so deeply wounded that he was on the verge of tears.56
The Senate chamber in 1846. This composite of daguerreotype portraits—all of them taken for this image—was four years in the making. (United States Senate Chamber by Thomas Doney, after James Whitehorn. Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution)
Some such exchanges escalated into duel challenges, which were far more common in the Senate than in the House. Not only were formal duels more likely among the Senate’s somewhat more elite membership, but they preserved its sense of community by channeling violence off the floor. Even senatorial fistfights often took place elsewhere—on the streets or in boardinghouses or hotels.57
The different spirit in the two chambers was readily apparent in the wake of a fight. Clashes in the House triggered calls to the Speaker for protection; clashes in the Senate led senators to appeal to one another and their shared sense of respect.
“THE DAMP DUNGEONS OF THE CAPITOL”
Of course, there were other working spaces in the Capitol, some public, some private. The library and the lobbies were in the former category. The library was available for milling about of all kinds. Tourists wandered through while congressmen chatted about doings in the chambers or bided time to avoid a vote, and pages dashed in to fetch books for congressmen. The lobbies, as one might expect, were for lobbying as well as lingering, and typically were filled with tourists, reporters, people who wanted to hear the debates but were crowded out of the galleries, and assorted others (“lobbyists”) demanding things of congressmen. In later years, when French had lost his clerking job due to the shifting tides of politics, he tried to bank on his congressional connections by earning a living as a lobbyist, without much success.58
But some things weren’t fit for the open air; some topics needed closed-door privacy, frank unhurried conversations, and, in the case of the House, decent acoustics. Thus the importance of committees. Not only did they allow for the practice of politics by other means, but they shunted work off the floor, a growing necessity given the increasing complexity and quantity of congressional business; for many scholars, the rise of a committee system marks the modernization of Congress.59 Much of the institution’s real work took place in committees, particularly in standing committees overseeing ongoing concerns such as foreign relations or military affairs. As one congressman put it, committees were appointed “to facilitate and mature business” for the body as a whole; they shaped legislation, conducted investigations, and collected information, among other things. In essence, committees were legislatures by proxy, though their recommendations were more likely to be challenged on the floor than their equivalent today.60
Yet they were legislatures with a difference: committee-room doors were firmly closed. Private rooms where men could hash things out, they had the look and feel of gentleman’s clubs, with plush Turkish rugs, deep leather chairs, bookshelves filled with spillover from the congressional library, and sideboards stocked with whiskey and cigars.61 Their privacy served a purpose. As one congressman put it, he “had said many things in committee which he could not say” in the House.62
And yet closed doors weren’t always an advantage. Off-limits to both the public and the press, documented only by formal reports that were often biased and selectively censored, committee meetings were dark voids where anything could happen. Short-term select or special committees were especially problematic; often focused on sensitive matters of immediate concern, their members bound to work together for only a short time, they could be dangerous terrain.63 If he were ever unfortunate enough to be involved in a brawl, observed one congressman in 1840, “he would never consent to be tried in the damp dungeons of the Capitol by any committee.”64
Finding out precisely what happened in these “dungeons” isn’t easy. Their closed-door policy was so effectively maintained that even today it’s hard to get past it; you have to find a leak. Daniel Jenifer (W-MD) spilled the truth in the House in 1840. Outraged at a biased report from the Committee on Elections concerning a contested election, he ranted for days, insisting that Democrats on the committee had bullied two Northern Whig members into accepting the report (and thus, new Democratic congressmen). The Democrats succeeded because the Northerners were easy targets who wouldn’t “resent an injury done them”—meaning, they didn’t abide by the code of honor and wouldn’t fight back.65 Jenifer’s charges were so inflammatory that the Globe didn’t record them, reporting only that he “spoke with great acrimony”; they appeared in print only when a Democrat refuted them.66 When Henry Wise (W-VA) mentioned a committee member who had threatened to pummel whoever disagreed with him, he was promptly scolded for exposing “the secrets of the prison house … before the world.”67
Wise caused his own share of problems in committee-rooms. That same year, he took part in an armed showdown. To slap at President Jackson, Wise and his friend Balie Peyton (W-TN) had pushed for a House investigation of the president’s “pet banks” (state depositories for public funds that replaced what Democrats called the “Monster” Bank of the United States). In the days before testifying to the investigative committee, an agent for several of those banks, Reuben M. Whitney, had called Peyton a liar in the press. So when Whitney sneered at Peyton during his testimony, all hell broke loose. Peyton jumped to his feet and threatened to kill Whitney; Wise, who had been regaling committee members with amusing anecdotes on a couch across the room, caught the drift, rushed over, and joined in. At this point, Whitney jumped to his feet, Peyton reached for his gun, and Wise positioned himself within firing range of Whitney, his hand on his gun, his gaze fixed on Whitney’s hand in his pocket.
If Whitney had moved his arm one inch as if to pull a pistol, Wise later admitted, he would have killed him on the spot. (Had Whitney “but fingered his ‘gold boys,’” joked a reporter, he would have been a dead man.68) Although Wise eventually saved the day, calming Peyton long enough for Whitney to escape, he never lived it down. French told a Wise joke two years later: the Virginian had lost his luggage—containing his pistols—on the way to Washington, so a committee that he served on couldn’t meet, because he couldn’t shoot the witnesses.69
Guns, threats, insults, and bullying: a lot was happening behind closed doors. There was a reason why congressmen called committee-rooms the “black holes of the Capitol.”70 They also called them barrooms, again for good reason; not only were they stocked with liquor for committee meetings, but during evening sessions they were on call for the House and Senate chambers—“[c]onverted into a bar-room,” as one senator put it.71 (Not all of those howling Democrats on the last night of the session in 1835 got drunk over dinner.) Rumor had it that more than one page got his drinking legs from “contraband” liquor filched from committee-rooms.72
Nor was that all as far as booze was concerned. There were two bars in out-of-the-way corners of the Capitol, one near the House, and the aptly named “Hole in the Wall” behind the Senate post office.73 There was also a “refectory” serving food and drink of all kinds, and beginning in 1858, a members’ dining room that served hard liquor to those in the know; rumor had it that if you wanted gin or whiskey in the refectory, you should ask for “pale sherry” or “Madeira,” neither one a “spirituous” liquor.74 If you were friendly with Daniel Webster, he might invite you to his “Wine Room,” a private wine cellar of sorts in a small room on the Capitol’s third floor, just above the Senate chamber.75 And then there were the whiskey jugs stashed in clerks’ offices.76 All told, rivers of liquor flowed through the Capitol, and had been flowing for quite some time. As early as 1809, the Senate was billing a hefty supply of “syrup” to its contingent fund, an expense laughingly pointed out by a Senate committee on contingent expenses in 1874.77 Of course, this was an age of remarkably heavy drinking, every day, all day, all the time. There were well over one hundred ways to call someone drunk, including long-lost classics such as has a pinch of snuff in his wig; clips the king’s English; takes a lunar; and chases geese.78 In this sense, Congress was indeed representative.79 The temperance movement had a point.
Attempts to stem the flow of liquor didn’t do much. The Congressional Temperance Society was a fine idea with little influence.80 Even after an 1837 joint rule banned the sale of “spirituous liquors” in the Capitol or on its grounds, the problem persisted; there were too many loopholes—in an assembly of lawyers.81 Thus the remarkable precision of the 1867 amendment to the joint rule; it prohibited “spirituous or malt liquors or wines” from being “offered for sale, exhibited, or kept within the Capitol, or any room or building connected therewith, or on the public grounds adjacent thereto.”82 But even this didn’t fully dry out the Capitol.83 With the institutional equivalent of a wink and a nod, Congress essentially sanctioned drinking, yet another factor contributing to the unpredictability of the House and Senate floors.
There are no boozy congressmen in the Globe, though there’s plenty of denial. Whenever some brave soul raised the issue, he was invariably called a liar. The chorus of outrage (Liquor? What liquor?) greeting Massachusetts Republican Henry Wilson’s charges about booze in the Capitol in 1867 is laughable alongside his detailed account of precisely what liquor was kept where.84 Along similar lines, when Henry Wise (W-VA) claimed that Democrats were drunk at the close of the 1835 session, an outraged Democrat immediately denied it and demanded that Wise name names. “The gentleman might feel unhappy” if he did, Wise wryly replied.85
“IF THE WHOLE PEOPLE … KNEW AS MUCH AS I DO ABOUT THESE SESSIONS…”
Of course, Congress was not a pit of abandon. It was a working institution doing its job: creating and debating legislation, considering and acting on petitions, attending to ongoing business and special circumstances in committees, and more. This is the Congress that we know and (occasionally) love.
And yet the potential for dramatic confrontations and violence could have a profound impact. It certainly filled the galleries; the likelihood of a showdown packed them full. Debate “great measures of policy” and the galleries were empty, complained Franklin Pierce (D-NH) in 1838. But hint at the chance of “personalities” the next day, and the galleries and lobbies were “crowded almost to suffocation,” the halls and doorways “literally blockaded.” As long as the public craved such things, it was useless to assume that their elected representatives would behave any differently.86 Gallery rubberneckers reflected public opinion, and the public seemed to glory in congressional clashes, a hunger that would bear bitter fruit with passing decades.
It was another reality of being a congressman: the constant presence and overriding influence of the American public in the galleries and beyond. Sitting above the members’ heads was a watchful audience, studying their actions, listening to their words, and forming their own opinions. Sitting alongside them were people who were trying their best to shape those opinions: the reporters of the American press. Congressmen ignored this audience at their peril. In the same way that the Capitol’s art and architecture expressed Congress’s symbolic meaning, and the rug-level realities of its working spaces shaped congressional proceedings, the galleries imposed the influence of Congress’s ultimate judges and juries: the public and the press.
French’s diary is littered with references to them: the mumbling, “buzzing,” whispering gallery-sitters of the House and Senate.87 Members on the floor could see who was up there. Sometimes they scanned the crowd for familiar faces.88 People in the galleries did the same looking down at the assembly below. But they couldn’t see everything—certainly not the worst of it, as French well knew. Irritated at a proposal to start the next session early to avoid undone business at its close, he felt sure that the House could finish “every whit” of business if members would stop wasting time on selfish whims and fancies, like figuring out how to buy themselves books with government funds. If the “whole people of this Union knew as much as I do about these sessions of Congress,” he fumed, they might actually try to “reform their representation.” But instead, they were “outrageously humbugged by their representatives.”89
French had a point. Even looking down from the galleries, onlookers missed a lot. Mostly, they saw heads—not heads of state, but rather foreheads and hair. The noted British traveler Harriet Martineau was struck by the sight; entering the Senate galleries in the 1830s, she immediately concluded that she had never seen “a finer set of heads.”90 American writers were no less impressed. Daniel Webster’s brow seemed uniformly awe-inspiring. “The forehead is remarkable,” enthused one magazine writer. “You follow its bold curve with fear and trembling.”91 John C. Calhoun, on the other hand, had “a frizzly head, and an eye like a hawk” with a “mouth partly open,” not quite as awe-inspiring a sight as “Black Dan”.92 Foreheads were humbler in the House. Henry Wise sadly lacked “the Shakespearian pile of forehead,” and Vermonter Samuel S. Prentiss’s (AJ-VT) head was “large and out of proportion to the rest of his frame,” though somehow “not ugly.”93 Americans who encountered Charles Dickens after his Washington visit had the same strange obsession, repeatedly asking if the legislators’ heads had impressed him. Given that some of them belonged to bullying slaveholders, he wasn’t much moved.94
In part, this focus on congressional heads reflects the period’s faddish interest in phrenology, the pseudoscience of determining a person’s character by studying the shape of his skull.95 French had his skull read in 1841 and found the reading eerily accurate: he was sensitive, “inclined to literature,” a good neighbor and a good friend, “liked a good dinner & a glass of wine & enjoyed company,” and was “rather disposed to be indolent,” though he could work hard when he felt like it. His one qualm was the phrenologist’s claim that he didn’t remember people; he remembered the names and faces of congressmen better than anyone he knew. Of course, any phrenologist who met French and noted his stout build and good humor would have given the same reading; clearly, this was a man who relished dinners with friends. Even so, French thought there was “something in it.”96
In this sense, heads were descriptive shorthand: describe a head and you described a person, character and all. But the head-centric accounts of the House and Senate also say something about a gallery-sitter’s perspective; literally and figuratively, it was only an overview. They heard a sampling of oratory, saw a smidgen of legislation-in-the-making, learned a bit about policy and party politics, got a sense of the hum of business, and had a glance at the people behind the names. Depending on their timing, they might also witness a congressional clash, though again from a distance, perhaps seeing some shoving in the House or hearing a deliberate insult in the Senate. Sometimes they didn’t hear anything at all. A self-described “Mechanic” told one congressman, “I felt … that I was listening to eloquence and was well content to wait for the words until I could see them in The Globe.”97
Enter the press, a shaping influence on what happened on the floor. During testy proceedings, congressmen often looked up to the galleries and pleaded with reporters to be fair.98 If they weren’t “fair and impartial,” it would be near impossible for congressmen to “keep themselves erect before their constituents,” Francis Rives told reporters when he was accused of bullying people in a committee-room.99 Thomas Hart Benton made a similar plea in 1834 after insisting that the sergeant at arms arrest people hissing and cheering in the Senate galleries. Colleagues protested that arresting gallery sitters seemed to pit the Senate against the American public. Not surprisingly, Benton did some hasty backpedaling, pleading with onlooking reporters to report his meaning accurately.100
Here we see the power of gallery-sitters and what they represented. Benton’s impulsive swipe at some gallery rowdies became a strike at the American public in the blink of an eye—a rather large leap, but a largely accurate one. In a sense, gallery onlookers did stand in for the public. They were doing on-site what others did from a distance: evaluating their representatives and registering their opinions, though with hissing and cheering instead of votes and petitions, and perhaps unintentionally with clumps of dirt; a sign on the Senate gallery door stated: “Gentlemen will be pleased not to put their feet on the board in front of the gallery, as the dirt from them falls upon Senators’ heads.”101
Like the public writ large, all kinds of people looked on from the galleries. In addition to the press, the Washington gentility was there in force, as were tourists, visitors, and the general public, including French’s young son Frank in the 1850s.102 Women were there in such large numbers that they crowded men out.103 After being squeezed out of the Senate gallery, the legal scholar Francis Lieber (of “Lieber Code” fame) joked that he wanted to found the “Polite anti-ladies-thronging-poor-men-out-of-every-chance-of-seeing-anything-Society.”104 By the 1850s, there were also women reporters in the galleries. In Washington, women had a very public presence.
Sometimes that presence was felt on the floor. Merely by sitting in the galleries, women occasionally discouraged bad behavior. Congressional combatants sometimes glanced at the galleries before throwing an insult or taking a swing, and managed to contain themselves if women were present (though in the 1820s, the erratic and eruptive Representative John Randolph [R-VA] doubled down on his insults when told that his victim’s wife was in the audience).105 Congressmen who sprinted to the galleries to shield women during brawls were drawing gendered lines in the sand, protecting allegedly fragile flowers from the rough-and-tumble of politics.106 The creation of a ladies’ gallery in both houses was more of the same, protecting women from lower-class men, though “gentlemen” who accompanied ladies were admitted.107
This isn’t to say that women wanted protection. Men and women alike often came to the galleries explicitly for the fights, driven by the same urges that draw crowds to professional wrestling matches and hockey games: a love of sport and spectacle, and the thrill of a contained risk. (Wrestlers, hockey players, and congressmen rarely kill one another, though they make a good show of it.) People enjoyed cheering on their champions to fight the good fight. They loved the bold gesture, the cutting comment, the “personality” thrown down like a gauntlet; a rousing congressional brawl was the icing on the cake. As much as French recognized the dire implications of congressional chaos at key moments like session openings and closings, he perked up when he saw a good man-to-man brawl. It was one of the things that he liked about his job; when fists flew, he had a ringside seat. He reveled in what he called the “great fight” of 1841, which began when Edward Stanly (W-NC) and Henry Wise (W-VA) exchanged insults. When Wise slugged Stanly, “nearly all the members” rushed over and began pummeling one another in a wild melee. “[T]he Speaker & I had the best chance to see all the fun,” French wrote to his half brother, “& while he stood at his desk pounding & yelling, I stood at mine ‘calm as a summer’s morning’—enjoying the sport, and keeping the minutes of the proceedings!”108
In this sense, one of the period’s much-used metaphors is strikingly apt: politics was a kind of war. We make that same link today when we speak of political campaigns, but given the routine electoral violence in antebellum America, it had the ring of truth.109 Some campaigns even featured mock soldiers on parade.110 Looking back in the shadow of the Civil War, such military fervor seems unfortunate, even ghoulish. But it captured the raw bluster and bravado of the period’s politics, and acknowledged—even celebrated—its violent undertow. As Franklin Pierce suggested, the American people had a passion for violent clashes of principle and purpose, including the kind playing out in the Capitol, one of many political battlefields.
So when French gazed at the Capitol on that cold December day in 1833 and worried about the fate of the nation, he had good reason. Congress was the Union incarnate, for better and worse, and its collapse could bring down the nation in its wake. On December 10, 1839—six years later, almost to the day—he thought that his worst fears were playing out. For ten days, the House had been unable to elect a Speaker and organize, and the hall was in a state of chaos. At one point that afternoon, more than twenty men were on their feet screaming for order, for the floor, for attention, with all their might. When someone challenged the vote of a man whose election was contested, he was up in an instant, howling about his rights and waving his written commission so violently that French was surprised that it didn’t rip to shreds. At least once, he feared “personal violence.”111
To French, this wasn’t just a momentary outbreak of congressional chaos. It was the state of the nation. It made the national government seem surprisingly fragile, and in so doing, it put the Union’s survival in doubt. Indeed, maybe this was the beginning of the end. Sitting at home at the end of the day, exhausted and losing hope, he confessed to his sister that he felt like “a mourner, following my Country to its grave.” Years from now, he imagined, when the Constitution was “a thing that was, the pen of the historian” would date “the commencement of its overthrow” to this congressional breakdown and all that it revealed. This was “an era in the history of our Country,” French thought, a period of enormous and eventful change.112 He was right in ways that he couldn’t even begin to fathom.
Copyright © 2018 by Joanne B. Freeman