Sticks and Stones…

There was a time when real men settled things either with fists or things held in them like canes, fireplace equipment or guns. Those men were elected representatives of the United States House of Representatives and the United States Senate. I don’t know if this is the good news but today’s sniping, harping and sarcasm can’t hold a candle to how disputes between elected officials. were settled way back when.

Thanks to novelist and sometime historian Thelma Racker Coffone, I can share with you some incidents beyond the well know Hamilton-Burr duel. That didn’t even take place inside Congress. Try these on for size.

In 1798 Roger Griswold called Mathew Lynn of Vt. a scoundrel. In those days “them was fightin’ words.” Lyon spit in Griswold’s face. Some weeks later Griswold picked up the fire tongs from the House’s fireplace and took after Griswold with it. Cooler heads and longer arms prevailed. No harm done.

Then there was Thomas Benton of Missouri and Henry Foote of Mississippi who got into it over slavery. Foote took such umbrage at the criticism leveled at slave-keepers, some very personal, that Foote pulled a pistol from his desk and was about to shoot Benton on the floor of the House. He was jumped before he could pull the trigger.

There was a real doozy in 1858 when Preston Brooks of SC beat near to death Charles Sumner of Mass. Sumner’s speech was so vitriolic and so personal that one Congressman said to another that if Sumner didn’t watch it he’d get himself killed. That he didn’t but he was so badly beaten it took him three years, that years, to recuperate. The punishment for Brooks? A $300 fine.

But the Blue Ribbon winner took place in 1858 when a brawl between two Congressmen turned into the political version of the Sharks and the Jets. Fifty elected representatives using every manner of item that could be weaponized swept back and forth across the chamber in madness and fury.

My favorite though is the result of an act of spite between the President and Congress. Sound familiar? If one looks at the original plans laid out by architect of Paris Charles Pierre L’Enfant for the District of Columbia one sees no interruption in the sightline from the Congress to the White House. The President was General Andrew Jackson who, with his Tennessee Mountain boys threw the inauguration party of all time. The White House looked like the aftermath of an out of hand frat party replete with broken most everything (windows, doors, rugs, furniture) including men so drunk that by morning they were still immobile. Jackson sent a repair bill to the House. The House promptly rejected it. (You think President Trump is disliked by Congress? Child’s play.) Ball back in the President’s court. He decides he never wants Congress to be able to gaze down Pennsylvania Avenue and see the People’s House nor did he want to look up the street and see the rascals and rapscallions in Congress. What did he do? He ordered the building of the Treasury Department next to the White House. That took care of that!

There too was the tiff between TR (Teddy Roosevelt) and Congress over naval appropriations. Congress wanted the navy to be more like an advanced Coast Guard and cut its appropriation. Roosevelt promptly sent most of the Navy to the Philippines and commented that if the Congress wanted a Navy they could well appropriate the money to bring it back. (They did.)

And this “physicalization” (my word) of politics is not unique to us. The Phillipines, S. Korea, and many other nations have experienced the same or worse. I grant you though it has never happened at the Council of Bishops in the Vatican…

I give you these to show that elected childishness is not an invention of this political era. But what is? I would say the intransigence of political views by people who hardly even know what their political party stands for. What we called in Brooklyn “Bare-assed” lying. In the face of a person’s saying something into a microphone for radio or appearing on TV to spout one outrageous lie or another, looking into another TV camera or speaking into another microphone to say they never said what there is stone-cold proof of their having said it.

So that brings us to the most important underlying concept of Mr. Mueller’s report and testimony. Democracy. Let’s take one example not because of the party but because of who the person was and what he did. It is the sophomoric stunt, failed, by House Committee Chair Devon Nunes. Nunes is not only an elected representative but until the last election one of the most powerful leaders of his party. And what did this genius come up with to bolster the lies of the President? He would sneak in and out of the White House with secret documents for the President to read that the President had already read but wasn’t supposed to have read. I mean really.

We come then to this. Is it better to a) beat a fellow congressman senseless over a policy disagreement or willfully skirt the processes of democracy? Put another way are sticks and stones the only thing that will hurt us? Can’t words, how they are used, when they are used, and to what purpose they are used hurt us as badly if not worse than weapons? They can and do–at least from my perspective.


This droll but depressing piece of reflection is brought to you from Bill Gralnick. He is anxiously awaiting the approach of mid-August for the publication of his memoir, “The War of the Itchy Balls and Other Tales From Brooklyn” It is a book guaranteed to whip your childhood and adolescence right out of the back of your mind and into its forefront.

Keep your eyes peeled here or at http//

And remember–Read! It’s good for both of us.


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