Many Americans were stunned as they watched rioters storm the U.S. Capitol earlier this month, but the insurrection was only the latest incident in a long history of violence the federal building has seen since its original erection in 1800.
“Between 1830 and 1860, there were at least 70 violent incidents on the House and Senate Floor,” Joanne Freeman, a historian at Yale University, told Inside Edition Digital. “Canings, fistfights, brawls, knives being pulled, guns being pulled – often not being reported on the record, so often not necessarily known about.”
The most famous incident, Freeman said, is the caning of Charles Sumner in May 22, 1852. At the peak of the debates over slavery, Sen. Charles Sumner, a prominent abolitionist, had gave a speech about whether Kansas would be a free state or a slave state.
“Obviously, Sumner did not want it to be a slave state, but in the speech that he gave, he insulted the South,” Freeman explained.
Rep. Preston Brooks, a pro-slavery Senator, was one of many who felt personally offended by his speech. “He heard what happened, actually checked the newspaper to be sure that he had gotten the words right, and then decided that he was going to punish Sumner for what he had said,” Freeman said. “It was a matter of honor. His honor, his family's honor, South Carolina's honor.”
In retaliation, Brooks brought a cane to the Senate, walked up to Brooks’ desk, then began brutally beating him over the head with the cane.
“The desks in the Senate were bolted to the ground, so Sumner, in shock, can’t immediately get away because he can’t get from underneath his desk,” she said. “In a panic to get away, he wrenched this bolted desk from the ground with brooks, all this time, continuing to really attack him.”
Sumner then ended up escaping to the front of the chamber, “bleeding profusely from the head and unconscious, shattered the cane in the process incidentally,” Williamjames Hoffer, a historian at Seton Hall University, told Inside Edition Digital.
In February 1858, a mass brawl broke out in Congress when Congressman Laurence Keitt saw Congressman Galusha Grow step over to the opposing side of the chamber. Keitt demanded Grow step back over the line, to which Grow responded, “I don’t have to listen to a whip-holding slave driver,” Freeman explained.
The pair ended up in a physical altercation, and other Congressmen eventually join in. “The end result is a mass brawl of scores of congressmen fighting, physically fighting, in the space in front of the speaker’s chair in the House,” Freeman said.
“One congressman pulled another congressman’s toupee off his head by mistake and he shouts out, ‘I scalped him,’ and everyone looks around and everyone laughs at the follicly-challenged representative,” Hoffer said.
Freeman and Hoffer agreed these two events likely preempted the Civil War in 1861.
There was also an incident in 1954, in which four Puerto Rican nationalists, rallying for an independent Puerto Rico, open fired on the floor of the House of Representatives from a visitor’s gallery. Five representatives were injured, including Congressman Alvin Bentley, who witnesses recalled “lying on the floor, bleeding extensively, very very badly in the waist.”
The shooters were apprehended, convicted and sentenced to long terms in prison. In the late 1970s, President Jimmy Carter commuted their sentences.
For both Hoffer and Freeman, these lessons remind the public that “Our politicians, and of course the people of Washington, D.C., are subject to violence just as much as anyone else is,” Hoffer explained.
Freeman added, “Democracy is vulnerable in ways that I don’t think Americans often think of.”