Political Fisticuffs Through the Ages

With the majority of Washington acting like small children who are waging an argument in the back seat of a road tripping family station wagon, some observers speculate as to the nature of our politicians’ tactics once the legislators reach puberty. Could the slapping and name calling ever erupt into a full blown, no holds barred, sibling brouhaha? In fact, American leaders, rather than a bellicose exception to respectable politics, carry on a long tradition of pugilism on the debate floor.

Early into the American experiment, Roger Griswold of Connecticut and Matthew Lyon of Vermont had a heated battle in the House of Representatives. On January 30, 1798, Griswold insulted Lyon by calling him a coward, which prompted Lyon to spit in Griswold’s face.  On February 15 in the House chambers, Griswold retaliated by beating Lyon with a hickory walking stick. Lyon seized a pair of fire tongs, but was tripped by Griswold.  The other representatives separated the two combatants. After a few minutes break, Lyon resumed the attack with the fire tongs. Eventually the brawl settled and the democratic process resumed.

During debate over the Compromise of 1850, Thomas Benton, senator from Missouri, and Henry Foote of Mississippi, butted heads. Foote called Benton a number of names, to which Benton stated he would have to protect himself if the Senate refused to do so. The next day, after news of the argument was reported in the newspapers, an enraged Benton moved threateningly toward Foote in the Senate chambers. Foote rose from his seat, backed up into the aisle, and drew a pistol on Benton. The chamber erupted and rushed to prevent bloodshed. Cooler minds eventually prevailed. Drawing a pistol on the Senate floor did not prevent Foote from becoming governor of Mississippi less than two years later.

Roman senators weren’t shy about using violence to make a point, either. While Caesar was in Gaul between 50 and 59 AD, a struggle erupted between politicians Clodious and Milo, the most likely candidates who could bring stability to a tumultuous Rome. Clodious was little more than a modern day thug who went about the city, beating up and killing opponents with armed slaves. At one point, he almost beat Cicero to death. The nobility of Rome turned to Milo to act as their pawn and restore order. Clodious didn’t take kindly to the challenge and attempted to burn Milo’s house down. The heated rivalry came to a head one day on the Appian Way. Coincidentally, Milo and Clodious passed by each other on the road and exchanged fierce scowls. Their entourage exchanged more than scowls, especially since Milo was rolling with two famous gladiators. They made trouble with Clodious’s slaves, and when Clodious tried to break up the fight, he was stabbed by a gladiator. Upon hearing of the injury, Milo decided to end the fight once and for all. He made his way to the tavern where Clodious was recovering. Milo dragged his opponent into the road, stabbed him numerous times, and left him to die with eleven of his slaves and the owner of the tavern for good measure. Cicero unsuccessfully defended Milo at trial, resulting in exile for Milo.

Now, to Britain.

For some inexplicable reason, a 5-foot silver gilt from the reign of Charles II is on display in the British House of Commons. Parliament cannot legally meet unless the mace is present, but it also serves to tempt ill-restrained members to brandish it in the heat of debate, though rarely has this urge been acted upon.

That changed on May 27, 1976, when a fiercely contested Aircraft and Shipbuilding Industries bill was under debate. Conservative leader Michael Heseltine led the opposition, but he was unable to prevent the bill from passing. So Heseltine broke into song and proceeded to grab hold of the chamber’s ceremonial mace, waving it over his head in protest of the vote and mock Parliament. Matthew Lyon might not have had much of a counterattack if Roger Griswold had a mace at his disposal.

Many other nations have witnessed their politicians slug it out during heated debate. In 1997, Indian legislators brawled, using chairs and microphones as weapons. Ukrainians saw debate deteriorate into brouhaha involving eggs and smoke bombs over the lease of a Russian naval base. Greece’s recent woes weren’t soothed when it saw legislator Ilias Kasidiaris repeatedly slap a female opponent in the face during a live television talk show.

Very recently — on August 2, 2013 — a brawl broke out in Taiwan’s parliament over an impending vote on a referendum on a nuclear plant. The plant, costing $9 billion, has been under construction for the past ten years, but after the Fukushima disaster in Japan, nuclear power has become a controversial topic in Taiwan. So controversial that punches and flying kicks were seen between members of parliament. No matter the topic, news of a legislative fistfight seems to come from Taiwan with relative frequency.  Just a couple months prior, in June, a brawl broke out over capital gains tax, while in July of 2010, punches were thrown over a trade agreement with China. The Legislative Yuan, Taiwan’s the political chambers, was awarded the satirical Ig Nobel Award in 1995, for, “demonstrating that politicians gain more by punching, kicking, and gouging each other than by waging war against other nations.”

“Politicks is the science of good sense,” wrote Fisher Ames, a Massachusetts Representative noted for beating Samuel Adams in a1788 election. Though the majority of politicians seem to agree with this sentiment, a few equate common sense with dominating an opponent with physical might.

If this wasn’t enough, MTV was kind enough to collect a number of enjoyable clips from various legislative rumbles across the world.