Congressional Row, in the U.S. House of Representatives (detail), Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object
The national press chronicled the late night brawl on the House floor. This Frank Leslie's Illustrated sketch depicts the melee at the base of the Speakers rostrum.
The most infamous floor brawl in the history of the U.S. House of Representatives erupted as Members debated Kansas’s pro-slavery Lecompton Constitution late into the night of February 5-6. Shortly after 1 a.m., Pennsylvania Republican Galusha Grow
and South Carolina Democrat Laurence Keitt
exchanged insults, then blows. “In an instant the House was in the greatest possible confusion,” the Congressional Globe
reported. More than 50 Members joined the melee. Northern Republicans and Free Soilers joined ranks against Southern Democrats. Speaker James Orr
, a South Carolina Democrat, gaveled furiously for order and then instructed Sergeant-at-Arms Adam J. Glossbrenner
to arrest noncompliant Members. Wading into the “combatants,” Glossbrenner held the House Mace high to restore order; no one complied. Wisconsin Republicans John “Bowie Knife” Potter
and Cadwallader Washburn
ripped the hairpiece from the head of William Barksdale
, a States Rights Democrat from Mississippi. “I’ve scalped him,” Potter yelled. The melee dissolved into a chorus of laughs and jeers, but the sectional nature of the fight powerfully symbolized the nation’s divisions. When the House reconvened two days later, a coalition of Northern Republicans and Free Soilers narrowly blocked referral of the Lecompton Constitution to the House Territories Committee. Kansas entered the Union in 1861 as a free state.