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The most infamous floor brawl in the history of the U.S. House of Representatives

February 06, 1858
The most infamous floor brawl in the history of the U.S. House of Representatives 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 the Kansas Territory’s pro-slavery Lecompton Constitution late into the night of February 5-6. Shortly before 2 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 30 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. Wisconsin Republicans John “Bowie Knife” Potter and Cadwallader Washburn ripped the hairpiece from the head of William Barksdale, a Democrat from Mississippi. 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.

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