Back to Results
Historical Highlights

A Near Gun Fight on the House Floor

June 20, 1854
A Near Gun Fight on the House Floor Image courtesy of Library of Congress Representative Preston Brooks of South Carolina served only two terms in the House, but gained notoriety for caning Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts in 1856.
On this date, a fight between Tennessee Representatives William Churchwell and William Cullom erupted on the House Floor. The difficulty between the two southerners began a month earlier during the May 19th debate of the pro-slavery Kansas-Nebraska bill, when Churchwell accused Cullom and Tennessee Senator John Bell of defending the Missouri Compromise of 1820. “The people of Tennessee will be somewhat astonished,” Churchwell said, “when they read his votes and learn of his [Cullom’s] Free-Soil affiliation during the pendency of this measure.” For his part, Bell considered Churchwell’s comments an affront from a close friend. “Such is the character of the agent selected to make this onslaught on me in the House of Representatives,” he told the Senate. But instead of letting the matter rest, Churchwell spent the next month drafting a response. On June 19th, after the House approved the Journal, Churchwell let loose: “His object,” he said of Bell, “seemed to be to get up a false issue, to seek a personal controversy, to divert the public mind from the facts connected with his wavering course on the Nebraska bill.” Cullom in turn admonished Churchwell and recommended that he “learn to be a little more particular in making those sweeping and random charges, intended to affect others, without the semblance of truth or fact to sustain them.” Eventually, the House moved to other matters for the day. Shortly into the meeting of June 20th, Churchwell picked up where he left off and accused Cullom of having amended the official record so as to vilify him in the Congressional Globe. At that, Cullom jumped over his desk with “threatening gestures,” while Churchwell reached for a gun in his pocket. Representative Burton Craige of North Carolina, who was near Churchwell and saw the firearm, grabbed the Tennessean’s hand as he moved for the pistol. Amid the chaos, some Members said they saw a weapon, while others claimed they had not. The New York Times called the incident an “unfortunate and disgraceful scene,” even requesting a vote to see “who among the members are in favor of converting the Representative Chamber into a shooting-gallery, and who are not.” But after Churchwell and Cullom apologized to the House the next day, the Membership decided against punishing the two. As a cavalier final joke, Preston Brooks of South Carolina moved to introduce two resolutions: one, permitting the House to expel any Member bringing concealed weapons into the chamber; and another requiring the Sergeant at Arms to construct “a rack in the rotunda, where members who are addicted to the carrying of concealed weapons shall be required to place them before entering [the chamber].” “The reading of the resolutions,” according to the Globe, “was greeted with much applause and laughter.”

Related Highlight Subjects

Blog Post

February 6, 2014

I've Scalped Him?