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Some In Congress Have Behaved Badly From The Start


The shutdown of the U.S. government has sparked lots of finger-pointing and name calling in Congress. But our friend A.J. Jacobs says this is hardly the nastiest dispute in the history of our democracy. A.J., an editor-at-large at Esquire Magazine - until they come to their senses - joins us now from New York. A.J., thanks so much for being with us.

A.J. JACOBS: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: Take us back now to 1798. There was a "debate" - and I put that word in quotes - between Representatives Roger Griswold of Connecticut and Matthew Lyon of Vermont.

JACOBS: Yes, it was an interesting debate, and by debate, I mean it was that Lyon spat in Griswold's face, then Griswold beat him with a hickory stick, after which Lyon started swinging metal fireplace tongs. And this fight started because Griswold insulted Lyons's virility and said that he used a wooden sword, which was quite the zinger back then. You do not insult a man's sword.


SIMON: Well, that's still a good policy. A cane also figured in 1856, and a very famous attack on Senator Charles Sumner.

JACOBS: Yes. This you probably remember from high school. There was a notorious attack on the abolitionist senator, Charles Sumner, by the pro-slavery congressman, Preston Brooks. And Brooks attacked Sumner with a wooden cane. Appallingly enough, this made Brooks a hero for the pro-slavery movement. So, his supporters send him dozens of canes - one of them was inscribed: Hit him again. And the broken pieces of the cane became souvenirs. So, Southern politicians wore them around their necks as necklaces. So, this was not a proud moment in congressional history.

SIMON: I guess we should note too, of course, that duels used to be held among members of Congress. I mean, I think we all remember Aaron Burr.

JACOBS: Yes. They were shockingly common. I knew about that one, but there were many others. One of my favorites was between John Randolph and Henry Clay. This was Virginia senator, John Randolph. And he said in a speech, he just went off on Clay, and said that Clay was like a rotten mackerel in the moonlight - those were fighting words. And even worse, he compared Clay to an unsavory character in the novel "Tom Jones." And that was just too much. That was one literary allusion too far. And so Clay challenged him to a duel. Luckily, as happens sometimes in duels, neither was killed. But Randolph did suffer a hole in his coat.

SIMON: I mean, not to make any excuse for duels, but it seems to me I have heard over the years that it was agreed upon that as a point of honor they had to go through with it but they agreed not to shoot too close to each other.

JACOBS: Right. Sometimes they shot in the air or the ground. And actually, Randolph had a good strategy. He was wearing - according to legend - a huge, flowing nightshirt so that Clay didn't know where his body was.

SIMON: I'll remember that the next time, you know, the next time Garrison Keillor challenges me.


SIMON: And tell us about a roll call in 1890.

JACOBS: Well, this is one of my favorites because it's so crazy. In 1890, the simple act of taking roll call led to a riot on the floor of the House. The Democrats were trying to block a Republican measure, and their tactics - very sophisticated - they played hide-and-seek. They decided to pretend they weren't there so that the Congress could not get a quorum. So, some hid under the desks and others tried to flee the chamber. But the speaker had locked the doors. So, they were kicking down the door. My favorite is actually a Kentucky congressman whose name was called but he said to the speaker of the House: I'm not here. I deny you the right to count me as present. Which is like a scene out of a Samuel Beckett play, you know?

SIMON: Yes, "Waiting for Congress." One last question, A.J., is there any chance that this is true?


JACOBS: I give it 50-50.

SIMON: OK, all right. That's bigger than I would have said.

JACOBS: They didn't have C-SPAN back then so who knows what really went on?

SIMON: A.J. Jacobs, author. His most recent book is "Drop Dead Healthy: One Man's Humble Quest for Bodily Perfection." Thanks so much, A.J.

JACOBS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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