"An act of war": How does the insurrection fit into the larger history of violence in Congress?

Eric Swalwell wonders if some GOP colleagues would've joined the mob if they'd been outside of the chamber that day

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published June 20, 2021 6:00AM (EDT)

Trump supporters clash with police and security forces as people try to storm the US Capitol on January 6, 2021 in Washington, DC. Demonstrators breeched security and entered the Capitol as Congress debated the 2020 presidential election Electoral Vote Certification. (Brent Stirton/Getty Images)
Trump supporters clash with police and security forces as people try to storm the US Capitol on January 6, 2021 in Washington, DC. Demonstrators breeched security and entered the Capitol as Congress debated the 2020 presidential election Electoral Vote Certification. (Brent Stirton/Getty Images)

Asked to reflect on the events of Jan. 6 — not in his official capacity as a member of Congress but as a witness to history — Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., called out several of his Republican colleagues by name.

"I look at [Alabama Rep. Mo] Brooks and [Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor] Greene and [Colorado Rep. Lauren] Boebert and think that if they weren't inside the chamber that day as members of Congress, they would have been outside the chamber that day as part of the mob," Swalwell told Salon. 

The California Democrat is suing Brooks over a speech the Alabama Republican delivered at a "Save America Rally" before would-be insurrectionists stormed the Capitol to overturn former Vice President Joe Biden's victory over then-President Donald Trump in the 2020 election. Brooks urged "American patriots" to "start taking down names and kicking ass." He now features this line in advertisements for his campaign for the U.S. Senate.

Though Swalwell did not discuss the lawsuit with Salon, he made it clear that his disgust with Jan. 6 does not stem solely from the fact that Congress was prevented from overseeing the peaceful transfer of power, which was initiated by President George Washington himself.

Some of his fellow legislators actively egged on Americans who were disgruntled with the outcome of the election. Greene and Boebert, for example, linked the day to the idea of a revolution when they urged Trump sympathizers to view the Jan. 6 rally as a "1776 moment."

Thus Swalwell did not only witness what he now refers to as "the day democracy almost died." According to his account, he was also betrayed by his very own colleagues. Members of Congress, it seems, can also be lousy co-workers.

Perhaps the only day in American congressional history that comes remotely close to mirroring the insurrection is May 22, 1856. No one tried to overturn an election — the Capitol was actually quiet that day — but seemingly out of nowhere a 36-year-old man beat an unarmed middle-aged humanist nearly to death with a thick, gold-headed gutta-percha cane.

The assailant was Rep. Preston Brooks of South Carolina, who was angered by the criticisms lobbed by his victim, Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts. Under normal circumstances, such a brutal assault on a victim who could not defend himself would have been universally condemned.

Brooks, however, was pro-slavery and had attacked Sumner in part because he opposed the "peculiar institution" and its supporters. As such, Brooks was regarded as something of a hero across much of the South for avenging the region's honor. After learning that he had broken his cane while forcefully striking Sumner as he helplessly huddled under his desk (which was attached to the floor), sympathizers sent hundreds of replacement canes to Brooks as gifts. Some included inscriptions urging him to once again assault Sumner, who was forced to take a long absence from Congress while his health recovered.

The Civil War broke out less than five years later. More than a few historians have argued that the aforementioned acceptance of bloodshed on the floor of Congress in 1856 helped lay the foundation for pro-slavery states to reject the results of the 1860 presidential election. Until 2020 that was the only national election in which the losing side flat-out refused to accept the result; it ended in the Civil War.

To be clear, the situation is not a precise analogy to Jan. 6. There was no Big Lie about a legitimate election being stolen or a fascist demagogue who had spent years conditioning his supporters to believe that he could only lose an election through theft. However, it made the concept of accepting violence in America's halls of power more acceptable to the public.

A line was crossed, with the gifted canes crassly symbolizing the right-wing's decision in that era to no longer accept the other side's political legitimacy. The right-wing extremists and enablers who whitewash Jan. 6 or validate Trump's false claims that he won the 2020 election are performing the modern-day equivalent of what those pro-slavery forces did when they sent canes to Brooks in 1856.

That said, the similarities between the two incidents do indeed end there.

"The violent arrack on the Capitol that took place on Jan. 6 has no parallel in American history," Harvard Law professor Laurence Tribe told Salon by email.

After noting the Sumner attack, as well as other assaults and some duels that occurred in congressional history, Tribe described Jan. 6 as "an essentially cannibalistic and fratricidal act of sabotage." Because the insurrection attempt was directly inspired and fomented by an incumbent president who broke Washington's longstanding precedent by resisting the legal transfer of power, it amounted to a "violent and indeed literally deadly act of naked aggression by the executive branch against the legislative branch."

This casts the actions of the legislators who supported the Jan. 6 insurrectionists in any way in a very different light.

"The insurrection of Jan. 6 represented nothing less than an act of war against the United States of America and its Constitution by an organized mob, many of whose members and leaders were sworn to uphold and defend that Constitution but turned on it instead," Tribe added. "That was nothing less than treason, no less serious than the treason committed by the Confederacy. But not even the rebels who tried to destroy the Union succeeded in the symbolically unique act of marching the Confederate Flag through the Capitol. And not even the British sacking of the Capitol in 1812 represented an act of patricide by Americans against their own countrymen."

That said, some of the other stories of congressional violence are quite colorful. Legislators, like human beings everywhere, are prone to unflattering outbursts that go beyond the bounds of bombastic braying. However, on these occasions, the near-universal reaction was disapproval (albeit sometimes mixed with amusement). Aside from the hyper partisans that one finds in every political era, the legislators who engaged in violence in the past were usually perceived as having made embarrassing spectacles of themselves — or worse.

A handful of tales fairly represent the whole. Most are cartoonish moments, where contemporary accounts reveal a few bad apples turning the rest red from blushing. These were the petty duels like those between House members Jonathan Cilley of Maine and William Graves of Kentucky in 1838 or (almost) between Galusha Grow of Pennsylvania and Lawrence Branch of North Carolina in 1859. (That latter was broken up by sensible parties at the last second.)

We can also look back at Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, a former Dixiecrat candidate for president and arch-segregationist who was notoriously belligerent in his rhetoric and personal style. Thurmond mortified his colleagues, including many who shared his racist views, when he tried to physically wrestle with Sen. Ralph Yarborough, D-Texas, to stop a vote on a civil rights bill in 1964. (That same year, Thurmond switched from being a Democrat to a Republican because of his opposition to civil rights.)

Perhaps the most iconic story of congressional violence is that of the Griswold-Lyon brawl. On one side, you had Roger Griswold, a Federalist congressman from Connecticut, who in 1798 caned one of his colleagues (apparently caning is a big thing in Congress) after the two exchanged words (and, in his victim's case, expectorant) during a heated argument days earlier.

Though the victim defended himself with a pair of fire tongs, Griswold was the aggressor. His victim, Matthew Lyon, was a Democratic-Republican representative from Vermont who had incurred Griswold's wrath by speaking ill of the policies and character of President John Adams and his supporters.

At the time, Adams was imprisoning those who criticized him under new laws called the Alien and Sedition Acts, which smacked of Trumpism in their anti-free speech ideology. Indeed, Adams would send Lyons himself to the clink for writing anti-Adams editorials later that year. (He subsequently became the first and thus far only congressman elected from prison.)

Importantly, Griswold's attack on Lyon and Jan. 6 were fundamentally different because one was a violent attack by an individual while the other was a violent assault on democracy itself.

"I was on the floor and there are not many windows or vantage points outside the chamber," Swalwell recalled of that day. "I'll never forget the uncertainty and terror of knowing there was a violent mob seeking to stop us from doing what we were doing, who were chanting that they wanted to kill members of Congress and that they were armed in a variety of different ways."

When he heard that pipe bombs had been discovered, Swalwell texted his wife and told her to kiss their young children.

"It was traumatizing," Swalwell told Salon. "There was the duality of not just being a witness but of having a job to do and just being so angry that we had to leave."

Swalwell said he agreed with the thesis of this author's column from last week. Washington warned Americans in his Farewell Address (then a written statement later published for the public) that democracy could be destroyed by a demagogue manipulating partisanship. Now Congress faced the ultimate test when it came to opposing an anti-Washington. Swalwell remains haunted by the memory of fearing Congress might fail to do this — one of its most important jobs — in a moment of truth.

"I really hated leaving the floor," Swalwell said. "I didn't like being in retreat because it felt like we were surrendering. It took weeks before the guilt of leaving subsided."

And yet Congress did its job — at least those members who did not bolster the Trump movement's baseless claims of election fraud — and Swalwell still goes to work at the U.S. Capitol today.

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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