By the time the 36th United States Congress convened in Washington, D.C., on December 5, 1859, events were moving the nation quickly towards war. Tension in the capital was as thick as the mud in its streets. Amid the clatter of boots on sidewalks,pro-Southern chatter mixed with stout Union sentiment. In the packed, smoke-filled halls of Willard’s Hotel, edgy congressmen downed drinks, exchanged predictions, and flashed pistols and Bowie knives stuffed into their belts.

Senators and representatives carried their apprehensions and their weapons into the halls of Congress, where ferocious debate and tough talk spawned hostility and occasional rhubarbs. The echoes of Preston Brooks’ May 1856 attack on the Massachusetts demagogue, Charles Sumner,still lingered in the upper house. In February 1858, Pennsylvania Congressman Galusha Grow’s knockdown of hot-headed South Carolinian Lawrence Keitt sparked a wild, lower-house free-for-all that cooled only when someone trampled on the dislodged wig of Mississippi’s William Barksdale.

Congress opened three days after the New York burial of John Brown, whose shocking October raid on Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, had set the nation on edge. Legislators marched into the Capitol ready to defend their position on the subject. According to one congressman, some 300 pistols were secreted in the clothes of politicians and onlookers in the crowded lower house.There,things got off to a predictably ugly start. Barely two days into the session,Thaddeus Stevens’ acerbic commentary provoked a near-riot after an enraged Barksdale lunged at him with a knife.

Few representatives were in the mood for the work at hand, which commenced with the election of a new House speaker.And defiant opposition to Republican candidate John Sherman—linked by Democrats to inflammatory anti-slave literature—paralyzed action well into the following January, when Sherman withdrew from contention. Under growing pressure, embittered politicians squared off almost daily. On April 5, 1860, Northern representatives were forced to protect abolitionist Illinoisan Owen Lovejoy after infuriated Democrats threatened to hang him “higher than we did John Brown.” This latest congressional fracas even spurred comment from the Times of London. “The American Revolution,” the paper opined,“was led by gentlemen of honor, of high courage,and of edification,and there was as little likelihood of a vulgar brawl taking place in the halls of the first Congress as beneath the splendid roof of our own House of Lords.” (During the Fifth Congress in 1798, however, Vermont’s Matthew Lyon dueled a cane-wielding Roger Griswold of Connecticut with a set of fire tongs.) Lamenting the leveling effects of democracy, the Times declared, “the institutions of Washington are gone,and with them the manners and habits of the men who created them.”

The nation divided further over the election of Abraham Lincoln to the presidency, and Congress scrapped desperately for answers.“Is there a remedy for the crisis?” Mississippi’s Jefferson Davis asked his fellow senators.“If so, it should come from the other side of the chamber,from the majority section,from the section which has committed the act that now threatens the Union. I call on you, the representatives of that section,here and now,to say so, if your people are not hostile to us and our institutions.” Even after South Carolina seceded from the Union on December 20, a Senate “Committee of Thirteen”(and a similar House committee) debated a series of proposed constitutional amendments, compromise bills, designed to stave off war.Nothing worked.

Destined to become the Confederacy’s president, Jefferson Davis spurred the Southern exodus from Congress on January 21,1861.Two weeks later, the Provisional Confederate Congress convened in Montgomery,Alabama;in July,members gratefully relocated to their permanent home in Richmond,Va.There,the first session of the First Confederate Congress opened on February 18, 1862.Tight finances prevented the new Congress from ever printing a record of its business. (The United States would publish the Journal of the Confederate Congress 40 years later.) But for four years, readers across the South would manage to keep abreast of their legislators’ debates, action and inaction through the lively columns of newspapers such as the Richmond Examiner, whose editors quickly sized up national leadership: “We must get more talent in that Confederate Government or be ruined.”


Originally published in the March 2008 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here