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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Threats and Violence in Congress

This week's news reports of violence and death threats against lawmakers who voted for the health care bill recalls the vicious attacks in Congress that preceded the Civil War. Wisconsin was at the center of one of them.

A bloody melee broke out in Congress on February 8, 1858, that brought fame to Congressman John F. Potter . The House was engaged that day in a heated debate over sectional issues. Northern representatives outnumbered those from the South and they pressed their parliamentary advantage, infuriating the few Southerners present.

A fist fight between two members quickly turned into a general brawl, and during the fray Potter pulled the hairpiece off an adversary's head. At this, a cry went up in the gallery that Potter had "taken a scalp." Potter's graphic account of that day is included in our online collection of Local History & Biography Articles. When things finally settled down, Potter was covered in blood and marked by Southerners as an enemy.

In the months that followed, partisan violence rose to such levels that the N.Y. Tribune reported, "Congress has become little better than a den of semi-savages." In April of 1860, following another fight, Potter was formally challenged to a duel by a notoriously pompous Virginia representative. He accepted, and as the one challenged, had the right to choose weapons. So Potter insisted that the duelists wield bowie knives "at a distance of four feet." His adversary, Rep. Roger Pryor of Virginia, beat a hasty retreat.

A month later, the Republican Party held its national convention in Chicago and nominated Abraham Lincoln for president. At the convention, delegates from Missouri presented Potter with a 31-pound, 6-foot-long folding knife to commemorate his "victory." It was a highlight of the convention and earned national press exposure when Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper dubbed it the "monster bowie knife." It is now in the collection of the Wisconsin Historical Museum, where you can see it in the Odd Wisconsin exhibit.

:: Posted in Bizarre Events on March 24, 2010

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