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THEME: CONGRESSIONAL DRAMA

The Civil War and related issues that both preceded and followed it aroused passionate responses in Congress. Senators and representatives delivered eloquent speeches, some extending over several days. Debates over slavery were especially vociferous. Members of Congress even resorted to violence in the chambers of both the House and the Senate.

1856 - 1858: The Slavery Debate Escalates

The violence erupting in Kansas as a result of the Kansas-Nebraska Act spilled over into the halls of Congress. In 1856, South Carolina Representative Preston Brooks beat Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner with a cane because he condemned the pro-slavery views of Brooks’s relative, Senator Andrew Butler. Two years later in a late night House session, a brawl involving more than 50 representatives broke out over the expansion of slavery into Western territories. The fight ended in comedy when one member snatched an opponent’s wig, exclaiming “I’ve scalped him!” Despite the levity, the brawl was seen as a foreboding sign of conflicts to come.

"Southern Chivalry: Argument versus Club’s, 1856"

Sumner vs. Brooks Silver Goblet, ca. 1856

Sumner vs. Brooks Silver Goblet, ca. 1856

"Congressional Row, in the U. S. House of Representatives, Midnight of Friday, February 5th, 1858"

December 24, 1860 - May 20, 1861: Secession from the Union

On November 10, 1860, just four days after the election of Abraham Lincoln as president, James Chestnut of South Carolina became the first senator to leave the Senate and join the Confederate cause. On December 24, 1860, South Carolina representatives were the first to leave Congress by declaring their state’s secession and announcing their departure from Congress. On January 21, 1861, Mississippi Senator Jefferson Davis and four other southern senators delivered farewell addresses to a packed chamber. By June, 11 states had seceded from the Union and most of their representatives had left Congress. They formed the Confederate States of America under the leadership of President Jefferson Davis. Tennessee Senator Andrew Johnson was the only Senator to remain in the Senate after his state seceded.

Jefferson Davis, ca. 1860

Jefferson Davis, ca. 1860

"The Last Delegation from South Carolina in the Congress of the United States"

July 1861: Senators Expelled

In March 1861, the Senate considered the seats of most rebel senators to simply be vacant. They viewed their absence this way in order to avoid officially recognizing secession. After the war began and hope of reconciliation faded, ten Senators were expelled on July 11, 1861, for disloyalty to the Union. That number reached fourteen on February 5, 1862, when Jesse Bright of Indiana became the last senator expelled for supporting the Confederacy.

Resolution to Expel Senators, July 10, 1861

Resolution to Expel Senators, July 10, 1861

Congressional Directory, Seating Chart for 37th Congress, Third Session, United States Senate, 1863

Congressional Directory, Seating Chart for 37th Congress, Third Session, United States Senate, 1863

February 22, 1862: George Washington’s Farewell Address

To boost morale during the Civil War, members of the Senate, the House of Representatives, the Supreme Court and the president’s cabinet gathered to hear Secretary of the Senate John Forney read Washington’s Farewell address. Washington’s address, which implored Americans to set aside sectional and partisan agendas in favor of common national interests, provided inspiration during the war’s darkest days. Early in 1888, the Senate recalled this ceremony, and it became an annual event in 1893. Each year, a U.S. Senator reads Washington’s famous address in the Senate Chamber on or near Washington’s birthday.

Washington’s Farewell Address

Washington’s Farewell Address

May - December 1865: President Johnson's Reconstruction Plan

President Andrew Johnson developed a plan for Southern reconstruction that pardoned rebels and restored their property, except for slaves. He declared that "white men alone must manage the South." When Congress met again, the Radical Republicans were outraged at Johnson’s lenient plan and the fact that he had taken over a job they felt only Congress should do.

President Andrew Johnson

President Andrew Johnson

February 24, 1868: Impeachment Trial

Many in Congress, particularly the Radical Republicans, felt that President Andrew Johnson’s Reconstruction plan failed to punish Confederate states adequately. They also criticized his plan’s lack of protection for the rights of former slaves. When the President tried to remove his Secretary of War without congressional approval, Radical Republicans and their allies impeached him. A month-long impeachment trial followed. Ultimately, Johnson was saved from removal from office when the Senate fell one vote short of the required two-thirds majority needed to convict. Johnson finished his term and later returned to Congress as a senator from Tennessee.

"The Senate as a Court of Impeachment for the Trial of President Johnson," 1868

Admission Ticket for Impeachment Trial, April 13, 1868

Admission Ticket for Impeachment Trial, April 13, 1868