Saturday, March 07, 2009

"I mean . . . to protect myself, cost what it may"

Some time ago, I devoted several posts to the events of April 17, 1850, when Henry S. Foote drew a pistol on Thomas Hart Benton on the floor of the Senate. John C. Waugh points out that there was protracted run-up to the incident, which may explain why Senator Foote had that pistol with him.
“There was no man Foote detested more than Thomas Benton.” During the session, Foote had been riding Benton for months, comparing him at one point to “that degenerate Roman Senator,” Catiline.

On March 26, 1850, Foote escalated his rhetoric. He accused Benton of having “certain stains which have most hideously blemished his honor” and, as I read the passage, in effect dared Benton to challenge him to a duel:
I beg Senators to believe me when I assure them, that I never bring accusations against any man, whether he be a public or private individual, which I do not believe myself able to establish by irrefragable evidence, and in maintaining which, I do not feel myself responsible in every way whatever to him who chances to be assailed.

And now, sir, I will formally announce, that there are certain stains which have most hideously blemished the character of the honorable Senator from Missouri, since the days of his early manhood; that the unfavorable anticipations, awakened by the dawn of his career, have been quite strikingly realized by the meridian of development through which the honorable Senator has now passed; that there are incidents in his history, of somewhat recent occurrence, which might well relieve any man of honor from the obligation to recognize him as a fitting antagonist; yet it is, notwithstanding, true, that if the Senator from Missouri will deign to acknowledge himself responsible to the laws of honor, he shall have a very early opportunity of proving his prowess in contest with one over whom I hold perfect control; or, if he feels in the least degree aggrieved at anything which has fallen from me, now or formerly, he shall, on demanding it, have full redress accorded him, according to the said laws of honor.

I do not denounce him as a coward – such language is unfitted for this audience – but if he wishes to patch up his reputation for courage, now greatly on the wane, he will certainly have an opportunity of doing so whenever he makes known his desire in the premises. At present, he is shielded by his age, his open disavowal of the obligatory force of the laws of honor, and his Senatorial privileges.

Benton was understandably outraged. However – and despite his reference to the “the cudgel” -- what is most surprising is that Benton did not attack Foote then and there, or at least directly threaten to do so:
Is a Senator to be blackguarded here in the discharge of his duty, and the culprit go unpunished? Is language to be used here which would not be permitted to be used in the lowest pot-house, tavern, or oyster cellar, and for the use of which he would be turned out of any tavern by a decent landlord?

The VICE PRESIDENT. The Senator is called to order.

Mr. BENTON. If such things are to go on, and he is to persist in such blackguardism here, in a place where the cudgel cannot be applied to him, we must have the public indignation brought upon him, until the public sentiment shall make him behave with the propriety due to the Senate.

The next day, March 26, 1850, Benton was less restrained. In the morning, Benton read reports of Foote’s speech in the newspapers, and those reports apparently set him off again. When the Senate convened, Benton gained the floor. Quoting from Foote’s speech, as reported in the press, he denounced Foote’s accusations as a pack of lies. And this time he indicated that he would “resist” and “protect myself” against any further insults (emphasis added):
“At present he is shielded by his age, his open disavowal of the obligatory force of the laws of honor, and his Senatorial privileges.” Shielded by his age! by his age! Sir, let any person insult me where an appropriate chastisement can be employed, and inflicted upon blackguardism, and he will find out whether I am not young enough to resist; he will find out my age without consulting any calendar at all.

* * *

“His Senatorial privileges!” Sir, I claim no Senatorial privileges – I claim no privilege of attacking any person on this floor – I claim no privilege of insulting anybody here. I have never done it in the thirty years I have been here; I have never begun to insult any one; but if it is begun with me, although I may bear with insults a long time, yet, when once I take notice of it, there shall be an end, one way or the other. And if the Senate does not know that it is a Senate – if this Senate does not protect itself from scenes which would disgrace the veriest brothel – if this Senate permits language to be used here which cannot be used in the filthiest brothel in the Five Points, or in the suburbs of the city – if they permit such language to be used here, and to be used here with respect to me, I mean from this time forth to protect myself, cost what it may.

In the aftermath of the pistol-pulling incident on April 17, Foote protested that he had armed himself because he feared for his own safety. Foote’s reference to a “cudgel” suggests that he was referring back to Benton’s use of the term on March 26 (although admittedly March 26 was not “the other day” as of April 17, and Benton had not “menaced” him with a cudgel):
Mr. FOOTE. I am perfectly cool, and I feel the gravity of the occasion as deeply as others. . . . I have never threatened a human being with personal attacks in my life, and of course I have never executed a threat of that kind in my life. I have never worn arms to make an attack on any person, and have never worn arms at all in the Senate except when menaced, as I was the other day in the Senate with a cudgel. My friends urged upon me that, being diminutive in size and quite feeble in health, I should at least wear arms for my own defence. It was a novel thing to me, for I am not in the habit of doing it, and I put on arms, supposing it possible that I might be attacked after what had occurred, simply for the purpose of defending myself.

Foote surely provoked Benton on purpose on March 26, and Benton’s reactions were predictable and understandable. But even so, under the circumstances, Foote’s fears may not have been unreasonable.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts with Thumbnails