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The historical lack of civility in politics

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There’s been a great deal of angst recently about decency in government, about Governmental decorum, about lack of courtesy. There’s a sense of worry that our leadership is not … well ... the way it used to be.

Well, to put things in historical context, here are a few tidbits from the past.

When he was vice-president under John Adams, Thomas Jefferson wrote his treatise, Manual of Parliamentary Practice, intended as a guide to proper behavior and decorum while conducting government business.

In the manual was this passage.

“No one is to disturb another in his speech by hissing, coughing, spitting, speaking, or whispering to another, nor to stand up and interrupt him.” Jefferson further stated, “It is essential that order, decency and regularity be preserved in a dignified public body.”

Our Senate and Congress have never been, it seems, too overly intimidated by Jefferson’s guidelines. Consider these disruptive actions by our legislators.

In 1856, Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts addressed the Senate on the issue of whether Kansas should be admitted to the union as a slave state or a free state. Sumner was avidly anti-slavery and he characterized Senators Stephen Douglas of Illinois and Andrew Butler of South Carolina as “Noisesome, squat and nameless animals.” He charged Butler with, in his words, “taking a mistress, who, though ugly to others, is lovely to him … and that mistress is the harlot Slavery.”

Senator Brooks, also of South Carolina (and a cousin to Butler), was fairly ticked off by this and came into the chambers wielding a cane he described as, “of the type used to discipline unruly dogs.” He then proceeded to beat Sumner into unconsciousness with it. Brooks soon after resigned, was immediately reelected, but quickly died of a respiratory infection at the age of 37.

Sumner recovered and served another 18 years in the Senate.

In 1858, Abraham Lincoln was running for the Senate against that same Stephen Douglas. They had seven debates over a period of two months, and it was not all lilacs and daisies. The debates were described as “noisy and heckled,” with no public address system then, by the way. The main issue was, once again, the bitter argument over slavery. It’s the one issue that has divided our country more than any other, with Illegal immigration coming in second. Good ol’ Abe said some things I can’t repeat here. One of the more tame ones was labeling Douglas a “sleeping dog.”

In 1859, Senator David C. Broderick of California, an anti-slave Democrat — who had hit it big in the gold rush and made a fortune in early San Francisco real estate — had used his power to stall the re-election of Senator William Gwin, a staunch pro-slaver. During the campaign that followed, California Chief Justice Terry denounced Broderick as no longer “a true Democrat.” Broderick responded by calling Terry, “a dishonest judge and a miserable wretch.”

The Chief Justice immediately challenged Broderick to a duel at Lake Merced. When the Senator’s pistol misfired, the Judge shot him dead. Terry was acquitted of the crime and went on to serve the confederacy in the cause of slavery. In 1889, he too was shot down, after threatening the life of Supreme Court Justice Stephen Field. The issue was once again slavery.

Broderick has a street in San Francisco named after him, by the way, and Gwinn became quite active in S.F. politics.

In February of 1902, John McLaurin, another South Carolina Senator (must be something in the water down there), remarked in chambers that Senator Ben Tillman, his junior senator, was guilty of, “a willful, malicious and deliberate lie.” In response, Tillman walked over and slugged McLaurin soundly in the jaw and the Senate exploded into pandemonium.

It turns out that both men were Democrats. But McLaurin had drifted to the Republican side (anti- slavery) on a few issues. The Senate censured them both, and then added this rule, “No Senator in debate shall directly or indirectly, by any form of words impute to another Senator or to other Senators any conduct or motive unworthy or unbecoming a Senator.

Yeah. Sure.

And then, infamously enough, in the early 1950s we had Senator Joe McCarthy and his nasty sidekick, Roy Cohn (who years later, became an early advisor to Donald Trump). Playing on the public’s fear of communists, McCarthy had gone so far as to accuse General George Marshall of involvement in an “immense conspiracy.” Well, the U.S. Senate did eventually take care of the mouthy, self-promoting McCarthy, by kicking him out.

Apparently, we do, sometimes, act with decency.

It’s not just Washington where such uncivil discourse unfolds, of course.

In Petaluma in ‘53, we had a hot race for Mayor. At issue was the type of City Government we had (and still have) which is a town run by a City Manager. Candidate Bob Brunner was strongly against it, but Vincent Schoeningh (who won) was for it. All in all, it was a fairly civilized bout, as have been most of our local elections — since the end of prohibition, anyway. Two other big issues in Petaluma in 1953 were the planning for the new City Hall and the annexation of 40 acres, adjoining the corner of McDowell & E. Washington. It was said the parcel could accommodate 200 average-sized homes. This was hotly debated and some tempers were lost, but at least with no nasty accusations.

We’ve progressed a bit from the days of actually fist fighting in the Senate, and the practice of dueling has also been outlawed, But it has occurred to this writer that common decency has been badly eroded in the last few years, and it is so often the case that a valid criticism — which could have been made without ugly words — is instead, made with the most heightened of hostile and insulting language.

What has happened to us? Where has courtesy gone?

I remember when The U.S. Press was so polite they never mentioned that President Roosevelt was crippled from polio. But now we are all hanging daily upon the next ugly misstep of our elected leaders.

Rodney King once posed a valid question.

“Can’t we all just get along?”

Well, we probably could — if the other guy would just apologize first.

(Historian Skip Sommer is an honorary life member of the Petaluma Historical Museum and Heritage Homes. You can reach him at skipsommer@hotmail.com)