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Guns and Members, When Congress Protected Itself

Before there were Capitol Police to protect Congress (and leave their guns stashed in bathrooms ), lawmakers tended to their own security — and their own weaponry.  

And through much of the first half of the 19th century, whenever political tensions began to run high, guns were likely to appear on the hips of members. Jonathan Cilley, a member of the House from Maine, was killed in a duel by Kentucky Rep. William J. Graves in February 1838 over a dispute involving a bribery accusation Cilley made on the House floor.  

During the heated debate over the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, a fight broke out between two members from Tennessee — William Churchwell and William Cullom — with Cullom leaping at his colleague and Churchwell drawing a pistol to defend himself. Another member grabbed the gun away, averting a disaster.  

In response, South Carolina Rep. Preston Brooks proposed — in jest, or at least that’s what most people thought — that members of Congress should be required to check their firearms in the cloakroom before being allowed to enter the chamber.  

This was a matter of honor, Brooks pointed out. If you’re going to start a fight, be enough of a man to deal with your opponent without the aid of a firearm, the carrying of which onto the House floor he called an “unmanly and pernicious habit.”  

Brooks’ proposal was “greeted with much applause and laughter.”  

Brooks would gain fame not for use of a pistol, but for use of cane, when he attacked Massachusetts Sen. Charles Sumner on the floor of the Senate with his walking stick in response to Sumner’s May 1856 “Crime Against Kansas” speech, which Brooks said impugned the honor of his cousin, Sen. Andrew Butler.  

It was another member of the House — California’s Philemon T. Herbert — who made headlines that same month by using a gun.  

On May 8, 1856, Herbert showed up for a late breakfast at the Willard Hotel. He commanded the waiter, a recent Irish-Catholic immigrant, to bring him breakfast “damn quick.”  

The waiter informed Herbert that Willard’s — like McDonald’s — stopped serving breakfast at 10:30 a.m. It was already past 11.  

Herbert reacted badly, shouting at the waiter and two of his colleagues to “go get us some breakfast or go away from here, you damned Irish son of a bitch.”  

One of the waiters, Thomas Keating, took offense and said something to Herbert. A melee ensued. Punches and chairs were thrown, and finally Herbert drew a pistol and shot Keating in the chest. He died a few minutes later.  

Herbert turned himself in, but was quickly released on bail and returned to work. A motion to expel him from the House failed.  

Herbert was tried in July — the lackluster prosecution was headed by Philip Barton Key II, the son of “The Star Spangled Banner” composer Francis Scott Key. The jury deadlocked, but a second trial resulted in a verdict of justified homicide, and Herbert was a free man.  

Unlike Brooks, who resigned and was re-elected after his assault on Sumner, Herbert was not returned to Congress. He was chased from the state of California by the San Francisco Vigilance Committee, a group of — perhaps overly — concerned citizens who were fed up with lawlessness in their hometown.  

Herbert, a native of Alabama, wound up in Texas, later served in the Confederate Congress and joined the Confederate Army. He died from wounds suffered in battle in July 1864.  

John Bicknell is a former editor for CQ Roll Call and author of “America 1844: Religious Fervor, Westward Expansion and the Presidential Election That Transformed the Nation.”

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