That Time Two Senators Socked Each Other In The Face
5:11 PM EDT on May 5, 2021
This week, Defector has chosen to curate a collection of writing inspired by two entities that have had an indelible effect on North America: the upper house of the United States Congress and Eugene Melnyk’s pro hockey team. This is Senators Week.
There's no video of the incident, no B-roll of blood being spilled on the Senate floor to play on CNN, no images of an elected representative clutching his face. Photography was expensive and uncommon. The first movie theater wouldn't open in the United States for another two months. It was 1902, and two U.S. senators were brawling.
The matter of the day (Feb. 22, 1902) was the United States' ongoing unethical colonization of the entire world. A year earlier, via the Spooner Amendment, the United States had declared that Congress was now in control of the Philippine Islands. You see, the Spanish colonized the Philippine Islands 600 years earlier, and the United States beat the Spanish in the war, so the stolen land had to be dealt with. Even in 1901, it was pretty clear that this was imperialist and awful. Democrats rejected the bill in 1900, filibustering it to death. But the next year Republican legislators squeezed it into an Army Appropriation Bill. Because American politics have always been shitty in exactly the same ways, no legislator was brave enough to vote against more funding for the military, and so the president gained authority over the Philippine Islands by the authority of Congress.
So, in 1902, since it seemed pretty fucking egregious and bad to a lot of people that the United States just declared themselves governors of the Philippines, a new bill emerged. The Philippine Bill, also known as the Cooper Act, provided Filipinos (now under the fist of the United States) with a Bill of Rights. It also provided an exit plan that would return the islands to the Filipino people. The future of the Philippines was at stake.
But our two brawling senators weren't focused on the Philippines. They were focused on each other's history. On one side there was Benjamin Ryan Tillman, the senior senator from South Carolina. On the other was John Lowndes McLaurin, the junior senator from the same state. McLaurin had been slowly catering to more and more of the Republican's demands, and Tillman didn't like this. Tillman was a Democrat and a white supremacist. He made his career appealing to working-class white people and saying a lot of inflammatory things. On this day, he was on the Senate floor to cause drama. When his colleague stepped out of the room, Tillman began ranting about how "someone" had been bribed into voting a particular way.
Let's peek at the front-page story in the Feb. 23, 1902 issue of The New York Times:
"I have many friends on the Republican side," said Mr. TIllman. "Personally, you are a nice, clean-hearted set of men, but politically you are the most infamous cowards and hypocrites that ever happened." [Laughter]"
The other senators, obviously, demanded he name names:
"I know," asserted Mr. Tillman, "that the patronage-- the federal patronage-- of a State has been parceled out to a Senator since the ratification of that treaty."
"What State," demanded [Senator] Spooner.
"South Carolina," shouted Mr. Tillman.
"Then, said Mr. Spooner, "I leave you to fight the matter out will your colleague".
"Well," retorted Mr. Tillman,"I never shirk the responsibility for a statement I make. I know that he voted for the treaty. I know that improper influences were brought to bear. I know what I believe. "
Tillman went on to argue that the United States should not be trying to colonize the Philippines. But McLaurin wasn't there to witness his name being dragged through the mud. He was out doing god knows what instead of his job, and had to be tracked down by another senator (the Times calls this man his "warm personal friend") who told him that Tillman was on the Senate floor talking shit about him!
McLaurin hurried back, we know not from where, and returned to the United States Senate floor just as Tillman was finishing up his argument. Here I will quote the Times again because this article is quite good:
"Pale to the lips and trembling with emotion which in vain he endeavored to control, Mr. McLauin (S.C.) arose and addressed the Senate, speaking to a question of personal privilege. Instantly a hush fell over the Senate and over the people in the thronged galleries. The very atmosphere seemed surcharged with excitement. With breathless interest, the auditors, both on the floor and in the galleries hung upon every word uttered by the South Carolina Senator. "
McLaurin, having heard secondhand the accusations against him, was calm. He spoke clearly. Reporting from the Chicago Tribune tells us, though, that many senators were uneasy, pacing around the chambers during this time. There was a "spirit of restlessness among everyone but Senator McLaurin." He continued speaking, deliberately, slowly, carefully. Each word he enunciated until he reached his point, saying, "The statement is a willful, malicious, and deliberate lie."
That's when all hell broke loose. Tillman, in an aisle seat, jumped from his chair. He "sprang with tigerlike ferocity at his colleague," the Times said. The senator from Colorado, who was between the two South Carolina senators, was pushed out of the way. Tillman climbed right over him. McLaurin, already standing, met Tillman halfway.
Tillman aimed with his right fist, and socked McLaurin in the forehead above his eye, but his fist ricocheted and so he mainly punched McLaurin in the arm. McLaurin recoiled! He had raised his left arm to protect his face. But he was younger, remember? He must have looked at McLaurin in the eyes, steadied himself with the same calmness he'd needed to call him a liar, twisted his hips, and pushed his arm out with all the force of his body, because his fist landed right on Tillman's nose.
Senators jumped over desks. They ran to pull the two men apart. Tillman swung his left arm wildly and missed. The Assistant Sergeant at Arms seized McLaurin, only to be smacked in the face by another of Tillman's missed blows. (Several papers, though, noted that the force of this punch was rather weak and the Assistant Sergeant was fine.) Both continued lashing out as they were pulled apart, hitting several of their colleagues in the process until they were forced into their seats. They both sat, breathing heavily, every senator around them standing, until a gavel was banged thrice.
The Senate was still in session. They were supposedly discussing the Philippines, remember? A senator from North Carolina rose and attempted to speak, only to be cut off by McLaurin, who stood and said, "I will now proceed with my remarks which were so unceremoniously interrupted."
"I call the Senator from South Carolina to order," interrupted someone with supposed power over the situation.
"Which one of the Senators?" McLaurin said. Cheeky.
Both of them obviously. Something had to be done. This was the Senate, goddammit. As the Senate writes on its own damn blog, the Senate is obsessed with decorum! They closed the Senate doors, but the rumors slipped under the cracks and into the ears of the reporters. They were so dense and so exciting that on Feb. 25, the Greenville News out of Greenville, South Carolina wrote:
The following dispatch was sent out from here on Saturday night, which, as far as can be ascertained, is entirely without foundation: "It is possible that the Tillman-McLaurin fight on the Senate floor today will end in a duel down the Potomac."
The paper, doing its due diligence, reported it out, and was told that Senator Tillman would "promptly accept a challenge from his colleague, if one is received." The potential gossiped about duel never happened, though, and both men ended up receiving their comeuppance in a more dignified form.
On Feb. 28, the Senate censured both men, and added a rule that says: "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." They were not suspended.
The Philippine Bill did pass in July of that year. The Republic of the Philippines' National Historical Commission says it is "one of the most important decrees enacted by the American government in the Philippines." And that is the story of the first and (so far) only fistfight on the Senate floor.