Congress Couldn’t Have Been This Bad, or Could It?

If you think things are pretty messy on Capitol Hill today, just take a look at what was going on up there a century and a half ago

Capitol Hill
Capitol Hill Wikimedia Commons

The Congress in question is no modern aggregation, those fellows up on Capitol Hill whose partisan doings and undoings along with much else in today's Washington are now widely supposed to have outraged the entire nation. The Congressmen in James Chiles' tongue-in-cheek raid on our political past belong to the first half of the 19th century. You remember the good old days before TV and talk shows and senatorial staffs numbering in the thousands, when many Congressmen were still linked to the Founding Fathers.

And (surprise!) they are no better than they should be. Of course they lived differently (mostly in boardinghouses at $8 per week, American plan), negotiating streets often knee-deep in mud and thick with strolling pigs. They never went home during a session (it took five days to get practically anywhere). But their manners, language, suspicions and differences of opinion make today's Congress seem a model of civility.

"Though some men of high character and great abilities" inhabited Congress, visiting novelist Charles Dickens reported in 1842, many "practiced despicable trickery at elections; underhanded tamperings with public officers; cowardly attacks upon opponents," not to mention "aidings and abettings of every bad inclination of the popular mind." Also dueling and fistfights in the House chamber, and such a torrent of ill-aimed tobacco juice that it was unwise to pick anything up off the floor "with an ungloved hand."

And so it goes, from decade to decade, in a thumbnail cartoon portrait of the Congress and the country during a period in U.S. history marked by the Mexican War, the rise of abolitionism and the looming threat of Southern secession.

Get the latest History stories in your inbox?

Click to visit our Privacy Statement.