Why Washington Went Soft on Gianforte’s Assault

With Donald Trump’s favorite president being Andrew Jackson, it is unsurprising that Washington today sometimes resembles the capital city during Jackson’s two terms in office in the 1830s—right down to the headlines.


The Trump Hotel in Washington, D.C., a magnet for tourists and politicians, stands on the same stretch of Pennyslvania Avenue that was occupied in Jackson’s time by a less opulent establishment known as Mrs. Queen’s Boarding House. One of the residents was Rep. William Stanbery, a two-term congressman from Ohio, who publicly criticized the Jackson administration for alleged corruption in Western road construction contracts.

On a balmy evening in April 1832, Stanbery left his lodgings and was crossing Pennsylvania Ave. when a passerby confronted him.

"Are you Mr. Stanbery?" a tall man asked.

"Yes, sir," Stanbery said, bowing.

"Then you are a damned rascal!" the man shouted, slamming Stanbery over the head with his wooden cane. As Stanbery staggered backward, the attacker clubbed him again, threw him to the ground, and struck him again before walking away.

Stanbery’s assailant was a former congressman, Sam Houston, the 39-year-old governor of Tennessee and an ally of Andrew Jackson’s. Houston felt insulted by Stanbery’s allegations of corruption, and believed his attack was justified by the besmirching of his honor. The capital was shocked by his actions.

“MOST DARING OUTRAGE AND ASSAULT,” blared a headline in one Washington newspaper.

History Repeats

Today, 185 years later, Washingtonians found themselves reading a similar headline about Greg Gianforte, a businessman running for a congressional seat in Montana: "Republican candidate charged with assault after 'body-slamming' Guardian reporter."

Ben Jacobs, a reporter for the U.K. Guardian news site, had just asked Gianforte a question about President Trump’s health care bill, when Gianforte grabbed him and threw him to the ground, shouting, "I’m sick and tired of you guys!" (Listen to audio of the assault.)

Unlike Rep. Stanbery, Jacobs was not seriously injured, though his glasses were broken.

Gianforte, who apologized after winning the election, was charged with misdemeanor assault, which could carry a $500 fine or six months in jail if he is convicted. Gianforte is due in court in Montana before June 7. According to new reports, the state of Montana is not expected to certify his election until June 15.

Judgment Day

The issue facing Congress today is the same that faced the House of Representatives in the age of Jackson—whether to discipline an abusive member.

Just as Jackson came to Houston’s defense, some Republicans in Congress responded to the Gianforte assault story by cracking jokes about attacking journalists. House Speaker Paul Ryan called on Gianforte to apologize, but otherwise left judgment to Montana voters. President Trump did not mention the incident in a tweet congratulating Gianforte on “a big win.”      

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi denounced Gianforte as "sort of a wannabe Trump," but did not propose any action beyond issuing the admonition, “Behave.”

The editors of the Washington Post called for Gianforte to be expelled from Congress, or failing that, to be “frozen out of committee assignments, treated with disdain,” a plea that seems to have been completely ignored.

On Trial

In fact, Congress has an alternative between expulsion and a slap on the wrist: a resolution about the breach of House privileges, which was the course chosen by Congress in 1832.

After Stanbery was assaulted, the House approved a resolution calling for Sam Houston’s arrest by a vote of 145 to 25. Even though Houston was not serving in Congress, he was effectively put on trial. The passionate debate about the appropriate punishment attracted standing room-only crowds to the Capitol’s galleries for the next three weeks.

To be sure, the two incidents are not exactly analogous. Gianforte did not attack a colleague, which arguably makes his offense less serious, at least in terms of congressional behavior. And the politics of the moment are playing out differently.

Unlike Trump’s opponents today, Jackson’s foes were quick to frame Houston’s violence as an unacceptable breach of democratic norms. And unlike Paul Ryan today, the House speaker of 1832, Andrew Stevenson, a Jackson stalwart from Virginia, put the standards of congressional behavior ahead of loyalty to the president. At the heart of the debate was a question still asked in American politics: when is violent behavior acceptable? Jackson and his followers, imbued with notions of male honor, insisted violence was justifiable in response to provocation. Two centuries later, right-wing observers used the exact same argument to defend Gianforte's assault. 

Once upon a time, the U.S. Congress deliberated over such matters.

On May 11, 1832, Speaker Stevenson introduced a motion to declare Houston guilty of a breach of House privileges. The vote was 106 to 89 in favor of guilty. Then came a vote on the question of punishment: censure or reprimand? Censure would send the stronger message of disapproval to Houston and the Jackson administration. A motion to reprimand, the milder rebuke, passed 96-84, much to Jackson’s satisfaction.

William Stanbery was defeated for reelection and faded into obscurity. Sam Houston went to become the first president of the independent nation of Texas in 1836. When Texas joined the union as a state a decade later, Houston became a U.S. senator.

Such is the arc of American political manners in the age of Trump. In the 19th century, the Congress went on record to rebuke a former member for violent behavior. In the 21st century, a sitting member faces assault charges, and Washington can't be bothered.

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