Congressional Outbursts

2009 September 10
John L. Magee, "Southern Chivalry—Argument versus Club's," lithograph, 1856

John L. Magee, "Southern Chivalry—Argument versus Club's," lithograph, 1856

While words cannot necessarily be equated with deeds, context is everything. In that light, and through the lens of history, Representative Joe Wilson’s outburst during President Obama’s healthcare address before a joint session of Congress could be interpreted as more than a mere breach of decorum. To be sure, the code he violated might be viewed, in contrast to, say, the normal transactions in the British Parliament or Israeli Knesset, as unduly, well, decorous. On the other hand, the Republican South Carolinian’s shout, because of that code, embodies a disrespect that only further legitimates, in some circles, the sort of gun-toting, bullying tactics we saw and read reported in town hall meetings this past summer. Wilson’s bellow is not as brazen nor as deadly as the attack by one of his predecessors, South Carolinian congressman Preston S. Brooks, on Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner on the Senate floor on May 22, 1856 (see above right)—Brooks’s assault, in the name of southern honor, justifying the sort of violence that long had been inflicted on antislavery advocates—but it carries a similar threat that deserves denunciation.

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