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The Censure Case of John L. McLaurin and Benjamin R. Tillman of South Carolina (1902)

Photo of Senator Ben Tillman

Breach of comity; Senate's power to suspend a member.

Altercation on floor: Feb. 22, 1902
Referred to committee: Feb. 22, 1902
Committee report: Feb. 28, 1902
Senate resolution and vote: Feb. 28, 1902

Result: Censured

In 1896 South Carolina junior senator John L. McLaurin entered the Senate, joining his long-time close friend Benjamin R. Tillman, who as governor and political boss of the state had helped to foster McLaurin's career. Despite their political connection of many years, McLaurin, a man of somewhat erratic temperament, turned away from his old mentor and permitted himself to be courted by Senate Republicans. He may have been motivated by a desire to see South Carolina participate more fully in the nation's industrial progress, but his behavior infuriated the outspoken Tillman.

Statement of the Case
On February 22, 1902, the Senate debated a bill relating to the Philippine Islands. Benjamin Tillman, known to be less than courteous on the Senate floor, used the occasion to direct scathing remarks toward John McLaurin's empty chair, charging that his colleague had succumbed to "improper influences" in changing his position on the treaty to annex the Philippines. Tillman accused McLaurin of treachery for casting his vote with the Republicans to approve the treaty after publicly speaking against it. In return, Tillman charged, the majority Republicans had allowed McLaurin to control government patronage in South Carolina and granted him committee positions as a Republican. Word of Tillman's remarks quickly reached McLaurin in a committee meeting and, incensed, he dashed into the Senate Chamber and denounced Tillman's statement as "a willful, malicious, and deliberate lie."

In response, the 54-four-year-old Tillman jumped from his place and physically attacked McLaurin, who was 41, with a series of stinging blows. Efforts to separate the two combatants resulted in misdirected punches landing on other members. Such a blatant physical assault had not occurred during a Senate session since Henry S. Foote and Thomas Hart Benton had accosted one another in 1850.

Response of the Senate
Immediately, the galleries were cleared, and the Senate went into closed session to discuss the altercation. After a two-hour debate in which both South Carolinians were unanimously "declared in contempt of the Senate," the matter was referred to the Committee on Privileges and Elections. When the Senate returned to open session, the president pro tempore, William P. Frye, noted that as long as the senators were in contempt, neither could be recognized to speak on the floor except at the request of another senator. At this point, a senator asked that they be permitted to speak, and Tillman and McLaurin apologized to their colleagues. They did so, however, in such unpleasant and bitter terms that the ruckus threatened to explode anew.

The clash occurred during a Saturday session. On the following Monday, as their behavior was considered in the committee and widely criticized in the press, the two senators found that, until the matter was resolved, their names were also to be omitted from roll-call votes. A piqued Tillman registered a written protest about this procedure in the Congressional Record on February 26, charging that it was unconstitutional to deprive South Carolina of its voice in the Senate. The following day both names were restored because the president pro tempore believed that the full Senate, rather than the presiding officer, should make such a serious decision.

The culprits did not have long to wait for a resolution of the matter. On February 28 the committee reported that although Benjamin Tillman was guilty of the graver offense in resorting to physical violence, rather than simply using unparliamentary language as John McLaurin had, both senators should receive the same penalty. Declaring that the conduct of the two South Carolinians represented "an infringement of the privileges of the Senate, a violation of its rules and derogatory to its high character, tending to bring the body itself into public contempt," the committee explained that the legal effect of the Senate's contempt judgment had been "to suspend their functions as Senators," a punishment "clearly within the power of the Senate." The committee therefore recommended that both be censured and that the contempt order suspending them be lifted. The Senate agreed and by a vote of 54 to 12 censured Tillman and McLaurin. Their punishment thus consisted of censure plus the brief suspension they had already endured. Twenty-two senators did not participate in the vote, perhaps indicating the strong sentiment among many members that McLaurin's outburst had been provoked by Tillman's intemperate language.

Although the Senate took no vote on the issue of suspension, all committee members had concurred that the Senate had the power to suspend as well as to expel a member found to be in contempt.

The breach of comity prompted members to change the rules of the Senate to provide stricter guidelines for the decorum of floor debate. On August 8, 1902, the Senate adopted this change (Rule XIX, secs. 2 and 3), stating, "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" and "No Senator in debate shall refer offensively to any State of the Union."

Under continuing political attack by Benjamin Tillman in South Carolina, John McLaurin served only until the end of his term in 1903 and did not seek reelection to the Senate. Instead, he practiced law in New York City for a time, later returning to South Carolina. There he served in the state senate and as state warehouse commissioner before retiring to private life. He lived until 1934.

Although Tillman continued to serve in the Senate until his death in 1918, he fell ill in 1908. As repeated strokes and a progressive paralysis marked his declining years, political control of South Carolina gradually slipped from his hands. 

Source: Adapted from Anne M. Butler and Wendy Wolff. United States Senate Election, Expulsion, and Censure Cases, 1793-1990. S. Doc. 103-33. Washington, GPO, 1995.