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Bitter Feelings in the Senate Chamber

April 3, 1850

Cartoon drawing of fight between Senators Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri and Henry Foote of Mississippi on the Senate floor.

John C. Calhoun died on March 31, 1850. Two days later, Vice President Millard Fillmore conducted his funeral in the Senate Chamber. On April 3, 1850, responding to the deeply unsettled atmosphere spawned by the South Carolina statesman's death and the festering slavery issue, the vice president addressed the Senate. His voice tinged with disappointment, he noted that when he first became the Senate's presiding officer a year earlier, he had assumed he would not be called on to maintain order in a body famous for its courtesy and collegiality. Times had changed.

In the earliest years, the Senate had given its presiding officer the sole power to call senators to order for inappropriate language or behavior. The decision was not subject to appeal to the full Senate. This practice changed in 1828, thanks to John C. Calhoun, who at that time was proving to be an unusually active vice president—too active to suit the taste of many senators. The Senate revised its rule to allow members, as well as the vice president, to call other members to order for offensive behavior. If the Senate objected to the vice president's subsequent ruling on that call, it could overrule him by majority vote.

In his April 1850 address, Vice President Fillmore lamented that, since many senators appeared reluctant to call their colleagues to order, he would do his duty to contain the first spark of disorder before it ignited a conflagration that would be more difficult to control. "A slight attack, or even insinuation, of a personal character, often provokes a more severe retort, which brings out a more disorderly reply, each Senator feeling a justification in the previous aggression."

Two weeks later, Fillmore's worst fears were realized. When he ruled Missouri senator Thomas Hart Benton out of order, Kentucky's Henry Clay, no friend of Benton, angrily charged that the vice president's action was an attack on the power and dignity of the Senate. The ensuing debate sparked a bitter exchange between Benton and Mississippi senator Henry Foote (pictured). As the burly Benton pushed aside his chair and moved menacingly up the center aisle toward the diminutive Foote, Foote pulled a pistol. As pandemonium swept the chamber, Benton bellowed, "I have no pistols! Let him fire! Stand out of the way and let the assassin fire!" Fillmore quickly entertained a motion to adjourn, a bit wiser about the near impossibility of maintaining order in a deeply fractured Senate.