It was a marked departure from normal business, that May afternoon in 1856. Tensions were high between slaveholders and those who were repelled by the ownership of humans by other humans. Senator Charles Sumner made speeches on the Senate floor deriding efforts by slave holding states to increase their representation in Congress by increasing the number of states permitting slavery. As he rose to make yet another anti-slavery speech, a Congressman from South Carolina, Preston Brooks appeared and began clubbing Sumner with a cane. He continued the beating until he was pulled off the unconscious Senator.
Senators, even those from southern states, were appalled. This intrusion by an outsider went against the traditions of the upper chamber.
The Senate has usually been a friendly place. The "my esteemed colleague" language has usually masked actual friendship. Ted Kennedy, from the beginning of his Senate career, was hated by those politely termed "racial conservatives." But he was frequently seen sitting with John Stennis, the elderly segregationist Senator from Mississippi, giggling together over some shared private joke. Kennedy became effective in getting cooperation from opponents on measures of mutual interest, often obtaining their support in unexpected compromises.
The tradition was hallowed by time and reinforced in countless small tokens of courtesy. But tradition alone is an inadequate explanation. Folks would come and go in the House. Tenure in the Senate was longer. 6 year terms and frequent re-election combined with small numbers to form a curious social dynamic. A relatively small number of people, mostly male, forced into a long relationship easily bonded.
Criticism itself was frequently jovial. The late Everett Dirksen was irritated by a fellow Senator and was provoked into mentioning that he held his colleague in "minimal high esteem."
It is, perhaps, understandable that some Democratic Senators had groped for some of the old traditional camaraderie during health care debate. But tactics of false negotiation and constant filibuster had taken their toll. Evan Bayh, a friendly-to-the-last holdout, finally had enough, making a surprisingly fiery speech in caucus about the tactics used by Republicans.
A very ill Robert Byrd (D-VA) had aides carry him in to vote. In the old days, he would have been encouraged to convalesce at home. A Republican would have been found to deliberately miss the session, matching Byrd's vote. Instead, Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) offered his own Christmas wishes concerning Byrd's health and life. "What the American people ought to pray is that somebody can't make the vote tonight."
Even beloved traditions sometimes come to an unpleasant close.
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