American Idiots: Guns in Congress is as Dumb Today as it was in 1842
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity … in short, the period was so far like the present period that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.” — Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
In the wake of the sacking of the U.S. Capitol by a mob of modern-day seditionists, several Republican lawmakers have been agitating to pack heat in the hallowed halls of democracy.
History tells us this is a foolish notion.
That’s because guns and democracy make for volatile bedfellows.
So instead of preening with high-powered weapons and throwing public snits about the presence of metal detectors in the U.S. Capitol, today’s Republican politicians would do well consider the Arndt-Vineyard affair that spilled blood on the floor of the Wisconsin Territorial Council in Madison in 1842. That’s when James Vineyard, a Democrat and former Kentucky slave owner, pulled a six-shooter following a heated debate in the Council Hall, and put a bullet from point-blank range through the heart of Charles Arndt, a northern abolitionist Whig who’d moved to Wisconsin from Pennsylvania. My third-great-grandfather and President of the Territorial Council James Collins had just adjourned the legislative body and stood nearby as the fatally wounded Arndt fell and the gunshot reverberated.
This largely forgotten saga was far more than just the public assassination of a political foe in what was then America’s hinterland. It presaged much darker days to come for a young nation whose social and political fabric was already being rent by the north-south strains of anti- and pro-slavery factions. It was an early sign that the Whig party was doomed to fracture and from whose collapse a new, Northern-based, Wisconsin-born, anti-slavery Republican Party would soon rise beneath the helm of Abraham Lincoln. For some historians, it isn’t a stretch to claim that Vineyard fired the first shot of America’s Civil War and that the reverberations from Arndt’s six shooter can still be felt today.
In short, to paraphrase Dickens, it was a period of American history not unlike our own.
The 1840s found my ancestor Col. James Collins living in the southwestern Wisconsin town of Wiota, just north of the Illinois state line and not far east of the Mississippi River. The town had been founded by Col. Collins and his lifelong friend William Hamilton, son of U.S. Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, who had originally dubbed the berg Hamilton’s Diggings. For it was the mining of lead, not agriculture, that originally drew settlers to Wisconsin, throwing them into direct conflict with Native Americans in the region and triggering the Black Hawk War of 1832, which was really just genocide masquerading as war. Just beneath the topsoil of the Upper Mississippi River Valley laid a rich lead deposit easily accessible by any man with a pick and shovel. The prairie soon became pocked with holes ringed by mounds of dirt from men flinging lead-rich ore skyward — ore that would be shipped by barges down the Mississippi to smelters in St. Louis. Native Americans and settlers alike looked upon the scene with bemusement as though the once-pristine prairie had been invaded by hordes of crazed badgers, thus stamping Wisconsin hence as The Badger State.
Though Wisconsin would not achieve statehood for over a decade, it was, nonetheless, a cauldron of antebellum politics, the turmoil of which bubbled scarcely beneath the surface.
There was in 1836 the marriage of Dred Scott to Harriet Robinson at Fort Snelling near present-day Minneapolis in what was then Wisconsin Territory. This union would have been uneventful had not the pair been former Southern slaves whose masters had recently moved North into slave-free territory. The subsequent legal wrangling that stemmed from this seminal event led directly to the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dred Scott Case, whose 1857 decision is nearly unanimously considered as the worst in Supreme Court history and one that put America on an intractable march toward war.
The heated debate surrounding slavery in Wisconsin reached a boil in 1854 following the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which overturned the 1820 Missouri Compromise prohibiting slavery north of the Mason-Dixon Line and leaving the citizens of any northern state to decide for themselves by popular vote whether or not to adopt or disavow the ownership of humans. Outraged, 30 fervent Wisconsin abolitionists gathered in a small schoolhouse in the farming community of Ripon in 1854. From that obscure meeting grew the Republican Party, which in 1860 captured the presidency with the Black Hawk War veteran and soon-to-be Great Emancipator Abraham Lincoln.
For his part, Col. James Collins was neck-deep in the stew that was Wisconsin’s unique brand of frontier politics. Collins served as president of the Wisconsin Territory legislature. His friend, neighbor and fellow Black Hawk War veteran Col. Henry Dodge was appointed in 1836 by President Andrew Jackson as the first Governor of the Wisconsin Territory. Collins would later run, and narrowly lose, elections in Wisconsin for territorial governor and territorial representative in the U.S. Senate.
And long before 1856 when Congressman Preston Brookes, a pro-slavery Democrat from South Carolina, viciously beat and nearly killed with a cane fellow Representative Charles Sumner, an anti-slavery Republican from Massachusetts, following a fiery abolitionist speech by Sumner in the U.S. House — an incident historians decry as a “breakdown of reasoned discourse” that led to the Civil War — there was the 1842 Vineyard-Arndt Affair that made the Brookes-Sumner beating seem like a schoolyard tussle.
As Col. Collins presided over the 1842 meeting of the Wisconsin Territorial Legislature in Madison, Charles C.P. Arndt, a representative from Green Bay engaged in a heated debate with James R. Vineyard from Platteville over the appointment of a county sheriff, which would seem on the surface innocuous enough. However, Arndt hailed from a prominent family of abolitionist judges who’d come to Wisconsin from Pennsylvania. Vineyard lived in the rough-and-tumble lead-mining region of southwestern Wisconsin. He’d come there from Kentucky and was a Democrat with pro-slavery leanings. Following the debate, Arndt slapped Vineyard, whom that morning he’d described to colleagues as a good friend. Vineyard in response pulled out a revolver and fired a single shot through his fellow legislator’s heart. Arndt died minutes later on the chamber’s floor. His vest, replete with bullet hole, remains on display at the Wisconsin Historical Museum in Madison.
Northern Wisconsin newspapers filled their pages with accounts of the event accompanied by scalding editorials denouncing the vicious act. Southern Wisconsin newspapers printed brief mentions of the killing, their editorials urging calm and pointedly withholding comment until the facts of the matter could be aired in court.
Though Vineyard was banished from the state legislature by a vote of his peers, he would ultimately be acquitted of manslaughter. The event would turn out to be a grim presage of brother-against-brother. Of a “breakdown of reasoned discourse.” Of just one more step in our nation’s long lurch toward Civil War.
When French aristocrat Alex de Tocqueville traveled the width and breadth of America in the 1830s, he documented what he found to be the genius of American democracy. His treatise Democracy in America stands as a premonition of America’s economic rise in the 19th century and later establishment as a dominant world power in the following century.
Dickens made a similar sojourn of discovery in 1842, which he complied in a book titled American Notes. But instead of genius, the British giant of letters despaired to find swaths of uncivilized rabble. America, from Dickens’ perspective, was an expansive land plagued by a form of dog-eat-dog capitalism, the brutish stain of slavery, and a type of individualism so unbridled that liberty had become conflated with, as Dickens put it, the “freedom to shoot or knife any other American.”
Exhibit A in Dickens’ damnation of his American cousins was the tragedy of the Arndt-Vineyard affair. The shooting is featured in his chapter on slavery. And it is clear that Dickens was appalled that the practice of bringing concealed weapons onto the floors of legislative bodies was actually an accepted practice at the time in America. The author was confounded that Americans were, in 1842, even having debates on whether it may or may not be a good idea for politicians to be allowed to bring guns onto the floors of their state houses.
“What could possibly go wrong?” Dickens implies.
And yet, here we are again. Nearly 180 years later. One major party, the Republicans, arguing for the merits of bringing guns onto the floors of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. Are we collectively who Dickens believed we were? Uncivilized rabble? Have we not learned the lessons of our own Civil War? Do we not yet know, or have we forgotten that democracy is one of the highest expressions of civilization, and that it demands its adherents to carry out its procedures in a place of high-minded calm?
The answer for many in the Republican party is, sadly, no. And for those politicians and their followers, it would be wise to remember the fate of the Whigs, a major political party that splintered and vanished in a matter of months during the 1850s. And for those Republicans who think that couldn’t or wouldn’t repeat itself, that the present period is much different than the past, they might want to reflect on the Arndt-Vineyard affair, as well as the immortal words of Dickens. The state of the nation and a major American political party is at stake.