Wednesday, May 20, 2009

William Stanbery: taking a licking

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On the morning of April 13, 1832, William Stanbery was walking down Pennsylvania Avenue when he was approached by Sam Houston. The former Tennessee congressman and Governor, and future president of the Texas Republic, asked Stanbery to confirm who he was. When the Ohio congressman did, Houston called him a "damned rascal" and proceeded to beat him with his hickory cane.

Stanbery struggled unsuccessfully to resist the assault, a task made more difficult by a right arm that had become basically useless after the Battle of Tohopeka. However, he was not completely unprepared. Stanbery pulled out a pistol, put it to Houston's chest, and fired.

One of the largest cities in the Lone Star State may well have had a different name if the gun had not misfired. Houston continued his assault, at one point lifting Stanbery up by his legs and striking him "elsewhere." He was finally dragged away from the hapless man by two companions he had been walking with, Senator Alexander Buckner of Missouri and Representative John Blair of Tennessee.

Stanbery was born in Essex County, New Jersey in 1788. After studying law in New York City, he moved to Ohio in 1809 and began practicing in Newark, in Licking County. He served as a member of the state senate from 1825 to 1825. After the death of Representative William Wilson in Newark in 1827, Stanbery was chosen as his replacement for the House of Representatives. A Jacksonian Democrat, he began serving in October of 1827 and was re-elected in 1828. He was also elected in 1830, but this time as an Anti-Jacksonian Democrat.

The incident on Pennsylvania Avenue had its roots in a statement Stanbery made in Congress in March of 1832. During the course of his criticism of President Andrew Jackson's Indian policy, he asked, "Was not the late Secretary of War [John Eaton] removed because of his attempt fraudulently to give Governor Houston the contract for Indian rations?" By some accounts, Houston attempted to enter the House after hearing of the remark, and was restrained by his friend James K. Polk, a Tennessee congressman and future President of the United States.

By all accounts, Houston sent Stanbery a letter demanding to know if his question, which had been printed in the National Intelligencer, had been accurately transcribed. Though a rather formal request, it was essentially the prelude to a challenge for a duel. Stanbery refused to acknowledge the letter, which only further enraged Houston by failing to acknowledge him as an equal. Stanbery must have been aware of this, as he started carrying two pistols for protection. The assault occurred about two weeks after he made his remarks in the House.

Shortly after the incident, Stevenson sent a letter to Andrew Stevenson, the Speaker of the House, letting him know the circumstances that had caused him to be absent from the chambers. The House voted 145 to 25 to arrest Houston on the grounds that he had violated congressional immunity by assaulting Stanbery for remarks made on the House floor.

The trial was seized upon by the press as a Jacksonian vs. anti-Jacksonian showdown. Members questioned whether Stanbery's remarks had been slanderous or if he was expressing freedom of speech, and whether Congress even had the authority to try Houston. Until President Jackson sent him a finer set of duds, Houston attended the hearing in his buckskin coat. He was represented by Francis Scott Key, the author of the national anthem, and argued that Stanbery's charges had been disproved at trial, that he had not been "lying in wait" for the congressman as some had suggested, and that he was upset over the newspaper report rather than the remarks themselves (a defense undermined by the fact that the proceedings were reported verbatim). Stanbery said that he did not mean to accuse Houston himself of fraud, though he later wavered on that point. He characterized Buckner's testimony of the assault as "destitute of truth and infamous;" he withdrew the statement and apologized soon after.

In a stirring final statement, Houston invoked his patriotism and received a good deal of support from the galleries; one woman even declared, "I would rather be Sam Houston in a dungeon than Stanbery on a throne." In their vote, the House convicted Houston of contempt of Congress in a 106-89 vote and gave him a reprimand.

Not satisfied, Stanbery managed to set up a committee to investigate Eaton and Houston for fraud in relation to the Indian rations, but the panel found both men innocent. He was more successful in getting a criminal assault indictment against Houston, for which Houston was given a $500 fine. Unfortunately for Stanbery, Jackson remitted the fine. In an editorial in the Globe, Houston declared of Stanbery, "Nothing but the blackest malignity can justify the perverseness and vindictiveness of this man!...His vices are too odious to merit pity, and his spirit too mean to deserve contempt."

Things went from bad to worse for Stanbery in 1832. In July, he aimed a barb at Speaker Stevenson by proclaiming, "And let me say that I have heard the remark frequently made, that the eyes of the Speaker are too frequently turned from the chair you occupy toward the White House." James Bates, a Jacksonian congressman from Maine, motioned for a vote to censure Stanbery for unparliamentary language.

Charles Mercer, an Anti-Jacksonian congressman from Virginia, disputed the censure. He said the remark had not been recorded, and that a day had gone past before the proceedings on the censure got underway. While the appeal was pending, Stanbery's mouth got him in trouble again: he declared, apparently to Stevenson, "I will make a motion that is in order; I make a motion that you leave that chair." Polk moved to censure Stanbery on those remarks, but withdrew the motion.

Bates' resolution was accepted in an 82-48 vote. Stanbery remained unrepentant, saying, "I neither deny, retract, nor explain the words I used the day before yesterday, but do now re-affirm the words I then used." In a curious incident, John Quincy Adams, former President of the United States and since a Republican representative from Massachusetts, asked to be excused from the vote on the censure. Adams said the vote was unconstitutional because it was based on inference rather than a recorded statement. He maintained his silence after the House refused to excuse him, and a committee was set up to determine if punitive action should be taken.

The vote to censure Stanbery was 93-44 in favor. He was the first member of Congress censured, and lost the nomination for Congress later in 1832.

Stanbery returned to law work, and apparently retained some of his old standoffishness. "Old Bill" sometimes didn't pay his debts on times, and at one point a sheriff approached him on the steps of the courthouse in order to arrest him. Glaring at the sheriff, Stanbery told him he would step inside the courthouse and handle the case. There, he drew up a document reading, "That William Stanbery, an attorney-at-law and officer of the court of the great State of Ohio, while engaged in the practice of his profession, had been wantonly and maliciously arrested on the steps of the court house, in violation of the Constitution and in contempt of the majesty of the great State of Ohio." The embarrassed sheriff said he would let Stanbery go if he didn't fall behind again.

In 1873, Stanbery died in Newark, Ohio.

Note: I'll be visiting friends in Minnesota over the weekend, so I won't be starting on another entry until I return. Apologies for the delay.

Sources: The Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, The Political Graveyard, "In Lieu of Manners" in the New York Times on Feb. 4 2001, Sam Houston by James L. Haley, State Centennial History of Ohio by Rowland H. Rerick, Memoirs of Lucas County and the City of Toledo edited by Harvey Scribner, Sam Houston: The Life and Times of the Liberator of Texas by John Hoyt Williams, The Raven: A Biography of Sam Houston by Marquis James, Register of Debates in Congress, A Congressional Manual by Joel B. Sutherland

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