Fisticuffs in Congress 116 years ago — Congress Commemorative Gold Five-Dollar Coin

Today, the Congress Commemorative Gold Five-Dollar Coin remembers the fight between the two senators from South Carolina on February 22, 1902.

From the periodical The Great Round World of March 1, 1902:


A Disgraceful Fight in the Senate

The dignity of the United States Senate was outraged on Washington’s Birthday, when Senators Tillman and McLaurin, of South Carolina, came to blows.

The Senate has shown its horror at the occurrence by placing both Senators in contempt; Senator Tillman, at least, may be expelled.

South Carolina feels the shame of the affair.

Senator Tillman was speaking of the treaty with Spain three years ago, and he charged that the vote of one Democratic Senator had been improperly secured for the ratification.

Senator Spooner demanded that Senator Tillman name the one of whom he was speaking.

Although he refused to mention the name, Tillman said that it was a Senator who had since received the Republican patronage in his State in return for his vote.

“What State?” demanded Spooner.

“South Carolina,” replied Tillman.

“Then,” said Spooner, “I leave it to the Senator [Tillman] to fight it out with his colleague.”

Senator McLaurin was not in the Senate Chamber at the time, but he was informed of what had been said, and when he returned he secured the floor and characterized Tillman’s statement as “a willful, deliberate and malignant lie.”

Immediately Tillman sprang for McLaurin, and struck him on the head. McLaurin retaliated with a blow, and the two men sparred wildly.

It was all over in a few seconds, however, for neighboring Senators quickly seized the combatants and forced them into their seats. Great confusion followed.

Then the galleries were cleared and the Senate went into secret session, unanimously voted the South Carolina Senators to be in contempt, and by a vote of forty-one to eighteen referred the matter to the Committee on Privileges and Elections.

When the open session was resumed, both men apologized to the Senate, Tillman saying that in the circumstances his attack was justified, McLaurin that his intemperate language was warranted by the attack on his honor.

The Senate took no action on the apologies.

Although there have been quarrels in the Senate before, this is the first time that blows have ever been struck. There is a widespread feeling that an example should be made. The Tillman-McLaurin feud is of old standing, but the Senate is no place for its settlement.

Senator Tillman had been invited to dine with Prince Henry at the White House, Feb. 24, but after the fight in the Senate President Roosevelt withdrew the invitation. Tillman was first given an opportunity to decline the invitation, but declined to yield.


Similarly, the press of the day covered the account  and provided interesting commentary on the impropriety of the blows in the Senate chamber.

From the March 6, 1902 Public Opinion: A Comprehensive Summary of the Press Throughout the World on All Important Current Topics:


Rowdyism in the Senate

Personal Encounter Between Tillman and McLaurin

The long-standing quarrel between Senators Till man and McLaurin, of South Carolina, came to a climax in a physical encounter between the two men on the floor of the senate during the debate on the Philippine tariff bill, February 22.

Tillman had repeated his old charge against McLaurin of being corruptly influenced to change his vote on the Philippine treaty. McLaurin, in reply, branded the statement as “a willful, malicious, and deliberate lie.” This provoked the assault.

Both men were suspended for a time, and the president’s invitation to Senator Tillman to the White House banquet for Prince Henry was withdrawn by the president. On Friday the senate passed a resolution of censure on both offenders.

“Mr. Tillman was the original offender,” says the New York Tribune (Rep.). “He passed the first insult, and when he was answered too much after his own blackguardly fashion he resorted to violence and treated the senate to a brawl. Mr. McLaurin, under such circumstances, naturally defended himself. In forcing this quarrel Mr. Tillman acted in line with his conduct ever since he became known to the public. He has been the common blackguard of Washington, habitually violating the decencies of debate.”

The New York Press (Rep) lays the burden of the blame on the senate itself. “Tillman is the logical senator. We do not know but that he is the typical senator. Physical violence is the natural and proper sequence of the sort of language the most august deliberative body has habitually allowed on its floor for years. In the course of this Philippine ‘debate,’ Tillman himself has been repeatedly permitted to use such terms as ‘damnable,’ ‘despicable,’ ‘cowards and hypocrites’ toward his party opponents. He has not unreasonably concluded that when taxed with the utterance of ‘a malicious and deliberate lie’ he would be per mitted to go a step further and use his lists.”

The Chicago Inter-Ocean (Rep) considers that there is something to be said for McLaurin’s share in the affair. “He has the misfortune to represent a community abounding in men who seem unable to understand that even such an insult as Tillman’s should not be resented in the United States senate as it would be on the streets of Charleston. This fact explains, thought it does not excuse, McLaurin’s forgetting for an instant that he was not in South Carolina, but in the United States senate.”

The Chicago Chronicle (Dem.) advises both men to resign. “Neither one of these deplorable specimens of thuggism has the right, either by virtue of official position or of social ethics, to await even the decision of the committee in whose hands their unparalleled offense rests. It will be an easy matter for the state these two ruffians represent to immediately fill their seats with respectable officials.”

The Philadelphia Record (Ind. Dem.) finds some basis for the charges brought against McLaurin by Tillman. “It is a fact, as asserted by Senator Tillman, that Senator McLaurin was opposed to the Paris treaty, and that when a vote was badly needed by the administration he was suddenly and mysteriously converted in its favor. It is also a fact that immediately after this miraculous conversion Senator McLaurin became the dispenser of government patronage in South Carolina. He had the run of the departments; and post offices and revenue collectorships in the state were at his exclusive disposal.”

The southern newspapers can find no words of justification or palliation for either man. The Charleston (S. C.) News and Courier (Dem.) thinks that “it would be better for the state and for public decency if the country could be spared the humiliation of being represented by men who cannot control themselves.”

Another staunch Democratic organ, the New Orleans Times-Democrat, declares that “there can be invented no explanation that will even in the least degree extenuate the unbecoming behavior of either of the offenders, and it is to be hoped that the American people, irrespective of political affiliations, will visit upon both Mr. McLaurin and Mr. Tillman the smiting rebuke which an indignant and outraged nation well knows how to administer.”

To quote further would be only to deepen the impression already given, that both men, and Tillman especially, have been unsparingly condemned by editorial writers everywhere without regard to section or party.


The Congress Commemorative Gold Five-Dollar Coin shows with images of the South Carolina Senators Tillman and McLaurin.

Congress Commemorative Gold Five-Dollar Coin

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