MILFORD, Pa. – Less than a quarter-mile from the Columns, the stunning home of the Pike County Historical Society’s museum in the Delaware River Highlands, lies the grave of Charles Van Wyck, a former Republican New York congressman, U.S. senator from Nebraska, and Civil War hero.
On a foggy evening in February 1861, at the start of his second term in Congress, Van Wyck was attacked by three men as he walked along the north side of the Capitol. One attacker brandished a Bowie knife.
Van Wyck struggled viciously but was knocked unconscious. Miraculously, a stab to his heart was thwarted by a trice-folded copy of the Congressional Globe tucked into his breast pocket.
The Chicago Tribune reported a week later that proving that the attack was politically motivated would be difficult. Yet Van Wyck had earned bitter political enemies when he denounced the Democratic Party for its support of slavery.
“He served in one of the most contentious congresses in our history,” said Matthew Wasniewski, official historian of the U.S. House. “You had an extremely divided institution. We could barely elect a speaker. There were fistfights and death threats against members.”
Despite the volatility of that 37th Congress, Wasniewski said it was one of the most productive in House history: “It is amazing by any stretch how many bills” – more than 520 – “they passed.”
Rarely anything that happens in Congress today is unprecedented. After 112 successive elective cycles, they have pretty much done it all, typically more than once.
“We have had duels … and even a brawl that involved over 50 members on the House floor, some even hurling spittoons at each other,” said Wasniewski, recalling an 1858 altercation on the House floor over admitting Kansas into the Union.
Congress, he explains, is always reflective of people’s moods. When the country is hotheaded, so is the Congress.
Reading the news today, one might think a three-ring circus has occupied the new Congress since it was sworn in just a few weeks ago.
Not so, says Jeff Brauer, who travels to Washington regularly to observe our political process in his role as a political scientist with the nonpartisan Close-Up Civics Foundation.
“I found the Capitol more calm and civil than perhaps I have ever seen it since I started regularly visiting some 17 years ago,” he said after a visit last week.
“Politics is … the business of conflict. It is the business of making tough choices about limited resources and differing values,” said Brauer. “It doesn’t need to be made more spectacular through the media.”
With America’s system of self-government forcing compromise, winners and losers result with every public policy passed.
One area of true civility that occurs consistently in American politics, yet is acknowledged rarely, is the working relationships within state delegations.
These often are made up of members from different parties, ideologies, backgrounds and regions. Yet state delegations almost always work through their differences for the good of their state.
“A recent example was the work of the very diverse New York delegation to get the 911 First Responder bill passed,” Brauer said.
Pennsylvanians can expect a good working relationship, he added, between Senators Pat Toomey, a Republican, and Bob Casey Jr., a Democrat, “even though they have quite different ideological approaches.”
Tough rhetorical and legislative battles lie ahead for this Congress, but all the conflict and high drama is just politics. In the end, civility will prevail as it almost always does in American government.
Van Wyck’s grave in Milford Cemetery is serene, set on the edge of state game lands. He died of natural causes in 1895.
Back at the Columns, the "bloody Lincoln Flag" – a rare artifact, on which the dying president’s head rested – is displayed. Lori Strelecki, executive director of the historical society, said Van Wyck was building a home here when he died.
His assailants were never found.
He retired from Congress after two terms to serve in the Civil War as a colonel in the 56th New York Infantry, then was re-elected to his House seat after the war.
And Strelecki says he is not forgotten to all: “The re-enactment group from his New York unit always heads up to his grave for some sort of ceremony when they are in town.”