Virginia Congressman Thomas Bocock's Speech in Defense of the Caning

Because we happen to be members of Congress, will it be pretended that we are at liberty to rise in our places, and, with absolute impunity, abuse, malign, and slander each other, or any other person we may choose? The doctrine is absolutely monstrous. Nor is its meanness diminished by saying that a majority in framing their rules must properly restrict debate. We know too well that rules are often broken now-a-days. How many of the speeches delivered on this question have conformed to our rule, which requires the debate to relate strictly to the subject under consideration? Scarcely one.

Besides, the gentlemen of the North are largely in the majority on this floor. Sectional feeling runs high. It may be agreeable to them to abuse the southern members--their constituents, their institutions, their families, &c. Shall we be required to submit to it all, and be utterly without redress? Surely not; it is impossible. We have no such right, and could not enjoy it, if it were given. Say by express law, if you choose, that members of Congress shall enjoy perfect freedom of debate, and may abuse, and traduce, and malign whomsoever they choose. The right will be worth but little. There can be no royal prerogative of slander in this country. You may draw around it the strongest muniments of legal defense; you may make the sheriff and his posse the warders on the tower; you may make instruments of punishment to bristle on the walls, still the immunity will not be perfect. When it begins to throw its venom fiercely around, injured sensibility will revolt, and aroused manhood will still occasionally break over and inflict condign punishment. A broken head will still pay the penalty for a foul tongue.

Think, sir, of American character, how sensitive, yet how brave; how easily wounded, yet how quick to avenge the injury! Better death than disgrace! Can you, then, by legislation make American gentlemen submit to traduction with composure? Never! never, sir! You must first tame our high hearts, and teach them the low beat of servility; you must make our Anglo-Saxon blood run milk and water in our veins; you must tear from the records of history the pages which tell the deeds of our heroic ancestry, and persuade us that we have descended of drabs and shrews.... If this is your doctrine, gentlemen, bring on your Theodore Parkers, and your Ward Beechers, and your strong-minded women, and have a good time of it here and in the Senate. Gentlemen will retire voluntarily from both without the process of expulsion....

Slander never can, in this country, under any guise, in any form of authority, enjoy perfect immunity.... I believe that Mr. Sumner's speech was made "contra morem parliamentarium"; that under guise of debating the Kansas bill, he sought occasion to pour out his private resentments, and vent his personal malice. In thus stepping beyond his parliamentary right, he lost his constitutional protection, and became liable as any other citizen would be. The assault and battery committed on him occupies, in this regard, the same ground, not lower, not higher, than the same assault and battery upon any other person.