Slinging Insults in the Confederate State House

Judah Benjamin
Judah Benjamin            (photo courtesy wikipedia)

Things got testy in the U. S. Congress in the years before the war. Most of us know about  Preston Brooks caning Charles Sumner in the Senate chamber. Maybe less known is when South Carolina Representative Lawrence Keitt called Galusha Grow of Pennsylvania a “Black Republican puppy.” Grow knocked Keitt down, and a free-for-all erupted on the House floor.

Which brings up the subject of political insults. My favorite comes from an account from Burton Hendrick, Statesmen of the Lost Cause (1939), about Judah P. Benjamin.

Once someone in the Senate snarlingly called Benjamin “that Jew from Louisiana.”

I can imagine a shocked Senate falling into silence as Benjamin rose to respond. “It is true that I am a Jew,” he replied. “And when my ancestors were receiving their ten commandments from the immediate hand of Deity, amidst the thunderings and lightnings of Mount Sinai, the ancestors of the distinguished gentleman who is opposed to me were herding swine in the forests of Scandinavia.”


Benjamin was suave and urbane, and this taunt is just what you’d expect from one such as he.

Roger A. Pryor (photo courtesy wikipedia)

Congressman Roger A. Pryor of Virginia, on the other hand, was not one to hold back.

Pryor resigned his seat the day before Lincoln was inaugurated on March 4, 1861. Two weeks later Pryor addressed several hundred citizens in Richmond. Lincoln had been inaugurated. “He thanked God that the Union had been destroyed and that the Southern states had left, never to come back,” writes his biographer Robert S. Holzman.

Then he blistered Lincoln referring to him as–catch this–“a feculent excrescence of Northwestern vulgarity.”

Yes, we’ve got Donald Trump these days. But for my money, when I want a resonating political insult, I’ll go with Roger Pryor every time.


15 Responses to Slinging Insults in the Confederate State House

  1. With regard to Benjamin, I have read an alternate version “…the ancestors of the distinguished gentleman who is opposed to me painted themselves blue and were dancing naked around a fire.” I do not think there is evidence of either statement. However, if he didn’t say it, he should have done.

  2. I don’t have them readily at hand, but as I recall Winston Churchill had a history of classic insults.

  3. …including the one admitting he was indeed drunk but in the morning would be sober, while his critic–an unattractive woman, allegedly–would still be ugly….

    1. Steve: This was the exchange with Lady Astor as I’ve heard it:

      Lady A: “Sir, if you were my husband I’d put poison in your tea.””
      Sir Winston: “Madam. if I were your husband I’d drink it.”

  4. I think the Benjamin insult was actually said by British PM DIsraeli, with the added point that the insulter’s ancestors were painting themselves blue when his were receiving the 10 Commandments from the hands of Almighty God. But both may have been partially true.

    And I agree with the low level of political insulting today: Trump’s crowd would have no idea what Pryor was saying!

  5. “There was one argument made by the Senator from North Carolina [Mr. BADGER] which struck me as exceedingly singular. He has set forth all the beauties of this patriarchal institution, as he calls it, to show the affectionate relation existing between him and his slaves, with whom he grew up from boyhood, with whom he was intimate and familiar, and whom he pronounced to be the best friends he had upon the earth. He said, Do you want to make us hard-hearted? Now, sir, said he, if I can better my condition, and the condition of my slaves, by going into Nebraska, where the soil is better, and where we will have a better supply of all things, in the name of God, do you want to stand forth and prevent me? Did any one notice the force with which he urged that appeal? So wedded was he to the idea that he could not exist anywhere without his old friends, as he called them, and yet he could not take his old “mammy,” as he called her, who nursed and brought him up to manhood, into that Territory. Why? Because, notwithstanding these intimate relation, he could not take her there, because he could not have the right to sell her when he got there. There could not be any other reason for it; for, most assuredly, if he wanted to take his affectionate old mummy there and give her her freedom, there would be nothing in the way, either in a slave law or anything else.”
    Sen. Benjamin Wade, Congressional Globe, Appendix, 33rd Congress, 1st Session (1854), pp. 313.

  6. When we can link Judah Benjamin, Roger Pryor and Donald Trump all together, who’s not to love “politics”?

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