News & Features » Miscellany

From cudgels to "moron," the General Assembly's long, rude history

In Your Face

Those mourning the death of gentility in Virginia politics this year should at least be thankful that no one's teeth have been knocked out.

That standard for incivility was set in 1635 when Gov. John Harvey punched one legislator and bashed another's teeth out with a cudgel after they refused to declare martial law in the colony. The brawl was halted when 40 musketeers rushed into the legislative chamber to restore order.

Almost 400 years later, many legislative veterans and observers say the General Assembly may lose public esteem because of a barrage of boorish behavior played out in the daily glare of television cameras. But those clinging to the state's vaunted political image may not know — or wish to admit — that Virginia politicians have a long history of publicly berating each other.

It's certainly true that the most recent session saw some nastiness, mostly driven by frustration over the Republicans' inability to agree on the size of the car-tax cut this year, prompting an unprecedented impasse over the state budget.


Sen. Warren Barry, R-Fairfax County, called fellow legislators "spineless pinkos" after they tinkered with his bill requiring public school students to recite the Pledge of Allegiance every day.

Sen. Thomas K. Norment, R-James City, speculated that Gov. Jim Gilmore had been snacking on "hallucinogenic mushrooms." Sen. Kenneth W. Stolle, R-Virginia Beach, called one of Gilmore's chief political consultants a "moron" after taking exception to the governor's efforts to mobilize public pressure against senators opposing this year's car-tax cut.

Stolle also demanded a state police investigation of alleged eavesdropping by Gilmore's political action committee. No wrongdoing was found.

Sen. Leslie Byrne, D-Fairfax, angered because her legislative district was changed, blocked passage of a routine resolution commending a high school girl's volleyball team.

Many long-term observers of Virginia politics say they are shocked by the pettiness.

"I deplore what I read about it," said former Speaker John Warren Cooke, a Democrat revered for his statesmanship during a 38-year legislative career that ended in 1980. "I don't believe we had it in the years I was there. The General Assembly is supposed to set policy. If they're going to continue to bicker over their own concerns, it's going to affect everybody."

The rancor largely is attributed to growing pains among Republicans, who in recent years, have won narrow control of state government.

But historians say that yearning for the good old days is based more on myth than reality. Some of the surface gentility may have faded in the era of television and sound bites. But behind the scenes Virginia politics has always been cutthroat.

"It's always been a rough-and-tumble game. The difference is, once they fought it with a rapier wit instead of a bludgeon," said Alf J. Mapp, a Portsmouth historian and author.

Even Thomas Jefferson, the patron saint of Virginia government, was not above spitting bile. He described Patrick Henry as "avaricious and rotten-hearted." In a letter to James Madison, Jefferson wrote: "What we have to do is devoutly pray for his death."

Almost 200 years ago, Rep. John Randolph dueled with Sen. Henry Clay of Kentucky, his political archenemy. Neither man was scratched.

If there was an age of gentility in Virginia government, some historians say it may have been during the 50-year reign of the Democratic machine run by Harry F. Byrd Sr. that ended in the mid-1960s. Rarely was a cross word uttered publicly.

That decorum came with a price, however. Virginia was a one-party state controlled by Democrats in those days. Beneath his courtly smile, Byrd was a ruthless leader who would not hesitate to crush the career of any state politician who dared to defy him.

To maintain his steely grip on power, Byrd actively suppressed participation in the electoral process by blacks, Republicans and any other group he disliked. As a result, turnout in Virginia elections was among the lowest in the nation.

"Byrd, for the most part, acted very civilly," said Ronald L. Heinemann, a history professor at Hampden-Sydney College and a Byrd biographer. "There was a Virginia way about him. He didn't want to arouse sleeping dogs and his control was best maintained by maintaining an aura of calmness."

The beginning of the end for the Byrd organization occurred in 1959 when courts ordered Virginia to desegregate its schools. Byrd was so incensed that Gov. Lindsay Almond chose complying with the courts over going to jail that he never spoke to the governor again. Byrd, however, didn't criticize Almond publicly.

Liberal Democrat Henry E. Howell is credited with dragging Virginia into a new era of openly bare-knuckled politics. In unsuccessful campaigns for governor in the 1970s, the high-energy Norfolk lawyer railed against the state's conservative political establishment, calling them aristocratic, racially insensitive and guardians of big-business interests. He had a decidedly un-Virginian campaign slogan: "Keep the Big Boys Honest." State politics has become increasingly in-your-face ever since, driven by ever-intensifying competition between Democrats and Republicans for control of the government.

Then-Gov. George F. Allen, a Republican, stunned many during his 1994 inaugural speech by denouncing Democrats as "monarchical elitists." At a GOP state convention later that year, he urged a cheering crowd to knock Democrats' "soft teeth down their whiny throats."

Things weren't much prettier in 1998, when Democrats used parliamentary procedures to re-elect Thomas W. Moss Jr. as Speaker of the House. Angry Republican legislators banged on their desks, shouting, "Objection! Objection!" and some even turned their backs when Moss was sworn in. It took Republicans two more years to dislodge Moss.

Now that they are in control, they are on the receiving end of the same accusations they once made against Democrats — that they are using brute force to retain power.

House Speaker S. Vance Wilkins Jr., R-Amherst, said all speakers have had to exert their power to keep the opposition party — and even their partisan colleagues — in check. If his actions seem particularly hardball at times, he said, that's just because he's new to the job.

"I don't know how to do it subtle yet," he said.

Adding to the tension, Wilkins said, is that the split between Republicans and Democrats in the legislature is so close that the balance of power could shift back in a single election cycle. "Tensions are a little higher than when it doesn't make any difference what you did," he said.

What's troublesome to many historians is not the bickering but the unprecedented failure of state leaders this year to fulfill their most basic responsibility: passing a budget.

But most historians don't hesitate when asked whether they prefer today's open rancor or the repressed public dialogue of the Byrd years.

"I think it's better everything is out in the open," said James R. Sweeney, a history professor at Old Dominion University. "There's going to be contention whether it's out in the open or not. I think the public is better off when it knows what is going

Add a comment