While researching for a post on dueling, I found a senator whose life story I couldn’t resist writing about, as it was about as tempestuous as one can get in the history of American politics.
Henry S. Foote (1804-1880) was a planter, attorney, and politician known for his hot temper and this got him into duels between 1828 and 1837. This was unfortunate for him as he wasn’t a good dueler and was injured in three of them. The first duel was against attorney Edmund Winston over a fistfight he and his younger family members had with Foote and two members of the Washington family in which the latter side lost badly. The product of this duel was Foote being shot in the shoulder and Foote getting Winston in the hip. His second duel was the result of him, as an attorney representing a client in a lawsuit, throwing an inkstand at opposing counsel Sergeant S. Prentiss in a rage. The result was Foote getting shot in the shoulder again. Although honor was satisfied per dueling code he insisted on another duel. This time, Foote was even less fortunate as he was shot above the knee, which almost killed him due to blood loss. The two men ironically would end up becoming good friends. Despite almost dying in his third duel, Foote engaged in a fourth! This time he managed to slightly wound his opponent after shooting wildly. In modern times, this man would not rise in politics at all, but dueling was a matter of honor practiced by men rich and poor. In 1839, Foote was elected to the Mississippi House of Representatives, where he served until his election to the Senate in 1847. There, he became known for three things: the Compromise of 1850, delivering overly long speeches, and getting into fistfights.
In 1847, Foote was elected to the Senate as a Democrat and was known as a staunch unionist. Over Christmas of that year, fellow Senator Jefferson Davis and Foote had an argument regarding popular sovereignty which got heated to the point in which Davis apparently struck Foote, prompting a fistfight. After the fight, Foote proclaimed that Davis had struck first, to which Davis denounced him as a “liar” and threatened to beat him to death should he say it again. Foote responded by punching him in the face and Davis responded in kind. The following year he got into a fight with Simon Cameron of Pennsylvania on the last night of his term after Foote interrupted him during a speech as he stated he had no rights to speak on the floor as he was no longer a senator. In March 1850, he got into yet another fight, this time with Arkansas Senator Solon Borland after he called him a “servile follower” of Senator John C. Calhoun (Langeveld, 2016). A firm supporter of slavery, Foote also threatened Free Soil Senator John P. Hale of New Hampshire with hanging should he ever visit Mississippi, to which Hale responded that Foote would receive a warm welcome should he visit New Hampshire. He was one of the key senators in the negotiations for the Compromise of 1850, which was staunchly opposed by another notoriously hot-tempered man, Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri, who had in 1813 bested Andrew Jackson in a duel and had killed a man in one in 1817. Foote despised Benton for what he regarded as a pompous attitude and disliked his recent anti-slavery views. He proceeded to rail against and insult him for weeks during the debates on the Compromise of 1850. On April 17, 1850, matters finally reached a boiling point when Foote insinuated that Benton, who prided himself on his integrity, was taking bribes. Benton, a large hulking man of 68 years old, had enough of his abusive rhetoric. He charged at Foote, a 46-year old who was rail thin. He retreated and pulled out a pistol, to which Benton reportedly responded to by opening up his shirt and shouting, “Let him fire! Stand out of the way! I have no pistols. Let the assassin fire!” (Langeveld, 2016) Senator Foote was wrestled to the ground by other senators and disarmed. Ultimately his drawing of his pistol was regarded as an act of self-defense after a special Senate committee investigated the matter. To this day, he is the only senator to ever pull a gun on another senator on the floor of the Senate.
Foote would also bore senators with his long speeches and it would often happen that senators would loudly groan when they wanted him to wrap up. In 1852, he left the Senate as he had been narrowly elected Governor of Mississippi on a platform of maintaining the union the year before, defeating his hated rival Jefferson Davis. His time, however, was short-lived as Mississippi politics were growing ever more favorable to secession, and in 1853 he lost reelection to secessionist John J. McRae. After serving as Governor of Mississippi, he left the state for California, where he became involved with the American (“Know Nothing”) Party and lost a bid for the Senate in 1856. Foote didn’t stay long after and moved back to Mississippi, then to Tennessee, where he was once again a Democrat. In 1860, Foote backed Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois as the only candidate he believed could hold the nation together and predicted secession and war if Abraham Lincoln won.
Although previously a firm unionist, Foote aided Tennessee Governor Isham G. Harris in getting the state to secede after the Battle of Fort Sumter and was elected to the Confederate Congress, where he criticized pretty much everything President Jefferson Davis did at least partly out of personal spite for him. His proposals for how to conduct the war ranged from advising a full-scale invasion of the North in 1862 to urging peace negotiations in 1863 and 1864 after President Lincoln offered them. Foote also viciously spoke against Confederate Secretary of War Judah P. Benjamin using anti-Semitic rhetoric, including alleging if the influence of Jews continued that the people of the South would “probably find nearly all the property of the Confederacy in the hands of Jewish shylocks” and succeeded in ousting him in 1862 (Langeveld, 2016). Foote’s fighting ways also didn’t end in the Confederate Congress and he was widely ill-regarded there as well. Representative Edmund Dargan of Alabama attacked him with a bowie knife after he called him a “damned rascal” and he got into a fight with Commissary General Lucius B. Northrop (a man he had denounced previously) and Missouri Representative Thomas B. Hanly after laughing disrespectfully at the latter’s testimony. On January 10, 1865, he was arrested for trying to get to Washington D.C. on an unauthorized peace mission. On January 24th, he was almost expelled from the Confederate Congress but when the vote narrowly failed, Foote was censured instead. Only a week later he was arrested again, this time in the United States, as he had fled the Confederacy to stay with his son-in-law, Senator William M. Stewart of Nevada. Foote was forced to leave the country and stayed in London, where he wrote and published a manifesto urging Tennessee to secede from the Confederacy. This time, the Confederate Congress expelled him for his desertion and treason. Although he again returned to the United States, President Andrew Johnson was unsympathetic to him and ordered him to leave the country in 48 hours or be charged with treason. Foote left the country again, this time staying in Montreal. He petitioned for a presidential pardon from there, which again President Johnson resisted. On August 26th, however, Johnson permitted him to return to the United States on the condition that he swear an oath of loyalty to the United States, which he did. Foote was, however, disenfranchised as a former Confederate officeholder. In 1869, President Ulysses S. Grant restored Foote’s civil rights. By this time, Foote had come to support civil rights for freed blacks, including suffrage.
Despite his support for Grant’s civil rights policies, in 1872 he backed Horace Greeley for president. However, in 1875, Foote switched to the Republican Party and backed Rutherford B. Hayes the following year, attending the Republican National Convention. As a reward for his support, Hayes appointed him to head the U.S. Mint at New Orleans in 1878, a largely honorary position he held until he fell ill and died in 1880.
Foote stands out to this day for penchant for being an exceptionally obnoxious and ill-tempered man who repeatedly got into fights with others, being the only elected official from Mississippi to vote for the Compromise of 1850, being the only senator to ever pull a gun on another senator in the chamber, and having betrayed both the Union and the Confederacy. He shows us that for however divided we are, things could be worse.
Corlew, R.E. (2017, October 8). Henry S. Foote. Tennessee Historical Society.
Langeveld, D. (2016, August 28). Henry S. Foote: Two Time Traitor. Downfall Dictionary.
Mellon, M. (2014, September 21). Notable Scumbags of the Civil War VII: Henry S. Foote. Mellon Writes Again!