The Time the Word 'Damn' Almost Got a Man Kicked Out of Congress
Thomas L. Blanton was one of the most hated men in Congress in the 1920s.
Welcome back to POLI-TBT-ICS, a recurring column where we take a look back at the weird political moments of our past that are still relevant to the present day.
There’s been a lot of hand-wringing over Donald Trump’s apparent lack of “decency,” which isn’t a surprise considering he was caught on a hot mic proclaiming he “tried to fuck” a married woman he “moved on... like a bitch,” and celebrating grabbing women “by the pussy,” among other things. But for every pundit who complains Trump demeans the White House with his inflammatory tweets and childish nicknames, there’s someone who likes Trump for “telling it like it is.”
Although Trump seems uniquely gifted at inspiring rage, every generation gets the trollish firebrand it deserves. Trump isn’t even the first to wriggle out from under charges of obscenity. Take Thomas L. Blanton, a combative Democratic Congressman from Texas who was a distinctly Trumpish figure in the 1910s and 20s. Elected to the House in 1916, by all accounts Blanton was kind of a dick. According to a paper from researcher Robert D. Stevens in 1982, Blanton insisted on holding lengthy roll calls during Congressional sessions, prompting one Massachusetts congressman to claim he was “thus consuming more that 10 days of the time of the House, uselessly in my belief, so filching from me and every other Member 10 days of life.”
Other members of Congress described him as boorish, ill-tempered, loud, and prone to getting into shouting matches and, on occasion, literal fistfights with his fellow representatives on the House floor. Much like how Trump won over voters by dubbing opponents Hillary Clinton and Ted Cruz “Crooked Hillary” and “Lyin’ Ted,” Blanton had a fun habit of falsely accusing his colleagues of political corruption and graft, which, certainly, they loved.
Blanton was also, Stevens notes, staunchly anti-union at a time when conflict between labor and management was one of the major issues of the day—and a few years into Blanton’s congressional career, unions were in trouble.
“The short version is, the 1920s was a terrible decade for American labor,” Erik Loomis, a history professor at the University of Rhode Island, told me. According to Loomis, between 1919 and 1923 national union membership fell from 5 million to 3.6 million while state-level legislation and court rulings helped cripple organized labor. Though Congress didn’t pass many anti-union laws at the federal level, according to Loomis it also wasn't “doing anything about what the courts are doing to invalidate legitimate labor legislation.”
Blanton’s voice was one of the loudest in the anti-union choir. In one instance in October 1921, as Pennsylvania representative William Burke gave a pro-union speech in favor of an upcoming railroad labor strike, Blanton interrupted, shouting, “You are a liar!” Burke, in turn, called him a “damn liar and a dirty dog,” and their congressional colleagues observed that “there was a movement to mix it up physically.”
In short, Blanton didn’t come to Washington to make friends.
During the same month as that dust-up with Burke, Blanton entered some remarks into the Congressional Record concerning a labor dispute at the United States Government Publishing Office, or GPO. Some non-union printers wanted the GPO to be an open shop, i.e. not require its workers to be union members. Blanton supported the non-union printers, including one named Millard French, who worked for George H. Carter, then the Public Printer of the United States. French had written an affidavit to Carter that, in part, recalled verbatim an argument between him and union printer Levi Huber. Blanton sent the entire affidavit to the Congressional Record.
Unfortunately for Blanton, French and Huber had sharp tongues, and their conversation included some unseemly language. For example, there was this, from Huber: “G-d Dn your black heart, you ought to have it torn out of you, you u___s- of a b -. You and the Public Printer has no sense. You k his a and he is a d__d fool for letting you do it.”
If this sounds kind of tame to modern ears, it was also tame back then. “In 1921, we did have basically all the same swear words we have now, except for the racial slurs, which were not considered so bad,” Melissa Mohr, author of Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing, said. “He could have put something in there that said, ‘You fucking cocksucker.’ Those words certainly existed and were being used.” But once upon a time, elected officials held themselves to higher standards than bawdy laypersons, and Blanton’s letter violated the House Rules of Decorum, which mandate members of Congress “refrain from using profane or vulgar language,” both on the floor and in written records, i.e. handouts and the Record itself.
“G-d Dn your black heart, you ought to have it torn out of you, you u___s- of a b -. You and the Public Printer has no sense. You k his a and he is a d__d fool for letting you do it.”
Typically, punishment for letting an errant “damn” slip out merited nothing more than a slap on the wrist and a removal of one’s argument from the Record (Burke had called Blanton a “damn liar,” after all). But Blanton had a lot of enemies, and they were quick to denounce his letter, proclaiming it “the most indecent letter” ever to be entered on the Record. Republican House Leader Frank Mondell went so far as to issue a resolution calling for Blanton’s expulsion from the House, claiming Blanton willfully inserted the obscenities into the Record and calling the printed remarks “unspeakable, vile, foul, filthy, profane, blasphemous, and obscene.”
“There is not a member who has read the letter complained of—and all members must have read it because it is their duty in deciding this case so to do—who will not say that it is the vilest thing he ever saw in print,” he added.
Blanton refused to apologize for the obscenities and vowed to fight the resolution, claiming he had submitted the letter to prevent the United States from becoming “Sovietized,” and had appropriately censored the language in the letter so that “any woman or any child could read all that I have printed without a single blush of shame.” He also argued that he was being unfairly targeted, particularly by his fellow Texan representatives, who he claimed were attempting to stop him from running for a Senate seat. (It’s unclear whether this was true, though Blanton did run for Senate in 1927 and didn't get elected.)
In the end, the House failed to garner the necessary two-thirds vote to expel Blanton—though it was close, with 203 voting for expulsion and 113 against. According to Stevens, though some Congressional leaders appeared delighted at the opportunity to oust Blanton, others were less on board. While members of Congress had been expelled for, say, acts of treason, or repeatedly failing to show up to sessions, throwing someone out for printing an obscenity would be an unprecedented move. Congressman Robert Luce of Massachusetts, for instance, felt the punishment would be “too grave,” and could even serve to martyr Blanton and make him more popular among his constituents.
The House did end up censuring Blanton, a far less serious punishment, but the Texas congressman was clearly shook. According to a 1921 New York Times piece documenting the affair, he was so distressed by the vote he “turned ashen and almost ran from the floor when the Speaker had completed the sentence. In the corridor he fell exhausted, striking his head on the marble floor.” The Times says Blanton refused medical attention and then cried alone in his office, but was otherwise unharmed.
This all seems terribly quaint today, of course. “We used to think these offices of presidents and congressmen and senators, that there was a language and a way of being and acting that was associated with this that was elevated, that was more respectful, calmer, more self-controlled. That these people, they didn't let their worst impulses fly,” Mohr said. “Now, it's a virtue, it's speaking from the heart, and that's evidently what people want to hear.”
That we once thought our elected officials should be more decorous is mostly true: Blanton’s antics got him in hot water with Congress, and they'd be unremarkable today. Then again, Blanton’s constituents at the time weren’t too enraged by his “unspeakable” crime, and given the anti-union tenor of Texas back then, if he had been expelled over a union-related matter, it may have made him more popular. Luce’s concerns about martyrdom might not have been far off.
“There's going to be no political downside for him to be as anti-union as possible,” Loomis said. “It doesn't surprise me he's throwing punches at people on the floor, because that's just going to help him at home.”
Loomis added, “Like our current day, the only electoral consequence [Blanton] was ever going to face was from the right.”
Indeed, even though Blanton’s “vile” indecency was splashed all over the front page of the New York Times, he was reelected to Congress in 1922, 1924, and 1926. The House was briefly freed of him in 1928, after that failed Senate run, but the respite did not last long, and Blanton returned to terrorize the House once more in 1930. He was finally voted out in 1937, went on to practice law in Washington, DC, and in Texas, and died in 1957.
So, while many voters certainly don’t care much about “decency” now, they also didn’t care about it in 1921. Trying to shame voters by calling out a politician's crassness or pugnaciousness is not just a useless tactic, but could potentially backfire. Like Blanton, Trump’s base seems to enjoy it when he taunts world leaders on Twitter. They don’t mind his so-called “locker room talk” because they believe that he, like Blanton, would put his job on the line to prevent the United States from becoming “Sovietized,” or whatever the modern equivalent would be. He can call immigrants “animals” and claim they “infest” the United States all he wants, if that’s what his voters want to hear. Decorum is an illusion, and arguing about it is often a waste of time.
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