History Thursday: The Statehouse punch heard ’round Ohio
State Rep. John P. Slough is pictured years after his Ohio legislative career in uniform during the Civil War.
As lawmakers gathered inside their new legislative chamber for the first time in January 1857, Gov. Salmon Chase stood at the rostrum to offer a message of dignified government.
The new Ohio Statehouse, he hoped, would long stand as a symbol of “well-ordered institutions, and the enduring greatness of the people whose house it is.”
“The members are a very respectable and intelligent looking body of men,” one newspaper reported, “and many were the warm and friendly greetings which passed between them, on meeting together after so many months of separation.”
Only a week passed until, in that very room, a state representative punched another lawmaker in the face.
The punch heard ’round Ohio was thrown by a Cincinnati Democrat against an Ashtabula Republican, two men representing political factions as far apart ideologically as their hometowns are geographically.
The incident and ensuing controversy sent shockwaves throughout the state. The debate surrounding the punch — barbaric or justified? — served as a microcosm for a divided state and even more fractured nation in the years leading up to the Civil War.
The political pugilist from Cincinnati remains the last legislator to be expelled from the Ohio General Assembly. Here’s the story of how that came to be.
‘Planting a sockdolager between Mr. Cadwell’s peepers’
John P. Slough was born in Cincinnati in 1829 during a period of significant growth in “The Queen City.” It’s possible he harbored a short temper from an early age. An 1846 crime report in The Cincinnati Enquirer notes a local resident named John Slough was fined $5 and court costs for “assaulting and beating.”
A lawyer by trade, Slough entered politics in his early twenties. He won a seat in the Ohio House of Representatives and for a time served as secretary for the Democratic Party’s state central committee.
It was the opposing Republican Party which dominated the Ohio Statehouse in those days. Following the election of 1855, Republicans held a 28-5 supermajority over Democrats in the Ohio Senate and a 74-25 advantage in the Ohio House of Representatives.
There aren’t many references to Slough within coverage of the Statehouse during his early period in the legislature. In 1856, he proposed to abolish capital punishment in the state and sought to help Ohio tenants by requiring clearer language in rental contracts.
Otherwise, it seems he stayed out of trouble and out of the spotlight — until January 1857.
That month marked the long-awaited public opening of the Ohio Statehouse building still in use today. One of the very first floor sessions in the new chamber proved to be among the most controversial in Ohio history.
All the trouble stemmed from a relatively anodyne subject. The issue at hand involved lawmakers’ per diem rates. Members discussed whether or not they should retroactively receive work and travel compensation for the time period the previous year that the General Assembly was adjourned.
Slough offered a resolution to ask the Ohio Attorney General to decide the matter. This suggestion was not well received by the Republican majority, which believed that lawmakers themselves should instead decide.
A vote was requested to table his resolution.
Darius Cadwell, a Republican lawmaker from Ashtabula County, was among those who opposed Slough’s proposal. Both would later say they had a congenial working relationship before the Jan. 14 session.
Not that day.
During the roll call vote, Cadwell approached Slough’s desk to say that even if the resolution was to pass, the attorney general would ignore it.
Slough asked why he thought that; Cadwell answered the resolution was “too foolish” a matter to trouble the attorney general with.
Slough didn’t take kindly to the remark and told Cadwell he wouldn’t stand to be disrespected any longer.
“What do you propose to do about it?” Cadwell is reported to have replied.
Slough answered with his fist.
In one motion, the lawmaker stood up, leaned over his desk and punched Cadwell squarely in the forehead. Nearby lawmakers rushed over to break up the fracas.
Cadwell did not retaliate. Cooler heads prevailed.
Ohio newspapers relied on much more imaginative language back then, describing the punch in a variety of creative ways.
“Slough recently measured the width between a Republican’s eyes with his fist,” the Lima Times-Democrat wrote.
The Darke County Democrat detailed the incident as “Mr. Slough planting a sockdolager between Mr. Cadwell’s peepers.”
The Fremont Weekly Journal ran with the headline, “A La Brooks At Columbus,” a reference to U.S. Representative Preston Brooks attacking Senator Charles Sumner with a cane inside the Senate chamber a year before.
‘I feel the insult demanded chastisement’
Slough returned to the House floor two days later, ostensibly to give an apology speech.
He did not mention the punch or even Cadwell’s name, only vaguely referencing “the occurrence between another member of the House and myself.”
Slough acknowledged the incident “was an infraction of the rules of propriety and of the House,” one that destroyed “the sanctity” of the House chamber. He then went on to justify his punch.
“I disavow all idea of apology toward the member,” he told the chamber. “I feel that the insult demanded chastisement.”
Had Slough offered a legitimate apology, newspapers reported, the matter may have been dropped. Republicans however were as outraged by his speech as they were with his actions two days prior.
Leaders convened a committee to investigate the incident and drafted a resolution to expel him.
Who to blame?
Ohio newspapers were split depending on their political allegiances.
The Darke County Democrat characterized the punch as being conducted “scientifically and quietly.” It was no big deal, the paper opined, claiming that attention wouldn’t have been drawn to the feuding solons had Slough’s chair not turned over during the commotion.
Slough’s hometown newspaper was also sympathetic to its local lawmaker. The Cincinnati Enquirer blamed Cadwell for the whole affair, calling him “the aggressor” and demanding he receive the same punishment as Slough.
The “gross and ungentlemanly insult offered by Cadwell” was “outrageous in the highest degree, and admirably calculated to provoke a disturbance,” the Enquirer wrote.
In his speech, Slough said if his constituency knew the full context of the incident, they would recognize his “right” to resent such insult “in the manner deemed most proper to me.”
The Enquirer agreed: “(T)here are few gentlemen of spirit who, being thus situated, would not have acted precisely as he did in the heat of passion, regardless of consequences.”
Some outlets viewed the controversy as part of a broader disagreement on racial equality. Ohio was created decades earlier as a “free state” and the state constitution ratified in 1851 specifically outlawed slavery in its Bill of Rights. In the lead up to the Civil War, there remained Ohio leaders and publishers who resisted the idea of Black Americans as equal citizens.
Newspapers of the day which aligned with the Democratic Party bemoaned the Ohio Statehouse being led by “Black Republicans,” a denigrating term for lawmakers who supported abolishing slavery. The Slough fallout, some papers believed, was merely one more example of “Black Republicans” favoring Black people at the expense of a white elected official. Such articles oftentimes included widespread use of racial slurs.
Other papers instead directed their criticism at Slough.
“(I)t is time the political and moral enlightenment and civilization of the American people had reached a point when such practices shall be condemned, and the men who indulge in them repudiated,” the Carrollton Free Press opined. “Such scenes as referred to in the Halls of the Ohio Legislature are disgraceful and inexcusable under any circumstances … We care not what Mr. Cadwell said to Mr. Slough, it could not justify the action of the latter, and no possible presentation of the case can make the pretended acknowledgment of Mr. S what it ought to be.”
The Portage Sentinel in Ravenna had harsh words to say about both men involved. The Sentinel referred to Cadwell a “narrow souled, mercurial bigot, personally and politically.” Slough was a “a high tempered fellow … educated in the wrong school of honor.”
“Nothing of advantage is being done for the public or private good of the people,” the newspaper concluded.
In the coming days, coverage shifted from the punch itself to the debate over an expulsion vote.
Most Republicans wanted Slough gone, but realized this would result in a special election to fill the vacancy. No rules prevented an expelled member from simply running again for their own open seat.
Slough indicated plans to do just that if colleagues decided to expel him. Meanwhile, back home in Cincinnati, Democratic organizers got to work mobilizing support for Slough in a potential special election. The Enquirer all but endorsed his candidacy.
Such were the circumstances as lawmakers gathered in late January to vote on a resolution to expel State Representative John P. Slough, D-Cincinnati.
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