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For Wickersham, battling in Congress led to real floor fight

Dermot Cole

The idea of sending people to Congress who are willing to put up their dukes on behalf of the the 49th state is a tried-and-true staple of Alaska politics.

In his review Sunday of the stranglehold this idea has on political discourse, reporter Nathaniel Herz links the history of rhetorical combat to figures of the past such as former Sen. Ernest Gruening.

When writer A.J. Liebling wrote, “I trace my rapport with the historic past through the laying-on of hands,” he was referring to the history of boxing. In Alaska, the battling politicians trace their rapport with the past through the laying-on of fighting words and images, right down to the "Incredible Hulk" ties Sen. Ted Stevens favored on occasions when he was mad enough to turn green.

But there is at least one recorded instance in Congress -- where many real fights have occurred since the early days of the Republic -- when a delegate from Alaska did more than raise his voice.

'Fighting Jim' Wickersham

In 1911, delegate James Wickersham reached the breaking point when Rep. Frank Mondell of Wyoming said on the floor of the House: “He is a liar. That is all.”And Wickersham, less than 10 feet away, responded, “You are a liar if you say that. That is all.”

It wasn't all.

Wickersham, 53, had just started an address on the evils of a coal leasing bill pushed by Mondell, 50, when the hostilities began.

“I attempted to strike him but was prevented,” Wickersham wrote in his diary. “The row was unseemly and I am very sorry that it occurred, but when a man calls another a liar without smiling, that means a blow.”

Newspapers across the country gave the story prominent attention.

“The Alaskan’s right arm shot out twice in the direction of the gentleman from Wyoming, but members who surrounded the disputants at the time say that both blows fell short,” the San Francisco Call reported on Feb. 24, 1911, in an account carried in many cities. “The House was in an uproar in an instant.”

"LIE EXCHANGED, CLASH FOLLOWS," the Boston Globe said on its front page.

The Washington Post said Wickersham soon had his hands on Mondell’s throat, expressing his sentiments in “vigorous, if not parliamentary language.” Several Congressmen united to subdue Wickersham, while others engaged Mondell.

Chairman grabbed Wickersham

Rep. David Foster of Vermont, the 53-year-old chairman of foreign affairs, grabbed Wickersham by the throat.

“This added to the uncontrolled anger of the delegate and for a moment diverted his attention toward the would-be peacemaker,” the wire service account said.

Mondell tried to raise his chair to send it in Wickersham’s direction, but a Mississippi legislator sat on him.

The Post said that the Republican whip, Rep. John Dwight, “who would weigh in at the ringside at about 250 pounds, interposed his bulk between Mr. Wickersham and Mr. Mondell, and the delegate was forced to release his hold on his opponent’s throat.”

Order in the House

The Speaker of the House called for order, as about 100 members gathered around the combatants. The sergeant-at-arms removed the House Mace from its pedestal—an unusual action aimed at getting the unruly members under control—but no one had to be clobbered with the silver symbol of House authority.

As a non-voting delegate, Wickersham believed he could not speak softly or carry a big stick. A friend of his, the Rev. S. Hall Young, said Wickersham was "much more inclined to present the other fist than the other cheek," but a fight on the floor was not what the delegate desired.

He was using all of his powers of persuasion to argue against a bill, backed by the Taft Administration, to lease coal lands at from 3 to 10 cents an acre -- charging that it would allow a coal monopoly in Alaska by the Guggenheims -- when Mondell made the offending crack.

Mondell later apologized, but claimed he did not call Wickersham a liar. “It was not uttered in debate, but to a gentlemen who stood beside me,” Mondell said. “I realize, however that I should not have used that word here, or anywhere for that matter, and I apologize to the House.”

Wickersham wrote in his dairy that the Post called this a “Scotch apology,” meaning that Mondell was not accepting blame. He was lying again, Wickersham said. After the fight ended, the coal leasing bill failed on a 151-32 vote.

Aftermath of the fight

Wickersham wrote that his friends said the fight with Mondell wasn't all bad. In fact, it “would have a good rather than a bad effect on Alaska and point to our heavy vote as proof.”

“I hope this will end all further attempts to create a national landlord over Alaska and prevent her development,” Wickersham said.

While the official account of the fight said “menacing actions” took place between the two men, a newspaper reporter imagined that a sports writer might describe  the showdown this way: “Jim Wickersham, the Chilkoot Chaser, and Frank Mondell, the Wyoming Wonder, mixed it up on the floor of the House yesterday evening.”

Wickerhsam preserved news accounts of the fight in his diary and said that most of them were accurate. In the future, others would know who they were dealing with, he said.

“It will have the effect to warn all that when they begin to try their patent nostrums on Alaska they must reckon with the delegate,” he said. “They will be more polite, anyway.”