Did Joe Wilson's 'You Lie' Outburst Cross the Line on Congressional Courtesy?

"In a broad historical perspective, these events are still reasonably civil," said Smith. "We have plenty of childish members of Congress and that's unfortunate, but by and large we have a pretty civil and politically clean place compared with the past."

The 19th century was known for duels between politicians, even brutal fist-fights on the floor of the Senate.

In 1856, Sen. Preston Brooks, D-S.C., attacked Sen. Charles Sumner, R-Mass., after a speech on slavery during which another politician from South Carolina was criticized.

"He beat him so badly that Sumner was lying on the floor, bloodied and unconscious," said Julian Zelizer, a congressional historian at Princeton University. "These kinds of encounters were not uncommon in the first part of the 19th century."

"There have certainly been moments of classic, tough speeches delivered on the floor where members of the opposition are murmuring unhappily," said Zelizer, "But this was particularly harsh."

Mickey Edwards, a former GOP congressman from Oklahoma, said that even though presidents in the past have been heckled, rules and expectation of proper behavior change entirely when it happens on the floor of the House.

"Presidents are not popes, they can be criticized and called on to be accountable," said Edwards. "But you do not do that on the House floor."

"In our system you do not do that and I can't remember any case where someone actually shouts in the middle of a speech by the president. You can't even do that to a member of Congress," he said.

According to Edwards, congressmen are bound by strict rules regarding their behavior, including being prohibited to sit on a desk while they address the chamber and are required to wear a necktie.

"There are rules of civility and decorum that are supposed to keep it a place with mutual respect that allows a workable democracy, and when you turn into a shout fest the whole process breaks down," he said.

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