Born in Virginia, Henry S. Foote was an ideal Renaissance man of the antebellum South: a student of the classics, lawyer, author of books on military history, founder of one of the Territory of Alabama’s first colleges, and head of the U.S. Mint in New Orleans, he also served terms as both a US senator and governor of the state of Mississippi. A strident believer in keeping the country together, Foote was an integral part of the Compromise of 1850 that delayed the Civil War. This is the quaint classroom biography of Senator Foote found in history books—but Foote also happens to be my last name, and what those books fail to mention is that my ancient relative was also the only senator in American history to draw a pistol on the Senate floor and attempt to shoot another politician.
A few historians have mentioned the incident, but like many Southern stories, this tale is best told at dinner after trickling through generations of hyperbolic—and often alcoholic—relatives until fact and fiction have been distilled down beyond separation. The version recounted at my family’s table claims that during a heated debate over the Compromise of 1850, Henry Foote directed a tirade of personal insults at Missouri Senator Thomas Benton until Benton physically charged him, and Foote drew his pistol and aimed. Before he could squeeze a round off, fellow senators wrestled him to the floor, disarmed him, and locked away the gun in the vice president’s drawer. Dusting themselves off, the two senators from Missouri and Mississippi carried on the debate as before.
My predecessor’s behavior was rash, violent, and clearly unbefitting of an elected official, but when I turn on CNN and find another congressman denying immigrant or gay communities basic human rights in order to solicit votes, I can’t help but feel familial pride at Henry Foote’s moxie. Today’s elected officials care far more about being on the popular side of decisions and how their carefully constructed personas are polling than about how their actions are irrevocably impacting our nation’s future. Capitol Hill could learn a lesson from these two old senators. Thomas Benton was willing to risk his life and my forefather his distinguished career to keep the country they loved and served from descending into civil war. Since its inception, our country has been one of complicated dualities and polarizing divisions, but the true American spirit has never been about choosing sides; it’s about preserving the possibility of them.