Compromise of 1850
(Congressional debate, 1850)

A few days ago, the United States Congress voted to censure Representative Paul Gosar, an Arizona Republican after he posted and edited anime video to his social media accounts that depicted violence against Democratic Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and President Biden.  This along with metal detectors at entrances to the House and Senate, repeated threats of violence against members, heated rhetoric mostly from the Republican side of the aisle by the likes of Georgia Representative Marjorie Taylor Green and Colorado Representative Lauren Bogart, who exhibited her Islamophobia once again the other day, and of course the events of January 6th have raised the level of partisanship and outright fear among Congressional members to levels not seen in over 150 years.  Many argue that today’s split in the body politic has no precedent, however if one consults Joanne B. Freeman’s THE FIELD OF BLOOD: VIOLENCE IN CONGRESS AND THE ROAD TO CIVIL WAR one might realize that though the current political climate is dangerous and is not conducive to legislating the pre-Civil War period from 1830 through 1861 dominated by the slavery issue was rowdier, more violent, with Congressmen carrying weapons to the floor physically attacking each other raising the level of polarization, lack of debate, distrust in Congress as a legislating institution and fear that does not compare to our current political divide.

Freeman’s narrative unveils the full scope of violence that existed in the pre-Civil War period in Congress. She writes that the era consisted of “armed groups of Northern and Southern Congressmen engaged in hand to hand combat on the House floor.  Angry about rights violated and needs denied, and worried about the degradation of their section of the Union, they defended their interests with threats, fists, and weapons.”  Southern Congressmen had long been bullying their way to power with threats, insults, and violence employing the tactic of public humiliation to get their way, particularly against anti-slavery advocates.  At the time this type of Congressional behavior seemed routine and would soon shape the nation as people no longer seemed to trust the institution of Congress and many of its members.  In time it would tear the nation apart.  If any of this sounds familiar remember the elements of the pre-Civil War period are on display every day in Congress with its rhetoric, conspiracy theories, and fealty to a disgraced former president.

(President Franklin Pierce)

Freeman relies heavily on Benjamin Brown French, a House Clerk for a good part of the pre-Civil War period from 1833 on.  The author argues that French was an excellent research tool as he experienced all aspects of the House for many years.  He also kept a daily diary making him the perfect witness for the period.  He described goings on in the Capitol, the mood on the House floor, stories heard, quirks of members, and numerous descriptions of brawls.  Between 1828-1870 he filled 11 volumes and 3700 pages.  Freeman uses this material very effectively as she develops her narrative, in addition to integrating French’s evolution from a purveyor of congressional compromise as a fervent supporter of the Democratic Party in the 1830s and early 1840s to a supporter of his close friend Franklin Pierce for the presidency whose views on slavery rested on accommodating the south.  He would break with his friend of over 30 years due to Pierce’s support for the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854 which resulted in increased threats and violence in Congress.  French would turn to the Republican Party where at first he preached moderation, but by 1860 exposure to a number of important abolitionists he firmly asserted Northern rights against the “Slave Power’s” encroaching grasp.  He was more anti-slave power than anti-slavery and events in1860 pushed a man of moderation to extremes, compelling him to arm himself to defend the Republican cause.

Freeman’s research and analytical style has produced many important insights into the political climate of the pre-Civil War period and provides evidence of the extremism of the period evidenced by the behavior of Congressmen in addition to their racial, economic, and sectional beliefs.  She highlights the most notable events of the period ranging from the territorial issues that arose because of the American victory against Mexico between 1846 and 1848, the elections of 1852, 1856, and 1860, the Compromise of 1850, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the Dred Scott Decision, John Brown’s raid against Harper’s Ferry, and the election of Abraham Lincoln.  In all cases she presents the northern and southern views of events and the actions taken by certain Congressmen which focused on threats, intimidation, bullying, and violence against each other highlighted by the caning of Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner by South Carolina Democratic Representative Preston Brooks.

(Benjamin Brown French)

Numerous confrontations are described with the role of “dueling” and the “dough faces” (individuals who feared southern attacks) of northerners stressed to the point that “manhood” became the coin of the realm in Congress.  Freeman describes the lengths that certain Northern congressmen went to avoid aggravating southerners over slavery in the name of party and national unity.  This reinforced the southern view that northerners were weak and could be bullied into submission.  Men like Louisiana Representative John Lawson and Henry Wise of Virginia would gleefully threaten and then attack other members of Congress if they felt insulted by anyone who questioned slavery and in effect anything that they deemed critical of the south.  Freeman is correct when she argues that “southerners used violence as a ‘device of terrorism’ to force compliance to their demands – and they did so with pride.”  The southern rationalization for their behavior was a code of honor – believing that they resorted to these tactics as a means to protect and defend “southern honor” for which they would allow no criticism.

Freeman presents a series of violent confrontations, some leading to duels, others to physical attacks between members usually instigated by southern Congressmen. Many of Freeman’s descriptions are entertaining, particularly her discussion of the conflict between Montana Democratic Senator Thomas Hart Benton and Mississippi Senator Henry Foote whose nickname was “hang man,” but the reality of what she says highlights the sectional conflict that could only be papered over by compromise and eventually would explode into Civil War. 

The turning point begins with the debates related to the eventual Compromise of 1850 which temporarily settled many issues pertaining to the Mexican Cession following the war with our southern neighbor.  The debates focused on sectional rights and soon became personal for each congressman and their constituents as bullying, degradation, honor, bravery, manhood, power, deference and pride all came to the fore.  With the election of Franklin Pierce and his support for the Fugitive Slave Law many Democrats like French would leave the party and support the burgeoning Republican party. 

Portrait of Charles Sumner 2 - Vivid Imagery-12 Inch BY 18 Inch Laminated Poster With Bright Colors And Vivid Imagery-Fits Perfectly In Many Attractive Frames
(Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner)

Throughout the period newspapers played a key role as does the invention and use of the telegraph as events in Congress could be made available to the public in a very short time.  The press controlled communication with constituents who would soon learn of the violence, ill will, and lack of legislation taking place.  Reporters would heighten conflict in Congress and at home.  With the Kansas-Nebraska Act which fueled “bloody Kansas,” the new sensationalist press had come to the fore.  The result, after 1855 fights in Congress would spike, and it would evolve into an armed camp with members carrying pistols and bowie knives to the House floor each day.

Freeman is on point as she develops the emergence of the Republican Party which would promote a new kind of northerner who was now willing to fight back – to wrest control of Congress and the Union from the “Slave Power.”  The bold rhetoric of the likes of Benjamin Wade, William Fessenden, Joshua Giddings, Charles Sumner and others was guaranteed to provoke a southern backlash.  Violence was just another political tool and Republicans finally fought the southerners exchanging blow for blow.  This would send a powerful message – a united north willing to fight for its interests and rights long violated by southerners.

What separates Freeman’s work from others is that she is able to unlock the emotional logic of disunion by showing how the divergent views of different geographical sections fostered distrust between various groups in Congress.  The degradation which seemed like a daily occurrence educated a national audience to revile opposing opinions, individuals, and sections of the country.

Portrait of Thomas Hart Benton 1 - Vivid Imagery-20 Inch By 30 Inch Laminated Poster With Bright Colors And Vivid Imagery-Fits Perfectly In Many Attractive Frames
(Montana Senator Thomas Hart Benton)

In conclusion, I agree with historian David S. Reynold review in the New York Times (September 24, 2018);  “Like other good historical works, “The Field of Blood” casts fresh light on the period it examines while leading us to think about our own time. Although incidents like the Sumner caning and the Cilley duel are familiar, the contexts in which Freeman places them are not. Nor are the new details she supplies. She enriches what we already know and tells us a lot about what we don’t know. Who knew that the Sumner incident, for example, was just one of scores of violent episodes in Congress?

Freeman doesn’t make explicit comparisons between then and today. She doesn’t have to. A crippled Congress. Opposing political sides that don’t communicate meaningfully with each other. A seemingly unbridgeable cultural divide. Sound familiar?

All that’s missing is an Honest Abe to save us.”

A satirical depiction of the moment when Senator Henry S. Foote drew his pistol on Senator Thomas Hart Benton.
(Congressional debate, 1850)

THE BOODLESS BOY by Robert J. lloyd

(17th Century London)

Robert J. Lloyd’s first novel begins on New Year’s Day 1678.  The setting is London, a city still recovering from the Conflagration or Great Fire eleven years previous with the appearance of numerous true historical figures as well as many fictitious ones.  Charles II,  occupies the English throne and rumors abound concerning Catholic plots to assassinate him.  The title of the novel, THE BLOODLESS BOY is very apropos as the drama that hovers over the story surrounds the discovery of the body of a three year old boy near the Fleet River with wounds providing evidence that the boy had all of his blood drained from his body.  What makes matters worse is that as the plot evolves other bodies are found in a similar state.

The two most important protagonists are Robert Hooke and Henry Hunt.  Hooke is the Curator of Experiments of the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge, Gresham’s Professor of Geometry, and Surveyor of London.  Hunt, a former protégé of Hooke’s, now on his own is an Observator of the Royal Society of London and both men have been tasked by Charles II and Sir Edmund Bury Godfrey, the Justice of the Peace for Westminster to assist in solving the murders.  Hooke is very reluctant fearing it will interfere in what he believes to be his greater work for the Society, and Hunt is more than willing to cooperate as he sees it as an avenue to emerge from under his former mentor’s shadow.

(Charles II, King of England)

Political intrigue and spies abound in the novel with the constant references to Popish plots against the government, assassination plans to remove Charles II, and a series of Ciphers that come into the possession of Hooke, Hunt, and others.  As the plot meanders slowly for a number of chapters Hooke is very concerned that the murders may lead back to the earlier English Civil War and Charles II escape to France.  Further, Lloyd expertly integrates the story of the Earl of Shaftsbury, the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, Lord Chancellor, and First Lord of Trade who upon writing a pamphlet arguing that the powers of the king should be restricted spends a year in the Tower of London until he expresses contrition for his beliefs.  Despite this expression his life centers around seeking revenge.  Another story that Lloyd weaves into the novel is that of Henry Oldenburg, Secretary of the Royal Society of London for the Improving of Natural Knowledge who commits suicide which Hooke and Hunt promise his widow to keep his cause of death a secret.  The question is clear, what do the murders, political machinations, and suicide have to do with one another?

Lloyd possesses an excellent command of British history as is evidenced by his commentary centering on plots against the government, use of the views expressed by the historical figures he incorporates into his plot, and knowledge of natural philosophy and London and its environs.  Lloyd uses Hooke and Hunt who make up an odd couple to solve the murders and their interactions provide a useful guide into scientific, philosophical, and political knowledge of the day.  Lloyd’s descriptions of London as it existed after the devastating fire of 1666 which destroyed 13,200 houses, 87 Parish churches, The Royal Exchange, Guildhall, and St. Paul’s Cathedral are important as he reviews the architectural changes of the city focusing on older buildings that survived the fire, those that did not, and the newest structures that have been built or are under construction.

(Robert Hooke)

Lloyd’s use of late 17th century language and his attention to the smallest detail add authenticity to the dialogue and atmosphere reflected in the story.  Based on the author’s commitment to detail the reader can smell the leather tanneries, the smell of the food served in the taverns, and the snow and rain that was a staple for 17th century London. Lloyd captures the ambiance of the Scientific Revolution and coming Enlightenment with references to the works of Sir Isaac Newton, William Harvey, and the writings of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, among others.

The construction of the plot passes through many layers as Lloyd builds the tension surrounding the many conspiracies, murders, political machinations, religion, and ciphers at the same time the distrust the characters have for each drips in each interaction.  The blend of fact and fiction make for an excellent historical mystery, and I hope to read Lloyd’s sequel which he is working on as soon as it is published.  Let me add one caveat, after reading THE BLOODLESS BOY you are sure to develop a different view of the Scientific Revolution.

Lambeth Palace in the foreground, with the Thames and the City to the north forming the background
(17th Century London)

THE VOLUNTEER by Salvatore Scibona

(Nixon makes the case for a U.S. invasion of Cambodia, April 29, 1970)

It is sometime in 2010 and a five year old boy has been abandoned at the Hamburg-Fuhlsbuttel International Airport.  So begins Salvatore Scibona’s second novel, THE VOLUNTEER a searing story that spans over forty years from the Vietnam War to the post- 9/11 Afghanistan encompassing four generations of fathers and sons that takes the reader from Latvia, Vietnam, Queens, New Mexico among many locations.  Once the boy is introduced wandering the airport as others try to determine his identity and story, Scibona introduces Elroy Heflin, a former convict who resorted to a myriad of lifestyles from stocking a grocery store, slinging heroine, sleeping in shelters and on the street to survive.  He was soon arrested and joined the army to get his life straight.  Later, he is assigned to the Office of Defense Cooperation attached to the American Embassy in Riga, Latvia.

Heflin will develop a relationship with a woman named Evija who upon becoming pregnant refuses Heflin’s offer to marry.  Five years later while serving in Afghanistan, paying one- third of his pay in child support he learns that Evija has abandoned their son Janis who he sees twice a year and wants him to take custody. Heflin will take Janis to the airport to catch a flight to London but decides to leave him in a toilet cubicle at the Hamburg airport before continuing on his way home.

Scibona is a master of shifting scenes from one character to the next.  In the first major instance he moves on from Heflin for about half the book and focuses on Mr. Tilly or Vollie Frade who was Heflin’s guardian until he had reached the age of eighteen.  In telling Vollie’s life story we learn that he too was an unwanted son, born to aging cattle ranchers outside of Davenport, IA and at the age of seventeen forged his parent’s signature and joined the Marines winding up in Vietnam.  Vollie is a complex character who is preoccupied with erasing his identity.  Throughout the novel there are scenes where he seems to be taking himself away.  For example, when he is a small boy his parents burn his clothes to prevent an outbreak of meningitis, for Vollie they are burning him.  During his tenure in the Marines, he finds himself captured in Cambodia, a mission the government says does not exist – then does he?  Later, during bouts of PTSD he again questions his existence.

(US soldiers burn a wooden structure in a village in eastern Cambodia in May 1970)

Scibona’s description of the war in Southeast Asia is reminiscent of the works of Dennis Johnson, Karl Marlantes, Michael Herr, and Tim O’Brien.  It is raw in conception digging deeply into the stupidity of the American role in Vietnam.  The scenes described as Vollie acts as a “Santa Claus” type of character driving in a convoy distributing mail, supplies, and anything else needed to the front lines reflects the absurdity of war.  The discussion surrounding the US invasion of Cambodia and what occurs has a “Apocalypse Now” type of reality as do other scenes in the novel, particularly after he returns from Vietnam and Vollie finds himself ensconced in Queens, NY conducting a spy mission on a Social Security swindler who may turn out to be a Nazi fugitive.

Intergenerational misery dominates the plot as we move from place to place.  A priest trying to crack the mysteries of Janis’ birth in Germany, a commune in Nevada and on and on.  This is a very difficult novel to follow.  At times it feels as if you are reading a Kurt Vonnegut novel taking place in Cloud Cuckoo Land.  Despite a number of difficulties there are a number of portrayals of America that are priceless.  The 1973 description of Queens, NY is priceless from the stoops, woman in house dresses, pickup basketball, church fellowship etc. Scibona has captured the neighborhood perfectly and this goes along with  his striking social commentary.

(Salvatore Scibona)

The characters are lost in their own worlds especially Vollie whose view of life is one who is disappointed in himself and life in general as moving from one lie to another no matter how honest some appeared to be.  Lorch, the spy handler’s quoting of scripture really plays no purpose, but he seems to do so each time he appears.  Louisa, like Vollie is saddled with the burdens of the past as she cares for a baby out of a commune that practiced free love.  Elroy, as he matures, like Vollie he replays scenes of a boyhood of abandonment.

The phrase that captures the essence of the novel is Vollie thinking about how “am I nobody from nowhere” as he and other characters try to maneuver in lives that do not turn out the way they want.  The concept of identity appears repeatedly – for Vollie does he have one since he tries to cut himself off from everyone and everything. 

To Scibona‘s credit his descriptions are often entertaining, but also sarcastic and draining.  He has a keen eye for detail and many of his scenes seem similar to other works of literature and film.  Overall, it was a difficult book to read, and I would only recommend it for someone who has a great deal of time to devote to understanding what the author is trying to say and enjoys a dark story that can be very painful.

(President Nixon announces the entry of US troops into Cambodia)