THE FIELD OF BLOOD: VIOLENCE IN CONGRESS AND THE ROAD TO CIVIL WAR by Joanne B. Freeman

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.

190128-news-lookingback
(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)

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