Fighting in Congress, Then and Now

FreemanThe confirmation hearings for Brett Kavanaugh have reaffirmed something that has become standard today: America’s congressional system, included the senate, is a very partisan space. While the vote is expected to follow strict party lines, both sides have lobbied insults and accusations at one another, party leaders have used shady mechanisms to get their way, and opponents have declared the moral depravity of the other. But at least they haven’t started to throw swings at one another.

(Yet, anyway; if they ever do, then perhaps this is the realm where Jeff Flake’s training might actually come in handy.) 

Joanne Freeman’s new book, The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to the Civil War (Farsar, Straus, & Giroux, 2018), takes us back to a time when violent words were often accompanied with violent actions—or at least threats of violent actions. Freeman documents at least seventy cases of physical conflicts between 1830 and 1860, a number that is probably too low given the press’s reticence to report what really happened in congressional halls. (More on this later.) As divisions between, first, parties, and then, later, geographic regions, deepened, the temperature rose among America’s elected officials, who in turn were egged on by the individuals who voted for them. This book, then, charts what Freeman calls the “emotional logic of disunion,” and narrates the course for how divisions within a nation can fester to the point of bloodshed. Blood had been spilt all along the way, after all.

Much of the narrative is seen through the eyes of quixotic figure Benjamin Brown French. Born and raised in New Hampshire, French moved to Washington in the 1830s and quickly became a mainstay in the political scene: besides holding a number of congressional- and presidential-appointed positions, his jobs allowed him to hobnob with presidents and congressmen on a nearly daily basis. On the one hand, his own development is reflective of Freeman’s broader story: a Democrat, he was initially engulfed in party politics, but eventually evolved into a Republican, albeit a moderate one, who was willing to buy a gun to defend himself from Southerners. This is a tale of how party discord dissolved into sectional conflict.

But more importantly for Freeman’s purposes, French kept a magnificent diary that detailed the social and political activities of Washington, including many of the fights, duels, and attempted ambushes. He had an entertaining wit, too, which often served as useful material for Freeman’s prose. When he was beat by John Forney in the election for Clerk in 1848, French dubbed it a “forneycation,” for instance. Indeed, Freeman’s book is filled with witty asides and entertaining quotes or anecdotes that help liven the tone of an otherwise quite serious story.

One of the reasons French’s diaries are so significant is that they supplement and incomplete and often misleading public record. As Freeman details, newspaper editors often worked in tandem with elected officials; in return for access, they often softened their reports to make the politicians look as tame as possible. Sprinkled throughout Freeman’s account are humorous contrasts between what really happened—a congressman charging a colleague with a knife, only to be met with a gun—and the reported story—nothing but “a crowding.”

One of the things that changed this dynamic was the invention of the telegraph and the proliferation of national coverage. In the 1850s, news of these confrontations quickly spread throughout the nation, which enflamed onlookers who, in turn, demanded their congressmen to fight back. Especially as debates over slavery increased sectional discord, politicians were expected to fight for their rights—quite literally, in many cases. Whereas the South had previously dominated these intimidation tactics, Northerners were now willing to pull their own weight.

caning

The famous caning of Charles Sumner by Preston Brooks. Perhaps the best-known story of congressional violence, it has been a mainstay in my–and I imagine many–classrooms. However, Freeman’s book adds many, many more examples. Indeed, this episode doesn’t appear until the final chapter!

Which hints at another crucial argument of the book: rather than a dispassionate refuge away from the maelstrom of antebellum culture, congressmen reflected partisan passion. They cursed, charged, lunged, swung, and, in some cases, even shot. The people they represented demanded passion, egging them on with donated guns, canes, and fierce words, and the elected officials were happy to oblige.

Which made me, naturally, think of today’s political culture. Congressmen, on both sides of the partisan divide, are urged by constituents demanding radical action. (Though, again, as of yet, not in the physical form.) Especially in this year’s primaries, GOP candidates have learned that they can best rally their base when matching the rousing—if often incoherent—rambling of their party leader; conversely, Democrats have been anxious to capitalize on the energy coming from radical progressives like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. “Build the Wall!” shouts are matched by those of “Abolish ICE!” As Freeman herself noted in an NYT column promoting the book, we would be wise to learn from the lessons of yesteryear before we follow the path too far.

Though covering three decades and a large cast of characters, The Field of Blood is remarkably readable and engrossing. Freeman has a true talent for digesting complicated narrative plots and condensing them in an engaging way. Though at times I got a bit of whiplash while jumping between years, the narrative was quick to once again become rooted in chronological space and time through the use of French or the particular episodes he documented. There has never been a shortage of monographs that detail how America arrived at a Civil War, but Freeman genuinely provides a novel vantage point to understand the coming tragedy. I could see the book working quite well in upper-division undergraduate courses as a way to discuss party politics, sectionalism, and the political system in antebellum America. At the very least, students will learn how congress worked in the decades many of its traditions were formed.

But I’m more excited for general readers today to recognize that there were no “glory years” in American politics. Congressional activities have always been “dirty,” and our selective memories, like how we focus on the “triumvirate” of Webster, Calhoun, and Clay, paper over the fact that democratic delegations were partisan from the start. The reciprocal relationship between earnest constituents, a capitalizing press, and reactionary politicians has often proven to be a dangerous cocktail. This intellectual and cultural genealogy for one of America’s most depressing traditions should help us understand not only how we got on the road to the Civil War, but also the road to Donald Trump.

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