Acts of incivility in antebellum Congress unveiled in Yale historian’s book

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Book cover of The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to Civil War by Joanne B. Freeman

It took Yale historian Joanne Freeman 17 years and three worn-out desk chairs to write her latest book, “The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to Civil War.”

Freeman’s book about violence in the antebellum Congress grew out of her interest in the history of honor culture in early America. When she started the book, she knew of only a handful of violent incidents in the House and Senate chambers, prominent among them the 1856 caning of Massachusetts abolitionist Charles Sumner.

A professor of history and of American studies at Yale, Freeman would go on to uncover 70 accounts of violence — most of them in the House or Senate chambers, and long lost to the historical record.

The Washington newspapers were a good source for Freeman. Reporters during the antebellum period would write versions of what they heard during sessions of Congress — not quite abstracts but not really verbatim, says Freeman. And they veiled the violence. “They would write, ‘The debate became unpleasantly personal at one point.’ Or, ‘There was a sudden sensation in the corner of the chamber” — and I eventually came to realize that this kind of vague description often referred to physical violence. In the case of one “sudden sensation,” two men began punching each other and flipped a desk. During one particularly “unpleasantly personal” encounter, one congressman pulled a gun on another. And a massive brawl featuring scores of men pummeling each other was summed up as: ‘The House was like a heaving billow.’”

Occasionally, the only mention of an incident was the apology. “Sometimes, the record contains no sign of anything untoward, aside from a congressman standing up and saying: ‘It gives me great pleasure to announce to the House that yesterday’s unpleasant incident has been settled with mutual apologies.’”

As luck would have it, says Freeman, early in her research, she read the letters of a congressman who wrote almost every day to his wife, and his letters were filled with violence. “I started reading his letters, and in them he described violent acts such as someone pushing up his sleeves to throw a punch. This was not my image of the antebellum Congress,” she says.

Freeman had a fellowship at the Library of Congress for three months, and in that time, she said, she never opened the papers of a congressman without finding at least one violent incident in Congress.

In the course of her research, Freeman also pored through the entire record of congressional proceedings from the period — which is available online. During this time, Freeman says, “I literally wore a hole in my desk chair.”

When she sat down to write the book, Freeman couldn’t quite figure out how to tell the story in a cohesive way. That is, until she discovered that there was a minor clerk of the House named Benjamin Brown French, who worked in and around Congress for several decades, serving as the House Clerk from 1845 to 1847. French, who acts as a kind of narrator of the book, left behind a remarkable 11-volume diary full of his observations. 

Benjamin French’s portrait and diaries.
Benjamin French’s portrait and diaries. (Photo credit: Joanne Freeman)

Benjamin Brown French became a way for me to show the emotional logic of disunion,” says Freeman. In his diary, Brown revealed “the human experience of living through this period.” He began “as a ‘doughface’ Northern Democrat, willing to do anything to appease the South and preserve his party and the Union. By the book’s end, he buys a gun in case he needs to shoot some Southerners.” The book explores how he — and others — “learned to turn on fellow Americans in the decades before the Civil War. It shows people trying to plot a political path through a nation being torn in two.”

In my work I like to use emotion as evidence to see how feelings drive people to take political action,” says Freeman.

While Freeman understood the gravity of writing a book about violent acts in America’s early government, she could not help but find humor in the comical images of fighting congressmen. In fact, she included a section in the book about humor and fighting because during that time period there was a cottage industry in making fun of congressman in cartoons and plays. “I had fun with that,” she says.

Why was there so much violence in Congress during that time? The answer, says Freeman, is partly because America as a nation was so violent during the 1830s, 1840s, and 1850s. That fact, combined with the growing immediacy of the problem of slavery, virtually guaranteed some degree of violence, particularly given the many ways in which Southerners were comfortable with man-to-man violence.  “What happens when you put Northerners and Southerners and Westerners together in one institution and they have to work together? In addition to their strong feelings about slavery, there were differences in their norms regarding lawfulness and lawlessness, and this distinction had an impact on the workings of Congress and the dynamics of power. Logically enough — and this is part of what the book shows — as part of a slave regime that was grounded in violence and intimidation by definition, Southerners had a literal fighting advantage in Congress.”

While this is obviously not true of every Southerner, a society that is grounded on slavery is going to have this component of violence in it by definition,” she says.

Southerners also had a cultural advantage because they knew they could be violent in ways that Northerners and their constituents wouldn’t be comfortable with. “That is what interested me,” says Freeman. “What if you put them in a room? What happens? Did Northerners have to rise up to the violence bar being set by Southerners?”

Eventually, the answer was: yes. “By the late 1850s, there were groups of armed Northerners and Southerners engaging in combat on the House floor. In one case, there was an open battle in front of the speaker’s platform. In some ways, you might argue that the first battles of the Civil War were fought on the floor of Congress,” says Freeman.

The similarities between the pre-civil war Congress and our Congress today, says Freeman, occurred to her when she realized that she was writing a book about “extreme polarization, splintering national political parties, a partisan press spinning conspiracy theories, people losing faith in national institutions, Americans losing trust in each other, a lack of trust in national institutions.  You could list the similarities,” says Freeman.

The 1850s and the current moment certainly aren’t the only time in American history when there has been this kind of extreme polarization, but some moments have been more extreme than others — such as the late 1790s and the 1960s, says Freeman. “We are certainly in an extreme moment now,” she adds.

What does Freeman’s study of the polarized past have to say to the polarized present? “Certainly, it shows the centrality of debate and compromise to the way that our institutions of government work — and what happens when those practices break down,” says Freeman. “You can have polarized politics and still have a functional Congress. For a time, congressmen were physically fighting with each other, and Congress was still functional. The breakdown of debate over slavery broke down Congress as well.”

For Freeman, finishing the book was a “strange,” and slightly “horrifying” experience — horrifying given the similarities between past and present, and strange because she eventually realized that she had been working on her book for about as long as some of her students have been alive. “It’s emotional when you’ve lived with a topic and with a population of people for that long,” says Freeman, who admits that she burst into tears when she realized: ‘I just finished my book!’”

Author and Yale professor Joanne B. Freeman
Joanne B. Freeman (Photo credit: Beowulf Sheehan)

At Yale, Freeman teaches courses on the revolutionary and early national periods of American history. The study of this time period, says Freeman, is vital for citizens to gain an understanding of where we are, what we are, how we got here, and what the threats are to how we function as a nation.

There has been no moment in my lifetime when the vital importance of understanding our past has been more apparent than now,” she says.

The founding generation wanted Americans to have at least a minimal education — in part so they could recognize threats to the republic, Freeman explains. “They understood that a republic was fragile, that a lot of republics have failed throughout history, and that protecting a republic requires informed citizens who can recognize threats to their nation’s survival,” says Freeman.

We are currently in a moment when history is being foregrounded constantly,” says Freeman. “We have people misinterpreting the past to redefine the present. It is a very history-charged moment. And historians of all kinds have a responsibility to do their best to keep historical facts front and center in public debate. In many ways, our future depends upon it.”

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