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A congressional death match

In her absorbing, scrupulously researched book The Field of Blood, Joanne B. Freeman uncovers the brawls, stabbings, pummelings and duel threats that occurred among US congressmen

David S. Reynolds | New York Times 

Violence in Congress and the Road to Civil War

Joanne B. Freeman

Farrar, Straus & Giroux

450 pages; $28

So, you think Congress is dysfunctional?

There was a time when it ran with blood — a time so polarised that politics generated a cycle of violence, in Congress and out of it, that led to the deadliest war in the nation’s history.

In her absorbing, scrupulously researched book The Field of Blood, uncovers the brawls, stabbings, pummelings and duel threats that occurred among United States congressmen during the three decades just before the Civil War.

Ms Freeman, a professor of history and American studies at Yale, mines a valuable document that gives us a front-row view of the action: the 11-volume diary that the political observer Benjamin Brown French kept between 1828 and his death in 1870. A New Hampshirite who worked as a lawyer and journalist before turning to politics, French moved in 1833 to Washington, where he served as a congressional clerk for 14 years. After that, he stayed close to the political scene, working as a part-time clerk, a lobbyist and a buildings commissioner under three presidents. Originally a Jacksonian Democrat, French became an antislavery Republican loyal to Lincoln, whom he served as commissioner of public buildings.

Using French’s diary as a lens on Congress, Ms Freeman describes many violent episodes. “Between 1830 and 1860,” she writes, “there were more than 70 violent incidents between congressmen in the House and Senate chambers or on nearby streets and dueling grounds, most of them long forgotten.” In 1841, an exchange of insults between two representatives, Edward Stanly of North Carolina and Henry Wise of Virginia, led to a wild melee in which nearly all the members of the House pummelled one another. John B. Dawson of Louisiana “routinely wore both a bowie knife and a pistol” into the House and once threatened to cut a colleague’s throat “from ear to ear.” Angry over a speech delivered by the antislavery Ohioan Joshua Giddings, Dawson shoved Giddings and threatened him with a knife. Another time, Dawson pointed his cocked pistol at Giddings and was prevented from shooting him only when other congressmen intervened.

As Ms Freeman notes, the Southerners were vulnerable to such goading because of the code of honour they followed. According to the code, even a mild insult could trigger a fight or, in some cases, a duel. Offended Southern honour also lay behind the most famous violent congressional incident of the era, the near-deadly assault in May 1856 on the Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner by the South Carolina representative Preston Brooks. Having delivered his withering antislavery speech “The Crime Against Kansas,” Sumner was sitting alone in the Senate at his desk, which was bolted to the floor, when Brooks approached him. Declaring that Sumner had libelled his state and slandered a relative of his, Brooks pounded Sumner with his gold-headed cane, delivering at least a dozen blows before his cane broke. Sumner, trapped behind his desk, lurched and writhed under the assault, at last falling, “barely conscious,” in a pool of blood. Sumner, who eventually recovered from his wounds, became a hero in the North and a lasting reminder of the violent tactics of slavery’s defenders. Brooks, meanwhile, was lionised in the South, where editors, mass meetings and student groups hailed him. His state quickly re-elected him to the House.

Ms Freeman notes that the violence in Congress was like a spectator sport. Men and women crowded the congressional galleries with the expectation of seeing entertaining outbreaks, much the way fans of professional wrestling or hockey do today. But she never loses sight of the fact that the fighting in Congress was far more than a sport. It was part of the ever-escalating tensions over slavery. Throughout much of the period, Southern congressmen were the aggressors, and Northerners, who disdained violence, were considered timid or cowardly. By the 1850s, however, the North’s backbone had stiffened. As slavery became increasingly entrenched, Northern congressmen vowed to take action against Southern bullying and insults. The Pennsylvania Republican Galusha Grow declared that Southerners were “under the delusion that Northern men would not fight,” when, in fact, they “will fight in a just cause.”

Not long after Grow made the statement, Union soldiers under Abraham Lincoln were marching south to fight for a just cause. The South, despite its years of bullying and bravado, eventually buckled under the relentless advance of Lincoln’s armies. In the end, some 750,000 Americans lost their lives in the war that preserved the Union and ended slavery.

Like other good historical works, <p> <p> 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 Ms Freeman places them are not. She enriches what we already know and tells us a lot about what we don’t know.

Ms 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.

© 2018 The New York Times News Service

First Published: Sun, September 30 2018. 23:55 IST