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NY Times Sunday Book Review, Sept. 30, 2018
Congressional Bloodshed: The Run-Up to the Civil War
By David S. Reynolds
THE FIELD OF BLOOD
Violence in Congress and the Road to Civil War
By Joanne B. Freeman
Illustrated. 450 pp. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $28.
So, you think Congress is dysfunctional?
There was a time when it ran with blood — a time so polarized 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,”
Joanne B. Freeman uncovers the brawls, stabbings, pummelings and duel
threats that occurred among United States congressmen during the three
decades just before the Civil War.
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, 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 pummeled 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
Giddings, an outspoken abolitionist, was accustomed to such treatment
from the pro-slavery side. He was attacked at least seven times. Like
the acerbic John Quincy Adams, the antislavery former president who
represented Massachusetts in the House, Giddings intentionally goaded
Southerners to violence in order to expose the barbarism of the slave power.
As Freeman notes, the Southerners were vulnerable to such goading
because of the code of honor they followed. According to the code, even
a mild insult could trigger a fight or, in some cases, a duel. Freeman
tells us of the fiery Mississippi senator Henry S. Foote, who fought
four duels in his political career and was wounded in three of them. On
the Senate floor, he raised a pistol toward an opponent, the Missouri
senator Thomas Hart Benton, who bared his chest and invited Foote to
shoot, yelling: “I have no pistols! Let him fire! I disdain to carry
arms!” Another senator grabbed Foote’s weapon and locked it in a drawer.
Although this confrontation did not prove fatal, another one, between
Congressmen Jonathan Cilley of Maine and William J. Graves of Kentucky,
did. Cilley, a Democrat, had charged a Whig editor, James Watson Webb,
with having accepted a bribe. Outraged by the accusation, Webb wrote a
letter in which he challenged Cilley to a duel. He sent the letter
through Graves, a Whig friend. When Cilley refused to accept the letter,
Graves felt insulted and made his own duel challenge to Cilley. The two
men faced off with rifles on a dueling ground outside Washington. Both
missed their targets in the first two rounds, but in the third Graves
Offended Southern honor 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 libeled 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 lionized in the South, where editors, mass meetings and
student groups hailed him. He was showered with gifts, including canes
with inscriptions like “Good Job,” “Hit Him Again” and “Use Knockdown
Arguments.” His state quickly re-elected him to the House.
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. Sometimes, she shows, French recorded in
his diary his delight as a spectator. Describing the huge brawl of 1841,
he wrote, “The Speaker & I had the best chance to see all the fun, &
while he stood at his desk pounding & yelling, I stood at mine ‘calm as
a summer’s morning’ — enjoying the sport, and keeping the minutes of the
But Freeman 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.
Daniel Clark, a Republican from New Hampshire, warned that “a different
class of men now came from the North. … They are sent not to bow down,
but to stand up.” 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
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.
David S. Reynolds, a distinguished professor at the CUNY Graduate
Center, is the author or editor of 15 books, most recently “Lincoln’s
Selected Writings: A Norton Critical Edition.”
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