- The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to Civil War by Joanne B. Freeman
By Joanne B. Freeman. (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018. Pp. 467. Cloth, $28.00; paper, $20.00.)
American democracy in its so-called golden age was violent. Such a claim will little surprise the readers of this journal. Yet historian Joanne Freeman provides new and compelling insight by revealing the culture of violence that suffused the United States Congress in the thirty years [End Page 109] leading up to the Civil War. In this notorious age of partisan wrangling and sectional discord, Freeman argues, fistfights and duels, bowie knives and pistols, bullying and ultimatums structured the practice of congressional politics. No outlier in an otherwise placid environment, the infamous "caning of Sumner" was actually one of some seventy violent altercations that Freeman painstakingly documents and that, she contends, propelled the nation to civil war. Narrative in construction and exceedingly rich in historical detail, The Field of Blood should find the wide popular audience Freeman seeks.
If violence was so pervasive inside and outside of the halls of Congress, how have we missed it? As Freeman explains, the obvious sources (the Congressional Globe and partisan newspapers) largely covered up the clashes or downplayed their significance. By contrast, letters written by members of Congress and the eleven-volume diary of Benjamin Brown French, a longtime congressional clerk, offer more uncensored evidence. So important is French's diary that Freeman wisely makes the New Hampshire voyeur a lead character in her history. In the process, French's own transformation from dedicated doughface Democrat to armed Republican opponent of the slave power becomes an instructive subplot braided into the gripping saga of strife.
Early chapters set the stage, transporting readers to Congress's stuffy, spit-stained chambers and booze-soaked committee rooms as well as to Washington, D.C., more generally, which Freeman paints as a decidedly southern city shaped by slavery's intrinsic violence. Such conditions, she implies, made Congress ripe for cruelty. So too did the emergent partisan strife of the 1830s and especially the "honor culture" that southern "fighting men" continued to bring to Congress even as most northerners had become "noncombatants" (71). The gloves come off in chapter 3, which focuses on the 1838 duel between Democrat Jonathan Cilley of Maine and Whig William Graves of Kentucky. Freeman shows how a seemingly small slight (in this case, minor criticism of Democratic malfeasance) escalated into an affair of honor that left Cilley dead by gunshot. Horrified northerners scrambled to outlaw dueling in the District of Columbia, but according to Freeman, their measure had little impact.
Violence continued, but as Freeman argues, it shifted (perhaps not surprisingly) from serving partisan ends to serving distinctly sectional ones. Her deft reappraisal of the gag rule begins the transition. It also exposes bullying as an essential political practice, particularly by illuminating southern antiabolitionists' strategic use of physical intimidation and the threat of violence to obstruct John Quincy Adams and other abolitionist sympathizers. Here and elsewhere, Freeman might have complicated her [End Page 110] portrait of bully politics, both its dynamics and its participants, by considering other types of bullying beyond the physical. How, for example, was social bullying—social ostracism—employed in congressional circles and to what ends? Moreover, how would investigation of intellectual bullying—the use of superior intelligence to demean others—change Freeman's analysis? Might it even force consideration of Adams, who "relished baiting slaveholders," as an agent of bully politics rather than a victim of southern bullying (135)? Obviously, Adams's haughty taunts served very different ends (antislavery ends that we justly celebrate today). Yet for many of his contemporaries, including Benjamin Brown French, Adams (if not insane) was using his powerful mind to mock slaveholders and "deliberately [drive them]—and the Union—to the breaking point" (114).
The final third of the book links escalating congressional violence to the wider explosion of sectional hostilities in the 1850s. Powerful and provocative insights abound. Freeman's exhumation of the Benton-Foote scuffle during the...