Book Review: The Field of Blood

The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to the Civil War
Joanne B. Freeman
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
(c) 2018 by the author

You might recall from your American History classes in school that in the few decades before the Civil War, Congress was filled with great orators like Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, and John C. Calhoun. Continuing in the fine tradition of our Founding Fathers, they and other congressmen would passionately debate the issues of the day, letting their words carry the force of their arguments….

Well, maybe in the Senate. In the House of Representatives, it was another story.

Freeman has worked her way through the massive and detailed diary of Benjamin Brown French, a lawyer and newspaperman from New Hampshire. French arrived in DC in 1830, and landed a job as a clerk in the House of Representatives. Until his death in 1870, he either worked for Congress or the federal government in some capacity, or traveled in the same circles as congressmen. French got around; he was an eyewitness to the attempted assassination of Andrew Jackson, was there at his side when John Quincy Adams died, and helped coordinate security in DC when Lincoln was assassinated.

But this isn’t a biography; Freeman uses the diary (and the Congressional Record as well as contemporary newspaper accounts) to create a fascinating and entertaining look at just how rowdy and violent Congress was in the antebellum era. Insults were hurled, knives were brandished, guns pulled, brawls started, duels were threatened. By her count, there were some seventy violent incidents in that period.

Part of the problem might have been the cramped room where the House of Representatives met. The place was never intended to hold so many people. Small desks, bad acoustics, tobacco spit on the floor, and poor ventilation – with sessions dragging on well into the wee hours of the morning, and alcohol readily available – all combined to shorten tempers. Toss in intense party and sectional loyalties, and a Southern “code of honor” that was so alien to Northerners that some members of Congress served as “interpreters” and tried to defuse tensions before things got too far….

Freeman notes in passing that the violence wasn’t confined to the nation’s capital. She tells of one state legislator who actually killed a political rival and was expelled from his position – only to be acquitted on basically “justifiable homicide”, and then get re-elected.

Running beneath the dirty battles in the halls of Congress is the undercurrent of technology. The era saw the invention of the telegraph and massive innovations in newspaper publishing. Together, they made it easy for news from the Capitol to spread far and wide. By the 1850s, major cities could hear about political goings-on within hours – all published in highly partisan newspapers, naturally.

The similarities with the current political climate are striking. But at least our current Congressional representatives aren’t carrying knives…as far as we know….

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