the nicest sense of personal honor
January 17, 2019 12:39 PM   Subscribe

CHRIS HAYES [podcast, "Why Is This Happening" 11 DEC 2018, transcript of podcast]: There is a mythos about like, "When we founded the country we broke with the old ways of Europe that were blood-soaked." JOANNE FREEMAN [professor of history and american studies, Yale] [twitter]: Right. CHRIS HAYES: "We created the rule of law and the revered Constitution, where we banished all of that stuff and we ... " And it's bullshit. That moment, that's just Mafia warlord-ism in a committee of Congress. JOANNE FREEMAN: For sure. There is this level of violence. You're absolutely right, that there is a pretty shiny narrative of early America that goes on for quite some time in the way we understand the past, and there wasn't a shiny moment.

Freeman discusses her recent book The Field Of Blood and prior Affair of Honor, focusing on the deployment of inter-personal violence in the United States Congress, on Chris Hayes' podcast.

Congressional Bloodshed: The Run-Up to the Civil War, The New York Times
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.
Before the Civil War, Congress Was a Hotbed of Violence, Smithsonian
A lot of people have heard of the caning of Charles Sumner in the Senate chamber in 1856, but you found many more examples.

I found roughly 70 violent incidents in the 30 years before the Civil War—and very often the incidents featured a Southerner trying to intimidate a Northerner into compliance. It’s all hidden between the lines in the Congressional record; it might say “the conversation became unpleasantly personal.” That meant duel challenges, shoving, pulling guns and knives. In 1858, South Carolina representative Laurence Keitt started trouble with Pennsylvania's Galusha Grow. It turned into a mass brawl between Southerners and Northerners in the House.
The Field of Blood - "As the national debate over slavery grew more impassioned in the 1840s and 1850s, local brush-fires throughout the nation anticipated the Civil War to come. The halls of Congress, too, saw their share of physical violence, and Freeman, a Yale history professor and cohost of the podcast BackStory, draws on a wide range of sources to document scores of incidents ranging from shouting to shoving matches, fistfights, drawn knives, and even death threats among elected representatives. Her revelatory book tracks a seldom-acknowledged history of incivility in American politics, revises views of familiar figures such as John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay, and shows how the era’s reporting of these sensational events led to a new, splashier journalism."

" She draws extensively on the journals of Benjamin Brown French, who, as a clerk in the House of Representatives, had a front-row seat to the posturing, name-calling, dueling, and brawling that regularly erupted in Congress in the decades leading up to the Civil War. While members historically sparred along party and regional lines, the issue of slavery combined with bullying insults to various members’ masculinity led to frequent intimidation and violence. The journals also detail French’s transformation from an early Jacksonian Democrat to a weary Republican ready for the South’s departure, paralleling the evolution of other Northerners’ thinking."

When Violence Broke Out in Congress, The New Republic - "But the violence of the gag rule eventually backfired. As debates over slavery came to dominate national politics in the 1850s, northern voters increasingly favored politicians who showed a willingness to fight back. They saw southern belligerence as a threat to free speech, a right northerners now embraced with as much fervor as southerners did their right to own slaves. In the decade before the Civil War, free speech became a “sacred right” to northerners, Freeman writes, one that southern congressmen, with their constant bullying, threatened to destroy."

The Great National Circus, London Review Of Books Eric Foner [Freeman and Foner discuss her book] - "Even before the pre-war decade, however, Southerners were far more likely to resort to violence than their Northern counterparts. Although the most famous duel in American history, in which Aaron Burr killed Alexander Hamilton, took place in New Jersey, duelling soon went out of style in the North. But not in the South. In Notes on the State of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson explored the psychological effect on Southern whites of holding absolute power over other human beings. Slavery, he concluded, unleashed in whites ‘the most boisterous passions’. ‘By definition,’ Freeman adds, ‘a slave regime was violent.’ Southerners were far more likely than Northerners to go about armed. But Freeman also argues that representatives from the slave states deployed violence ‘strategically’, using threats to intimidate Northerners, whom they believed weren’t inclined to fight. Partly because of calculated bullying, she writes, ‘Southerners held sway’ in Congress. After the war, Thaddeus Stevens, the Radical Republican leader from Pennsylvania, regaled younger members with his recollections of the days when Southern extremists made Congress ‘a hell of legislation’."

'Norms Are Being Challenged All The Time', Jezebel - "At the same time, there was an assumption that if they were loud and aggressive enough, they might be able to shut some people down. It’s a point I make in the book and it’s an important one—in the South, particularly in the deep South, Southerners aren’t confronting this kind of aggressive confrontation on a daily basis, possibly never in some parts of the South. So it was both strategically and politically dangerous to them—and it was also personally insulting to them. That’s part of the dynamic of the book—that political and personal are bound up in such an interesting way in Congress. Part of what got me interested in the first place is that these men are standing in for all that they represent, and they feel that. They’re acting partly on that in a sincere way and partly on that in a performative way, because they know their constituents are watching and their job is to represent them."

The History of Congressional Mayhem - "Politics was never civil"

America Descends Into the Politics of Rage, Joanne Freeman, The Atlantic

Raising Cane, Joanne Freeman - "
In this sense, the crisis of the Union was also a crisis of communication. Northerners were waging war against the South with dangerous words; Southerners were trying to stifle those words with force, and the cross fire was cutting off conversation, particularly in Congress, an institution grounded on open debate and free speech. The Constitution granted congressmen immunity for their words for a reason, though that right had long been violated—on one side, by Southern bullies attacking men who spoke out against slavery; on the other, by those who spurned privilege of debate when confronted by Southerners. The slavery crisis of the 1850s made this gap between ideals and realities glaringly apparent."
posted by the man of twists and turns (3 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
By contrast, I can say from long-ago personal experience that Joanne Freeman herself might be one of the nicest people in the world...
posted by PhineasGage at 1:43 PM on January 17, 2019 [2 favorites]

Dazed by the first blow, Sumner of course could not remember that in order to rise from his desk, which was bolted to the floor by an iron plate and heavy screws, he had to push back his chair, which was on rollers. Perhaps half a dozen blows fell on his head and shoulders while he was still pinioned. Eyes blinded with blood, ‘almost unconsciously, acting under the instinct of self-defence,’ he then made a mighty effort to rise, and, with the pressure of his thighs, ripped the desk from the floor. Staggering forward, he now offered an even better target for Brooks, who, avoiding Sumner’s outstretched arms, beat down ‘to the full extent of his power.’ So heavy were his blows that the gutta-percha cane, which he had carefully selected because he ‘fancied it would not break,’ snapped, but with the portion remaining in his hand, he continued to pour on rapid blows. The strokes ‘made a good deal more noise after the stick was broken than before. They sounded as if the end of the stick was split.’
(-David Donald)

What happened, in other words, was that the violence inflicted on thousands of black bodies every hour was manifested briefly on the Senate floor and poured out on the head of a white, Harvard-educated lawyer.

The caning of Charles Sumner is often credited with galvanizing the North, empowering the abolitionists and the Republicans, and making possible the election of Lincoln—but it seems to me that this change of a heart was perhaps more a matter of self-interest than an enlarging of empathy. The realization that the evil of slavery had grown to the point that it threatened white people too. (William Cullen Bryant: "Are we to be chastised as they chastise their slaves? Are we too, slaves, slaves for life, a target for their brutal blows, when we do not comport ourselves to please them?") And in fact as soon as the Southern threat to sovereignty was destroyed along with its armies, the North at large lost interest in the crimes of people like Preston Brooks, because they were once again confined to victims who were not like Charles Sumner.
posted by Iridic at 2:14 PM on January 17, 2019 [10 favorites]

Thank you for this post! I have been reading the reviews of Freeman's book, because she is one of the hosts of the podcast Backstory, where she has talked several times about French and the violence he witnessed.

Nice to see the book getting so much attention.
posted by suelac at 10:16 PM on January 17, 2019

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