Monday, November 12, 2018

Just Finished Reading - The Field of Blood

The contentious nature of today's U.S. politics manifests itself in congressional spats that receive a fair share of media attention. And while things often get nasty in terms of tone, rarely do they result in acts of violence. Such was not the case in the first half of the 19th century.

Joanne B. Freeman's The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to Civil War chronicles a number of the kerfuffles, fisticuffs, canings, and duels that resulted from political collisions on the floors of the House of Representatives and Senate in the decades leading up to the Civil War. Freeman uses Benjamin Brown French's detailed journals to provide amazing insight into the world of the period's politics. French, a New Hampshire native, who spent considerable time as the House clerk and later as a Democrat, and then Republican, Washington insider.

At the heart of so much of the hatred across the aisles was the institution of slavery. In episode after episode of violence the roots of the congressional conflicts were found in the "peculiar institution." Southerners such as Virginia's Henry Wise, South Carolina's Lawrence Keitt, North Carolina's Thomas Clingman, and Mississippi's Henry Foote used bullying techniques in attempt to intimidate those of different political persuasions. Defensiveness over the issue of slavery inflamed the passions of the various contending political parties. However, as Republicans began to rise to prominence in the late 1850s, they increasingly refused to be bullied and chose to fight back.

In The Field of Blood, Freeman gives us political giants such as John Quincy Adams and Thomas Hart Benton, while at the same time we learn about lesser known (but just as combative) figures such as Maine's Jonathan Cilley and Kentucky's William Graves, the later two of whom fought a duel in 1838. Also here are the great congressional battles such as the 1836 Gag Rule, the Compromise of 1850, and the Kansas-Nebraska territory debates. Freeman argues that congressional members' 19th century constituents expected their elected representatives to not only be their voice, but to also fight for their rights, with weapons if need be. The 1856 Brooks-Sumner episode makes a brief appearance, but probably due to that event's extensive coverage it doesn't receive a full treatment. Rather it serves as yet another example of the difference in stands Northerners and Southerners took on what slavery's role would be in the United States.

In addition to the French journals Freeman makes extensive use of period newspapers from multiple political perspectives and official congressional records. The Field of Blood reminds us that issues that divide our nation can bring out the worst in our society as well as our political representatives. And although at present our two primary political parties are fighting a war or words, at least they are not throwing haymakers on the floors and toting lethal weapons on a daily basis. I recommend it.

No comments:

Post a Comment