The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to Civil War

The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to Civil War

by Joanne B. Freeman


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"One of the best history books I've read in the last few years." —Chris Hayes

The previously untold story of the violence in Congress that helped spark the Civil War

In The Field of Blood, Joanne B. Freeman recovers the long-lost story of physical violence on the floor of the U.S. Congress. Drawing on an extraordinary range of sources, she shows that the Capitol was rife with conflict in the decades before the Civil War. Legislative sessions were often punctuated by mortal threats, canings, flipped desks, and all-out slugfests. When debate broke down, congressmen drew pistols and waved Bowie knives. One representative even killed another in a duel. Many were beaten and bullied in an attempt to intimidate them into compliance, particularly on the issue of slavery.

These fights didn’t happen in a vacuum. Freeman’s dramatic accounts of brawls and thrashings tell a larger story of how fisticuffs and journalism, and the powerful emotions they elicited, raised tensions between North and South and led toward war. In the process, she brings the antebellum Congress to life, revealing its rough realities—the feel, sense, and sound of it—as well as its nation-shaping import. Funny, tragic, and rivetingly told, The Field of Blood offers a front-row view of congressional mayhem and sheds new light on the careers of John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay, and other luminaries, as well as introducing a host of lesser-known but no less fascinating men. The result is a fresh understanding of the workings of American democracy and the bonds of Union on the eve of their greatest peril.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374154776
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 09/11/2018
Pages: 480
Sales rank: 251,339
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.50(d)

About the Author

Joanne B. Freeman, a professor of history and American studies at Yale University, is a leading authority on early national politics and political culture. The author of the award-winning Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic and editor of The Essential Hamilton and Alexander Hamilton: Writings, she is a cohost of the popular history podcast BackStory.

Read an Excerpt




In the middle of December 1833, the thirty-three-year-old French set off for the nation's capital and a new life as a clerk for the U.S. House of Representatives. Duty drove him more than anything else; as he explained in his diary, he needed to earn money to pay his debts. He was too extravagant with his earnings, he knew, and now he was paying the price. His wife — "all I love on this earth" — was back in New Hampshire. And he was trundling in a stagecoach, then three steamboats, then another stagecoach to Washington.

During his trip, French bumped up against concrete evidence of just how localized the nation and he himself were. State banks printed their own currency, so interstate travel required preparation, and French wasn't prepared. In Pennsylvania, he discovered that his New Hampshire bills weren't much good. When his wife followed him to Washington a few months later, he had sage advice: "Use New Hampshire or Massachusetts money until you get to New Haven, and then begin upon your Southern money. I had some trouble in Philadelphia to get rid of my New Hampshire money."

Southern money in hand, French arrived in Washington on December 21, 1833 — at 1:30 a.m. on a cold morning, to be precise — and he spent the day doing what any visitor would do; he toured the capital with fresh eyes. What he saw was a raw young city with pretensions of becoming something more.

Planned in the 1790s and first serving as the seat of government in 1800, Washington was a new capital for a new nation. Boosters called it the City of Magnificent Distances; critics called it the City of Magnificent Intentions. Either way, it embodied big hopes and an uncertain future.

You could see the city's rawness everywhere: in its sprawling dimensions and empty expanses; in its clusters of low wood houses and straggling rows of buildings pocked by vacant lots; in the odd isolated splendor of its scattered handful of large government buildings (as if "the British Museum ... suddenly migrated to the centre of an exhausted brickfield"); in its broad unpaved avenues and its seemingly permanent blanket of dust from ongoing construction. As late as 1850, houses weren't numbered, street signs weren't mandatory, there were no streetlights, "and the visitor who wanted to find a residence had to depend upon the hack-drivers, whose method of memory seemed to be that each person lived 'just a little way from' somewhere else." Thanks to poor planning, sewage pooled in low-lying areas; there was a "miasmatic swamp" near the White House, and in 1857 a sewage-induced dysentery outbreak in the National Hotel killed three and sickened dozens, including the president-elect. Cows, geese, and pigs roamed the streets. Over the years, French had countless livestock run-ins; on one evening in 1838, he was convinced that "nearly all the dogs in Washington" were behind his boardinghouse barking at cows. A few years later, a cow wearing a bell woke him night after night for months; even as he was complaining in his diary, the cow seemed to "gingle" her bell "as if she knew that I was writing about her. ... D — n that cow."

In a city networked by more roads and alleys than New York or Philadelphia, the streets themselves seemed to rise up in rebellion. Crossing one of the broad avenues could be an adventure. When it rained, they were mired in mud. When it didn't, the wind stirred up dust clouds so dense that people were choked and blinded. The wise Washingtonian carried a handkerchief to cover nose and mouth when crossing the street. ("You have no idea of the dust," noted a clerk searching for a place to board that wasn't enveloped in a thick cloud of it.) In the summer of 1856, Congress spent nearly $2,000 watering down Pennsylvania Avenue, roughly equivalent to $56,000 in 2017; French, commissioner of public buildings at the time, supervised the watering.

Of course, Washington changed during its first five decades, transforming from a town of roughly 8,000 people in 1800 to a city of more than 50,000 in the 1850s. But one thing didn't change: Washington revolved around the openings and closings of Congress. Just before the start of every session, a migrant group of politicians and their families trouped to the capital, joined by a throng of hangers-on: "distinguished foreigners, gentlemen who are traveling for amusement, political demagogues, claimants, patentees, letter writers, army and navy officers, office hunters, and a host of gamblers and blacklegs" — not to mention socialites eager for fun. (One congressman included "lunatics" in this group, noting that Washington had more than its share because some government claimants literally went insane waiting for Congress to act.) To French, it was a "cloud ... equalled only by the locusts in Egypt."

French was part of that cloud in 1833. He spent his first day seeing the sights with two New Hampshire congressmen, including Franklin Pierce. The three men probably saw the White House and strolled down Pennsylvania Avenue, the city's main thoroughfare (known as "the Avenue"), with its array of houses, hotels, churches, saloons, small businesses, and newspaper offices. But of all that French saw on that first day, one thing stood out: the United States Capitol. "I viewed it with thoughts and emotions which I cannot express," he confessed in his diary that night.

Perhaps he was struck by the grand sweeping architecture; the iconic statues and artwork in the rotunda; the look, sound, and feel of the House and Senate chambers. Perhaps he was anticipating this new phase of his life on an elevated stage. He was certainly excited to hear "the great men of the land debate." But more than anything else, French was struck by the symbolism of his surroundings. Thus his reaction to viewing the Capitol for the first time: "will it always be the capitol of my happy country? I fear the seeds are already sown whose fruit will be disunion, but God forbid it!" French was responding to the Nullification Crisis of 1832–33, a standoff between the national government and South Carolina, which had nullified a federal tariff; for a time, the threat of federal military intervention had been all too real. French may have been looking at a brick-and-mortar structure, but he was seeing the Union incarnate.

The Capitol encouraged this kind of thinking by design. Not only was it an architectural anchor of the city — an enormous structure at one end of Pennsylvania Avenue, in a permanent showdown with the White House at the other end — but it was also a national monument of sorts, open to the public and filled with commemorative works of art. The exterior was adorned with "colossal" allegorical statues: the Genius of America, War, Peace, Hope, and Justice (though somewhat forebodingly, in 1842 "Justice" was damaged, her arm and hand — clutching the Constitution — broken off and smashed on the Capitol's steps). The interior was filled with statues and portraits of Great Americans and paintings of Great American Moments, most notably John Trumbull's iconic paintings in the rotunda: the Surrender of General Burgoyne at Saratoga, the Declaration of Independence, the Surrender of Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown, and General George Washington Resigning His Commission. American values, American heroes, and American history, all on display.

The building's scope and scale were equally symbolic, designed to capture the spirit of American governance. The imposing rotunda with its impressive dome signaled the high ambitions — even the majesty — of popular representation, as did the House and Senate chambers, open to public view: the House, grand in scale, with a dramatic domed ceiling and crimson drapery; the Senate with its clubby intimacy and luxurious red Moroccan leather chairs. The concentric arc-shaped rows of simple desks in both houses captured the other half of the republican equation: a plainspoken, straightforward approach to business with little to no frippery to get in the way. (Newspaper ads seeking craftsmen to build them requested "strong, neat and plain" furniture "without any superfluous ornament.") The desks were the only offices that congressmen had, aside from their paper-strewn boardinghouse or hotel rooms. In his first months in office French saw it all, touring the building from bottom to top, glorying in its wonders, and laughing at how the "superb" view from the dome made people in the rotunda look like "little squab looking fellows."

All in all, the Capitol's structural design was intended to have an impact, and French got the message. He could think of "no more imposing spectacle" than an evening session of the House: the light "equal to that of at least 1,000 candles," the galleries jammed with the Washington "gentility," the "vast pillars," the plush drapery that looked "richer, if possible, by artificial light than by the light of day." If conditions were right — "If the House happens to be in good humor, & some interesting subject is under debate" — it was a magnificent sight, suggesting all that Congress was supposed to be.

And Congress was supposed to be quite a lot; in the first half of the nineteenth century it had a particularly large role to play. By the time of French's arrival in 1833, the government had been in operation for forty- four years. On the one hand, this was long enough to prove that one stupid policy or one sweeping crisis wouldn't dash it to ruins. America's survival through the War of 1812, the nation's second war against Great Britain, suggested that the American experiment might just have legs. On the other hand, forty-four years wasn't long enough to take things for granted; there were kinks to be worked out, fundamental understandings yet unreached, major decisions yet to be made, and large, looming power vacuums waiting to be filled. Here, too, the Capitol embodied the Union; it was still under construction, and would be into the Civil War and beyond.

There was also the destabilizing influence of national expansion. The young nation was still in its adolescence, spreading across the North American continent at a remarkable rate. Between 1840 and 1860, seven new states were added to the Union; in 1860, fifteen out of thirty-two states were less than forty-five years old. For many Americans, it was exciting and empowering, seemingly the groundwork of a future empire. It was also unsettling, because each new state raised fundamental questions about the nature of the nation. The question of slavery was front and center — would it, should it, spread and survive? — but it wasn't the only one. What of native peoples who owned western lands? How far could new states go in setting their own terms? What was the relationship between periphery and center? And what about the logistics? How would this far-flung nation be interconnected? By toll roads? Canals? Railroads? Who would fund and manage their development, and how? And speaking of funding, how active should the national government be in harmonizing the nation's unsteady and diverse economy as the Industrial Age began to unfold? What role should the government play in handling the period's many financial panics? There were endless uncertainties, logical enough in a new and growing nation, but unsettling nonetheless.

Congress would help to answer many of these questions, establishing vital precedents. It would play a role in crisscrossing the continent with roads and canals. It would foster industry with protective tariffs on imported goods — or not, depending on which party was in power. It would weigh in on the terms of statehood for every new state, but not without turmoil; although the Constitution and subsequent legislation outlined this process, it left room for interpretation, and the question of slavery expanded to fill much of it. In one way or another, during the first half of the nineteenth century, Congress was shaping the scale, scope, and influence of the national government and how far it could go in shaping the nation.

And the American people knew it. Congress was where the action was. Although the presidency got its share of press coverage — and more during election years — Congress got the lion's share of column inches. Newspapers routinely printed lengthy summaries of congressional debates as well as congressional commentary. Popular culture kept pace. By the 1850s, there was a virtual school of Congress-bashing in squibs, plays, cartoons, even mock epic poetry. All of these efforts were filled with inside jokes grounded on the assumption that the reading public was remarkably knowledgeable about the day-to-day happenings in Congress.

They were certainly well versed in the words of Congress's star orators. This was the great age of speechifying, and the Senate was its national headquarters, though the House held its own. Oratory was a vastly popular form of entertainment through much of the nineteenth century. People would flock to hear stump speeches and lectures that went on for hours (testimony to the long-lost art of having a long attention span). This was the realm of Henry Clay and Daniel Webster, as well as a number of their peers who have since lost their luster. When these men were due to give speeches, crowds packed the galleries, Senate attendance improved remarkably, and Representatives migrated from the House to hear them. One 1848 speech by Clay — before the American Colonization Society, after hours in the House — attracted a crowd of thousands who not only filled every square inch of the chamber but packed the rotunda and the space outside the windows. (One disgruntled congressman quipped that Clay, a repeat presidential contender, "could get more men to run after him to hear him speak, and fewer to vote for him, than any man in America.") Such grandstand performances didn't necessarily change congressional votes. But they might change public opinion, and that could change everything. A reliable source of praise and fame, impressive oratory was political muscle. As one reporter put it, "Eloquence, in this empire, is power."

At their best, the best speakers voiced shared sentiments so eloquently and forcefully that their words became a kind of patriotic gospel; generations of schoolchildren memorized and delivered Daniel Webster's speeches as American anthems. Even French, a firm Democrat when he arrived in Washington, almost genuflected at the mention of the mighty Whig's name. Webster was a New Hampshire native and the voice of America: it was impossible for French not to be proud. When French was accused of attacking Webster in his newspaper column, he anxiously checked every column he'd ever written, breathing a sigh of relief when he came up empty-handed: he was "[t]oo proud of being a native of the same state with him to abuse him." As much as he disapproved of Webster's Whig politics, French considered him "one of the greatest men in this Union."

It's no wonder that some people viewed Congress as the land of Great Men. French did at first. "The color of the rose was about everything I saw," he later recalled. Even congressmen themselves could be impressed by some of their fellows. French's friend John Parker Hale (D-NH) acknowledged as much when he asked big-name colleagues to frank his letters home so his wife could save their autographs.

This was the Congress enshrined in the Capitol's architecture and artwork, the Congress that took French's breath away. But there was another Congress, a place of negotiating and compromising, of parliamentary power plays on the floor and politicking in back rooms, of ego, bravado, and boozy backslapping with an occasional ultimatum delivered behind closed doors. The man-to-man challenges and the sense of community; the heated debate and drawn-out pauses; the quiet asides, muttered insults, and fistfights: this was the ground-level workaday Congress, an often contentious, sometimes tumultuous, and occasionally even dangerous assembly charged with crafting policies and precedents that would shape the nation, a fitting reflection of a restless people pushing the bounds of empire.


Excerpted from "The Field of Blood"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Joanne B. Freeman.
Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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Table of Contents

Introductions: Tobacco-Stained Rugs and Benjamin Brown French
1. The Union Incarnate for Better and Worse: The United States Congress
2. The Mix of Men in Congress: Meeting Place of North and South
3. The Pull and Power of Violence: The Cilley-Graves Duel (1838)
4. Rules of Order and the Rule of Force: Dangerous Words and the Gag Rule Debate (1836-1844)
5. Fighting for the Union: The Compromise of 1850 and the Benton-Foote Scuffle (1850)
6. A Tale of Two Conspiracies: The Power of the Press and the Battle over Kansas (1854-1855)
7. Republicans Meet the Slave Power: Charles Sumner and Beyond (1855-1861)
Epilogue: "I Witnessed It All"

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