I recently had the privilege to interview Yale University historian and Backstory Radio cohost, Joanne Freeman. Her new book, “The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to Civil War” is being released today.
Welcome! Before we begin, could you tell us a little bit about yourself and introduce “The Field of Blood”?
I’m a professor of history and American studies at Yale University who specializes in early national America generally, and politics and political culture specifically, with a particular interest in political violence.
My first book — Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic — explores the “grammar of political combat” on the national stage (or in other words, the logic of political combat).
I’m also an expert on the life and times of Alexander Hamilton — knowledge that has been extremely popular of late! — and have published two edited volumes of his papers: Alexander Hamilton: Writings, and The Essential Hamilton. My next book, The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to Civil War — looks at physical violence in the U.S. Congress between 1830 and the Civil War.
Would you walk us through the research and writing backstory? When did you send in the proposal, when and where did you really dig into the research, and how does the final word count line up with your initial goal?
I came up with the idea for this book during a research fellowship at the Library of Congress in 2001. Casting about for a new book project, I decided to jump ahead a few decades from the period covered in my first book, and see what political honor combat looked like in the 1830s or 1840s, in the hope of discovering change over time.
I knew that one congressman had killed another in 1838, so I plunged in there. As luck would have it, the congressman’s letters that I began to read mentioned a good number of physical fights in Congress — enough to motivate me to look further, and I found ample proof of an ongoing thread of violence in Congress. This was clearly a story that hadn’t been told. In subsequent years, I researched in newspaper databases and archives around the country, and spent an entire sabbatical year reading the period’s equivalent of the Congressional Record.
Figuring out how to tell the story of scores of fights unfolding over several decades took some time. I fundamentally changed the book’s organization several times, and did a lot of rethinking and reconfiguring of chapters. In the end, with the help of eyewitness Benjamin Brown French (see below), I told the kind of story that I wanted to tell: a tale of ground-level violence among political power-holders, of powerful emotions, and of extreme polarization that shaped the coming of the Civil War.
Were there research challenges you are particularly proud of overcoming?
I’m particularly proud of having pieced together the fights at the core of this book; an appendix in the book discusses how I did it. Much of the violence wasn’t included in the period’s equivalent of the Congressional Record, so to discover and reconstruct violent clashes, I had to triangulate snippets of evidence from letters, diaries, and newspapers, and then match it up against the somewhat censored (or at least, consistently cleaned up) record of debate. Newspaper coverage of violence changed over time; there was less of it in the 1830s when the Washington press community was relatively insular. So by the 1850s, there was more reportage of congressional clashes (some of it exaggerated), which made my task easier.
Ultimately, my research revealed that between 1830 and 1860 there were at least 70 physically violent incidents between congressmen or senators, including one death by duel in 1838, almost all of them taking place in the House or Senate chambers. Most of these fights, as well as countless near misses, have been long lost to the historical record.
Who was Benjamin Brown French and what makes him essential to the book?
Benjamin Brown French — a wonderfully observant clerk in the House of Representatives, and a prolific writer and correspondent — ended up being central to my book. Not only does he act as a kind of guide, offering an insider’s view of Congress, but his striking transition over the course of the book tells a larger story.
He starts out as a “doughface,” a term for a Northern Democrat who appeases Southerners on slavery to preserve the Union and promote his party. Well-liked by Northerners and Southerners, Whigs and Democrats alike, French gradually gravitated to the antislavery Republican Party and armed himself in self-defense, prepared to shoot Southerners if need be. Seeing the period through his eyes let me get at the emotional underpinnings of the story of the coming of the Civil War, and the reality of Americans learning to turn on each other.
One of my goals in writing The Field of Blood was to use the study of emotions to offer new insights into the growing distrust between Northerners and Southerners. French was a core anchor for that project, helping me to understand the emotional logic of disunion.
What is the relationship between violent political rhetoric and actual physical violence?
It’s easy to overlook the power of words, but rhetoric can have tremendous power — enough to move people to take violent action. The Field of Blood shows how that chain reaction works. Deliberately deployed “dangerous words” — antislavery rhetoric, threats and insults — run throughout the book, and the emotions that they inspired drove people to extremes. As explosive and dramatic as the book’s high fight count is, the power behind the violence was intimidation and degradation produced by harsh or dangerous words.
In what ways do today’s press and Congress mirror the more violent periods in our history—and in what ways are there clear differences?
Congress and the press in the 1850s and today share some striking similarities. Extreme polarization, high emotions, nasty accusations, conspiracy theories, clashing visions of the nation and its future, mutual distrust of people on either side of this dispute: both then and now, all of these things bear true.
But antebellum America was a very different place, and Congress and the press were discussing very different issues. Violence was pervasive throughout the first half of the nineteenth century — even in politics — so fighting that might shock us today was more routine. And congressional debate over the polarizing question of slavery had a distinctive dynamic and history that increased its influence and importance in a host of ways.
In addition, objectivity wasn’t yet a goal in press coverage of politics — something that’s (usually) different from the present, though we’re experiencing a subjective news crisis of our own.
How hard was it to come up with synonyms for fighting? Are there any creative words you break out in regular conversation after writing this book?
What a wonderful question! It was indeed hard. Clash, confrontation, fisticuffs, fistfight, brawl, fracas, rumble, scratch fight, honor dispute: this is the tip of the iceberg in my ongoing quest to avoid using the word “fight” in every paragraph.
I’m hoping to find a way to use “scratch fight” in conversation some day. And I certainly use the words “brawling” and “fisticuffs” more than I once did.
But my all time favorite bit of fighting lingo comes from the 1850s, and involves a fight between a Virginia congressman and a newspaper editor. After the congressman nearly bit off the editor’s thumb during a street fight, the press reported that the editor’s finger had been “catawampously chawed up.” This phrase is too darned good to leave in the past; it deserves some modern play.
What story from the book do you find most fascinating? What is an example of violence from the book that people likely are not familiar with?
There are lots of wonderful stories in the book, so it’s hard to choose just one. But one story that stands out took place in the House in 1858 — and it stood out to people at the time as well.
A Northerner and a Southerner got into an altercation during a debate over the slavery status of Kansas, and after exchanging some harsh words, the Northerner knocked the Southerner flat. Immediately, a horde of Southerners raced to the point of conflict to save one of their own. Seeing this, a bunch of Northerners ran to save their colleague, jumping over desks and chairs in their haste to reach him. Ultimately, there was a mass brawl with dozens of congressmen in the space before the Speaker’s chair, featuring punching, shoving, and tossed spittoons.
People at the time noted that a group of Northerners — some of them armed — running at a group of armed Southerners looked remarkably like a battle of North against South, which indeed it was.
One could argue that the first battles of the Civil War took place in the halls of Congress.
What lessons does your book hold for us today?
In some ways, discovering that our polarized present has some precedent is reassuring, and indeed, before and after the 1850s there were other such times. But The Field of Blood also reveals an extreme version of some of the problems that we’re experiencing today — and therein lie some lessons.
Extreme polarization; splintering political parties; distrust in national institutions; rampant conspiracy theories; a powerful new technology of communication — the telegraph; an increasingly dysfunctional Congress: this cluster of problems drove Americans not only to distrust their government, but to distrust each other, and with no outlet for the popular will, and the simmering problem of slavery dividing the nation, the end result was violence.
Of course, we’re not on the cusp of civil warfare. But it’s worth noting that the impact of allowing the national “we” to crumble can be mighty, and that discord and dysfunction on the national stage can break down the bulwark of public opinion that supports republican governance.
What can you tell us about your next book?
I’m still exploring the subject and shape of my next book. It will be about Alexander Hamilton, though it won’t be a conventional biography.
The working title is Hunting for Hamilton — something that I’ve been doing for over 30 years — and I’m hoping to show people how plunging into a person’s papers can reveal not only his or her emotions and patterns of thought, but also deeper understandings, giving people a feel for the mindset and realities of another world.
If you could go back in time and observe any event covered in your book—or from the life of Alexander Hamilton—what would you choose and why?
What a difficult question! So many people, places, and things that I would like to see! One of them would probably be the 1838 duel between representatives William Graves, a Whig from Kentucky, and Jonathan Cilley, a Democrat from Maine.
A dramatic encounter that was enmeshed in the period’s politics generally — and in congressional politics specifically — it ended in one man’s death. It would be fascinating to watch a duel in action and see its implications play out.
Of course, this raises another event of the past that I’d also be curious to see: the duel between Burr and Hamilton.
*Author photo by Beowulf Sheehan.