Think Congress is bad now? New book charts their fist fights, duels — even biting — in pre-Civil War years

SALT LAKE CITY — Every so often, a talented writer will discover a story lost to history with tremendous application for today. Such is the case with Yale University historian Joanne Freeman and her latest book.

“I knew that one congressman had killed another in 1838, so I plunged in there,” Freeman wrote in an email interview about researching her book “The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to Civil War” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 480 pages).” “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.

“This was clearly a story that hadn’t been told,” she added.

Freeman’s research took well over a decade and required hurtling significant obstacles. The official congressional record did not have a complete account of all the incidents of physical violence. Furthermore, when records were created they often lacked an accurate description of specific events.

“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,” she said.

A book about fighting also included a subtle challenge that required mastery of the thesaurus.

“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,” Freeman said.

“My all-time favorite bit of fighting lingo comes from the 1850s and involves a fight between a Virginia congressman and a newspaper editor,” she said. “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,” Freeman said. “It deserves some modern play.”

Freeman’s book has relevance to modern times that goes beyond a look back at the colorful language of yesteryear. But stringing together years of political fights also presented an organizational challenge.

“Figuring out how to tell the story of scores of fights unfolding over several decades took some time,” Freeman said.

Joanne Freeman is a noted historian and author of “The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to Civil War.” Photo by Beowulf Sheehan.

“In the end … I told the kind of story that I wanted to tell,” she said. “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.”

Freeman makes a powerful argument that political violence not only led to the Civil War, but in some ways constituted an informal beginning to the American tragedy.

In 1858, a Northerner and Southerner got into a fight on the floor of the House. When the Northerner clotheslined the Southerner, the other Southern congressmen raced to his aid. Seeing the danger, the Northern congressmen made a beeline for their endangered colleague.

“Ultimately, there was a mass brawl with dozens of congressmen in the space before the speaker’s chair, featuring punching, shoving, and tossed spittoons,” Freeman said.

“People at the time noted that a group of Northerners — some of them armed — running at a group of Southerner’s looked remarkably like a battle of North against South, which indeed it was,” she said.

Freeman continued, “One could argue that the first battles of the Civil War took place in the halls of Congress.”

In this regard, Freeman discovered a veritable treasure trove of largely forgotten encounters leading up to the Civil War. The value of her work is lauded on the book’s cover with Pulitzer Prize-winner after winner giving praise to Freeman’s work.

“The reader is surprised such an important story should have waited so long to be told,” wrote Daniel Walker Howe, author of “What God Hath Wrought.”

“In fistfights, duels and mass brawls, her innovative account detects steps toward disunion — and changes how we think about political history,” added T.J. Stiles, author of “Custer’s Trials.”

In addition to shedding light on a previously dark period in history, Freeman stressed that violent rhetoric and the deterioration of national unity is a danger today just as it was in the 1800s.

“We’re not on the cusp of civil warfare,” she said. “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.”

* This review originally appeared in the Deseret News on September 25, 2018. 

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