Monday, June 17, 2024
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You think Congress is bad now? You should have been there in 1850!

Courtesy of Library of America

–by Michael Pierce

THE FIELD OF BLOOD: VIOLENCE IN CONGRESS AND THE ROAD TO CIVIL WAR by Joanne B. Freeman. Published September 11, 2018 by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

In the fall of 2017, former Speaker of the House of Representatives John Boehner revealed that Representative Don Young, a fellow Republican from Alaska, once pinned him to a wall and put a knife to his throat during a debate over earmarks. Young later claimed the pocketknife wasn’t open, so it wasn’t really a threat. The same Congressman Young, in 1994 during another debate, once pulled out an ooski (the 18 inch penis bone of a walrus) to emphasize his point.

The carrying of weapons into the hallowed halls of Congress, by Senators and Representatives, has a long and albeit illegal history. Guns and knives have been occasionally flourished, challenges issued and duels fought, and blood has flowed. At no time during our history was this more prevalent than during the early and middle nineteenth century.

Those familiar with history are aware of the caning of Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts by Senator Preston Brooks of South Carolina. Sumner had cast aspersions on the reputation of a relative of Brooks during a debate over slavery, and Brooks took great umbrage over the insult. It would be three years before Sumner could resume his seat in the Senate.

Attending a meeting of Congress at the time was a bit like attending a hockey game today. Spectators never know when a fight or bench clearing brawl may erupt, but that’s one reason they’re there.

The custom for elected officials was not to fight in the capitol building itself, but to battle in the streets if they encountered each other. These men would put the word out as to where they would be, and many of them walked the same routes every day, just so their adversary would know when and where know where they could be found.

In The Field of Blood, author Joanne Freeman has diligently researched some of the different physical altercations that took place in and around the capitol building during America’s early days. She lets readers see the goings-on primarily through the eyes of Benjamin French and his 11 volume personal diary, now at the Library of Congress.

French spent several decades working for Congress, and his diary provides intimate details of some of the battles that took place among its members. The fights that he describes were normally only hinted at in official documents, and his shifting political sympathies led him to join the Republicans after many years of being a Democrat. French viewed the bullying tactics of Southern politicians as reprehensible, and he viewed Northern Democrats as being spineless. Northern Democrats and Whigs continually kowtowed to their southern brethren.

Americans eventually thought that Civil War would actually break out on the floor of the House and Senate. Elected officials from both sides of the Mason-Dixon line, as spelled out by Freeman, did not want to see the Union dissolve, and they definitely did not want war.

Freeman argues that, in this era when most Senators and Representatives served one or two terms and then went home, these elected officials were more a reflection of public will than they were of special interests. While Clay, Calhoun, Randolph and a few others are well-remembered by history, it was usually the lesser-known men who, in the end, made the difference in the literal and figurative battles that were fought.

If you, like me, were under the impression that all of these men were usually even tempered compromisers, please read The Field of Blood. Your eyes will be opened.

 

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