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In The Field of Blood, the historian Joanne B. Freeman offers a new and dramatically rendered portrait of American politics in its rowdiest years. Drawing on an extraordinary range of sources, she shows that today's hyperpolarized environment cannot compare with the turbulent atmosphere of the decades before the Civil War, when the U.S. Congress itself was rife with confli In The Field of Blood, the historian Joanne B. Freeman offers a new and dramatically rendered portrait of American politics in its rowdiest years. Drawing on an extraordinary range of sources, she shows that today's hyperpolarized environment cannot compare with the turbulent atmosphere of the decades before the Civil War, when the U.S. Congress itself was rife with conflict. Legislative sessions were routinely punctuated by mortal threats, canings, flipped desks, and all-out slug-fests. Congressmen drew pistols and waved bowie knives at rivals. One representative even killed another in a duel. Many were bullied in an attempt to intimidate them into compliance or silence, particularly on the issue of slavery. These fights didn't happen in a vacuum. Freeman's accounts of fistfights and threats tell a larger story of how bullying, brawling, and the press - and the powerful emotions they elicited - raised tensions between North and South and fueled the coming of the 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 luminaries such as John Quincy Adams and Thomas Hart Benton, as well as introducing a host of lesser-known but no less fascinating characters. We see slaveholders silence Northerners with threats and violence. We learn how newspapers promoted conspiracy theories that helped polarize the nation. And we witness an entire legislative chamber erupt into a massive fist-throwing, spittoon-tossing battle royal. By 1860, armed congressmen, some carrying pistols sent by their constituents, fully expected bloody combat in the House. In effect, the first battles of the Civil War were fought in Congress itself. The Field of Blood demonstrates how a country can come apart as conflicts over personal honor, party loyalty, and moral principle combine and escalate. The result is a fresh understanding of the workings of American democracy and the bonds of Union on the eve of their greatest peril.


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In The Field of Blood, the historian Joanne B. Freeman offers a new and dramatically rendered portrait of American politics in its rowdiest years. Drawing on an extraordinary range of sources, she shows that today's hyperpolarized environment cannot compare with the turbulent atmosphere of the decades before the Civil War, when the U.S. Congress itself was rife with confli In The Field of Blood, the historian Joanne B. Freeman offers a new and dramatically rendered portrait of American politics in its rowdiest years. Drawing on an extraordinary range of sources, she shows that today's hyperpolarized environment cannot compare with the turbulent atmosphere of the decades before the Civil War, when the U.S. Congress itself was rife with conflict. Legislative sessions were routinely punctuated by mortal threats, canings, flipped desks, and all-out slug-fests. Congressmen drew pistols and waved bowie knives at rivals. One representative even killed another in a duel. Many were bullied in an attempt to intimidate them into compliance or silence, particularly on the issue of slavery. These fights didn't happen in a vacuum. Freeman's accounts of fistfights and threats tell a larger story of how bullying, brawling, and the press - and the powerful emotions they elicited - raised tensions between North and South and fueled the coming of the 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 luminaries such as John Quincy Adams and Thomas Hart Benton, as well as introducing a host of lesser-known but no less fascinating characters. We see slaveholders silence Northerners with threats and violence. We learn how newspapers promoted conspiracy theories that helped polarize the nation. And we witness an entire legislative chamber erupt into a massive fist-throwing, spittoon-tossing battle royal. By 1860, armed congressmen, some carrying pistols sent by their constituents, fully expected bloody combat in the House. In effect, the first battles of the Civil War were fought in Congress itself. The Field of Blood demonstrates how a country can come apart as conflicts over personal honor, party loyalty, and moral principle combine and escalate. The result is a fresh understanding of the workings of American democracy and the bonds of Union on the eve of their greatest peril.

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

  1. 5 out of 5

    Bill Kerwin

    I watched every minute of the Kavanaugh hearings, appalled at the procedural bullying of the Republicans, the cries of anguish from the female protestors, and I said to myself: could the atmosphere in Congress ever have been worse than this? It was then that I remembered my history, how—sometime in the late 1850’s--an abolitionist U.S. senator was caned by a Southern member of the House, beaten within an inch of his life on the Senate floor itself! If you read Joanne B. Freeman’s excellent histor I watched every minute of the Kavanaugh hearings, appalled at the procedural bullying of the Republicans, the cries of anguish from the female protestors, and I said to myself: could the atmosphere in Congress ever have been worse than this? It was then that I remembered my history, how—sometime in the late 1850’s--an abolitionist U.S. senator was caned by a Southern member of the House, beaten within an inch of his life on the Senate floor itself! If you read Joanne B. Freeman’s excellent history The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to Civil War, you will learn all about this May 22, 1856 attack by Representative Preston Brooks (D-SC) upon Senator Charles Sumner (R-MA). You will learn about Sumner’s fiery speech against slavery, a speech including derogatory references to Senator Andrew Butler (D-SC), Brooks’ second cousin, and of Brook’s resolve to avenge the honor of his family, his state, and his culture’s “peculiar institution.” And you will also learn about Republican anger, the intensity of their “resistance,” their determination to no longer be intimidated into silence by the bully boys and duelists of the South: Northern congressmen were rising up and their chief weapons were the right of free speech and their willingness to fight for that right. Massachusetts Republican Chauncey Knapp's constituents said as much in June 1856 when they saw him off as he headed back to Washington. Just before Knapp boarded the train, a small assembly of people gave him a parting gift of use in Congress: a revolver inscribed with the words “Free Speech.” You see, the Caning of Sumner was not an isolated incident, but a culmination, and because it was a culmination, it also functioned as a powerful symbol. Southern congressmen, ever quick to defend their honor, had been threatening their Northern counterparts with duels, street fights, and public beatings for a quarter of a century, and the Northerners—unaccustomed to the barbarous aspects of chivalry—endeavored not to offend their prickly neighbors from the South. And of course the thing that offended these gentlemen most was any criticism of slavery. When abolitionist agitation intensified in the early ‘30’s, the violence began to increase, and starting in 1836 a series of “gag rules” were passed to prohibit anti-slavery petitions from being read or discussed on the House floor. John Quincey Adams and Joshua Giddings of Ohio were the only congressmen who routinely defied this rule, probably because Adams was too old to attack physically and Giddings, the “anti-slavery toreador” was just too big and formidable to mess with. Still, the threats, the challenges and the fist fights continued. And the antebellum Whigs and Republicans, blocked at every turn by Southern bullying and procedural boondoggles, finally--like the progressive women of today--got mad as hell and refused to take it anymore. Joanne Freeman does an excellent job of painting, in vivid detail, the chaotic atmosphere of the House of Representatives: the widespread tobacco spitting, the drunkenness (particularly notable during evening sessions), the bowie knives and pistols routinely carried onto the senate floor. She also does a good job of sorting out—from conflicting accounts, many of which euphemize the violence—what precisely happened in the halls of Congress, the D.C. streets and dueling fields beyond. Her most valuable source for such information is the diary of William Brown French, who served as a congressman, Clerk of the House, and Commissioner of Public Buildings, and observed congressional doings closely from the 30’s to the 60’s. One of the best parts of the book—besides the chapter on the Sumner Caning—concentrates on the only congressional duel in which a House member was actually killed, the Cilley-Graves Duel of 1838. Her account of how these two young men, neither of whom wished to fight or knew how to shoot, each constrained by his code and poorly counseled by his friends, stumbled inevitably toward destruction is at once pathetic and tragic. It was also a harbinger of things to come. Almost as good, though, are some of the comic melees. The Benton-Foote Scuffle (1850) is amusing, but my favorite is the donnybrook precipitated by Galusha Grow (R-PA) and Laurence Keitt (D-SC) in 1858, during one of those notoriously alcoholic evening sessions, an event which transpired directly in front of the Speaker’s platform, “featuring roughly thirty sweaty, disheveled, mostly middle-aged congressmen in a no-holds barred brawl, North against South. I will begin my account, in Homeric fashion, in medias res: . . . John “Bowie Knife” Potter (R-WI) and the fighting Washburn brothers—Cadwallader (R-WI), Israel (R-ME), and Elihu (R-IL) stood out in the rumble, with barrel chested Potter jogging straight into the scrum, thowing punches as he tried to reach Grow. At one point, he slugged Elliot Barksdale (D-MS), who mistakenly reeled around and socked Elihu Washburne in return . . . . Potter responded by grabbing Barksdale by the hair to punch him in the face, but to his utter asthonishment, Barkdsdale’s hair came off: he wore a toupee. Meanwhile, John Covode (R-PA) had raised a spitton above his head and was looking for a target . . . . Within a few minutes, people had settled back in their seats—thanks, in part, to the hilarity of Barksdale’s flipped wig—and the House went back to arguing until its adjounment at 6:30 a.m.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Christopher Saunders

    Eye-opening look at the tensions and tumult of antebellum politics in America. Historians often treat the epoch between the Missouri Compromise and the Civil War as a time of political giants clashing over the country's future, in passionate but eloquent, high-toned debate transcending the petty divisiveness of our current moment. Freeman (whose Affairs of Honor similarly revises post-independence America) explodes this myth, showing that violence, whether in heated rhetoric, threats or explicit Eye-opening look at the tensions and tumult of antebellum politics in America. Historians often treat the epoch between the Missouri Compromise and the Civil War as a time of political giants clashing over the country's future, in passionate but eloquent, high-toned debate transcending the petty divisiveness of our current moment. Freeman (whose Affairs of Honor similarly revises post-independence America) explodes this myth, showing that violence, whether in heated rhetoric, threats or explicit bloodshed, was not only ever-present but woven into the very fabric of mid-1800s Congress. Not only formalized duels but fistfights, street scuffles, full-on brawls in Congressional chambers - a cavalcade of cross words and crossed swords, most often energized by sectional tensions over slavery. Indeed, Freeman's book is perhaps most useful in showing how Southern advocates of "states rights," from John Calhoun and Preston Brooks to lesser-known figures like Henry S. Foote and Henry Wise, used explicit threats of bloodshed and disunion to keep timid, divided Northerners from challenging their agenda ("Northerners responded to Southern threats as Northerners were wont to do," Freeman recounts: "they demanded orderly debate"). The problem, then, may have been less a lack of compromise than an excess of it: the congressional "gag rule" that prohibited debating slavery (flaunted brazenly by John Quincy Adams, one of the book's heroes), the arguments over Mexican annexation, the Fugitive Slave Act and the Compromise of 1850 that led to Foote drawing a pistol on Thomas Hart Benton during a floor debate without repercussion. It culminates in Brooks' infamous caning of Charles Sumner (spurred by the Sumner's denunciation of slaveholder violence in Kansas), an affair less remarkable for its violence than its one-sidedness: Sumner had no chance to fight back or defend himself, and thus Brooks violated the unspoken code of honor that enervated Congressional squabbles. When Northerners from Sumner to Thaddeus Stevens started resisting (usually rhetorically, but sometimes physically) Southern bullying, the Southerners portrayed themselves as victims...a formulation that remains, sadly, recognizable in contemporary politics. Resonant too are the partisan stonewalling, the press alternately deploring and cheerleading outrageous lawmakers, and the arguments about the contexts and limits of free speech. Freeman portrays this all with a pleasant mixture of scholarly detachment and mordant wit ("Wrestlers, hockey players and congressmen rarely kill each other, though they make a good show of it"), making for a book a lot more fun (if frequently infuriating) to read than it has any right to be.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Anne Morgan

    Joanne B. Freeman's The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to Civil War is an entertaining, well researched, and well-written examination of physical violence in U.S. Congress in the decades leading to the Civil War. Most of it stems from diarist B.B. French, who managed to be on hand or on the fringes for every major political and historical event of his lifetime. A New Hampshire native, French was highly active in D.C. politics, knew politicians and presidents, and often had a r Joanne B. Freeman's The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to Civil War is an entertaining, well researched, and well-written examination of physical violence in U.S. Congress in the decades leading to the Civil War. Most of it stems from diarist B.B. French, who managed to be on hand or on the fringes for every major political and historical event of his lifetime. A New Hampshire native, French was highly active in D.C. politics, knew politicians and presidents, and often had a ring-side seat to the debates and violence on the floors of Congress. Not merely a cataloging of duels, brawls, canings, and insults, Field of Blood examines the reasons behind the violence- both personal and cultural. Violence and duels were seen as honorable, manly codes of conduct in the South and barbaric and uncivilized in the North. Southern politicians would often use bullying and threats of violence to hold power in Congress. Politicians were seen as closely representing the constituents, their state, and their region and "fighting for the people's rights" was often taken very literally. Insult an individual and you insulted the region. Insult the region and you insulted the individual. Honor was often called into question and (usually) representatives settled things outside the halls of Congress. It was an interesting dynamic that the patriot French watched: people believed Congress to be solemn, serious, full of great men giving great speeches- if they saw what French saw, the general public might think very differently. Freeman presents readers with a little looked at slice of American history leading up to the Civil War, bringing 19th century political figures to life with a humorous and down-to-earth style of writing that keeps the reader engaged from beginning to end. Americans who believe today's political standoffs and partisanship are unprecedented may appreciate reading the literal stand-offs of the past, when people sent guns to their Congressmen so they could fight for their constituents' rights and pistols, rifles, and bowie knives were regularly carried "just in case." For anyone who imagines 19th century Congressmen as staid and boring old men, Freedman will introduce you to a whole new side of American politics. A great read!

  4. 4 out of 5

    happy

    Almost every serious student of the American Civil War had heard/read about the assault on the Senate Floor of Sen Charles Sumner of NY by Rep Preston Brooks of South Carolina. The assault was so savage that Sen Sumner was nearly killed and suffered permanent physical damage. With this narrative Prof Joanne Freeman of Yale brings to light that this was not an isolated event or even that rare. She states that between the years of 1830-1860 there were at least 70 physical confrontations between Co Almost every serious student of the American Civil War had heard/read about the assault on the Senate Floor of Sen Charles Sumner of NY by Rep Preston Brooks of South Carolina. The assault was so savage that Sen Sumner was nearly killed and suffered permanent physical damage. With this narrative Prof Joanne Freeman of Yale brings to light that this was not an isolated event or even that rare. She states that between the years of 1830-1860 there were at least 70 physical confrontations between Congressman/Senators on the floor or near the Capitol grounds and one death in a duel between members. Using the diaries of William Brown French, the longtime clerk of the House of Representatives, as a basis, the author looks at the culture of the Congress and how it reflected the culture of those men (there were no women) who sat in the chambers. The big differences between the how South/West and the North perceived that honor and what members were willing to do about it are well illustrated. In addition, the concept of Honor, Prof Freeman also looks at how congress was run. From weapons on the floor – knives, clubs/canes and firearms, the almost universal use of chewing tobacco that mess that made of the chambers, congressmen freely imbibing their alcohol while on the floor and in session. She tells of congressmen/senators so drunk they had to be carried out the chambers and placed somewhere they could sober up. The picture one takes away of congress is vastly different from what one currently sees on CSPAN. To say that the Congress members for the Southern States had a more hair trigger and physical response to slights is an understatement. Of the 70 aforementioned confrontations, almost all were initiated by Southern/Western Congressmen. In looking at just what those slights were, almost all had to do with the South’s “Peculiar Institution” – Slavery. In telling the story of the debate over slavery in the preCivil War congress, the author does an exceptional job of telling just how the South used their “Honor” to stifle debate. I would characterized as intimidation (the northerners did not want to antagonized those of the South), but Ms. Freeman uses the term bullying, which also fits. In addition to outright bullying, southern congressmen/senators used every parliamentary trick they knew to stop debate. This including tabling legislation, not allowing petitions to come to the floor etc. In fact, congress divided not only on sectional lines, but also on whether one would come to Capitol armed or not. Those fractions became known as the “Armed Men”, mainly from the south and west and the “Noncombatants”, mainly from the north. She states that just about the only Northern Congress people who wouldn’t be bullied are the former President John Q. Adams (who was too beloved and distinguished to quiet) and Joshua Giddings (who was too large to physically attack). She also looks at why the Northern Congressmen put up with it. To put simply, up until the late 1850s, keeping the Nation together was most of the northern congressmen paramount goal. To sum it up, this is an enlightening look both the culture of the Antebellum Congress and the preCivil war debates on slavery. I found it a bit academic at times and not a particularly “smooth” read, but fascinating never the less. It is an eye opening account that makes our present Congressional problems seem tame by comparison. I would rate his 3.5 stars and would recommend it to anyone interested in the Civil war or politics

  5. 5 out of 5

    Sarah

    I love reading about the Civil War, but most of my reading takes place primarily through the years 1861-1865, right in the thick of it. It was fascinating to read about the years leading up to the war, starting around the 1830s, tracing significant events of Congressional violence up to and even through the Civil War. Freeman does a phenomenal job of portraying events and circumstances through the protagonist B.B. French, which helps to focus the writing and clarify some of the confusion of an i I love reading about the Civil War, but most of my reading takes place primarily through the years 1861-1865, right in the thick of it. It was fascinating to read about the years leading up to the war, starting around the 1830s, tracing significant events of Congressional violence up to and even through the Civil War. Freeman does a phenomenal job of portraying events and circumstances through the protagonist B.B. French, which helps to focus the writing and clarify some of the confusion of an inflammatory political state. The way Freeman writes, it's almost as if she traveled back in time and has chronicled the situation with herself as an eye-witness; it is clear that she has done an enormous amount of research in order to fully capture the time period. One of the things I appreciated the most about this book was it's clear message that "battlefield violence wasn't a break from politics as normal; the outbreak of warfare wasn't a thing apart from the coming of war. Congressmen had been rehearsing civil warfare for years. Congressional violence framed the opening of war" (268). Especially in today's political atmosphere, I feel there is an instinct for people to think of history as a time when society was more put-together and civilized, especially since history is full of important looking white men in fancy clothes. However, Freeman makes it clear that history is and always has been full of people who are merely human, who make very human mistakes and have very human tempers. She remarks of this trend by stating, "In the case of Congress, later generations overlooked its ugly undertow, envisioning its history as a succession of great issues discussed by great men speaking great words, with nary a trace of the tobacco-stained rugs" (282). This book was an enlightening read that I highly recommend to anyone who is, like me, fascinated by history, the Civil War, and political history.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Bruce Katz

    A fascinating and -- to me, at least -- troubling book. I was aware of some of the violent outbreaks in Congress in the decades leading up to the Civil War, but I had no idea how common they were -- so many more than I'd thought. The slave states had inordinate power in both houses, partly because of "simple" political forces in the post-Jacksonian years, partly as a consequence of the insidious 3/5 clause in the Constitution, and partly because of the "culture of honor" (read "bullying") in the A fascinating and -- to me, at least -- troubling book. I was aware of some of the violent outbreaks in Congress in the decades leading up to the Civil War, but I had no idea how common they were -- so many more than I'd thought. The slave states had inordinate power in both houses, partly because of "simple" political forces in the post-Jacksonian years, partly as a consequence of the insidious 3/5 clause in the Constitution, and partly because of the "culture of honor" (read "bullying") in the South. I hadn't known (or if I did, I'd forgotten) that southern Democrats had instituted a "gag rule" in Congress that prohibited any discussion of slavery at all. Although northerners contested this rule as a clear violation of their Constitutional rights and obligations, they were shut down every time they tried to bring the matter up: shut down not by any parliamentary procedure but by threats of violence, by Southerners literally coming at them on the floor with guns or knives drawn, by challenges to duels, and by attacks on the streets of Washington. As Freeman shows, the bullying was effective for a long time as northerners were cowed into angry submission. As the years passed, though, northerners -- particularly new northern Republicans -- learned to stand up to the bullying and fight back. Freeman shows in detail how the culture of Congress played out as new states entered the Union and new personalities came into power. She demonstrates how sectional stresses played into the tension -- not just north-south but also east-west. And she dispels any misconceptions the reader might hold about there being a "great generation" of figures who far exceeded those of our time in their wisdom, forebearance, etc. There were great orators, yes, but there were far more men (as they all were) of lesser character, integrity, and intelligence. They were often drunk -- alcohol wasreadily available in the building -- or asleep. The space afforded to the House was grossly inadequate to the increasing number of Congressmen, the desks were too close together and fastened to the floor, the floor itself was... I'll leave that to the reader to discover for him/herself. Some years back, I read a book by David Hackett Fischer called "Albion's Seed" in which the author showed how regional cultures were largely shaped by where in England the migrants came from. His observations are powerfully borne out in "The Field of Blood." One can't help but be aware at how much these forces are still at work today. Indeed, Freeman bookends her history with an acknowledgement of how the stresses of antebellum Congress are [sadly] echoed in the partisanship of our own largely sectional politics. I'm not doing the book justice in my review, alas. Freeman's analysis is more thoughtful and discerning than my words suggest. The reader gets a fascinating glimpse at the daily lives of the characters: the living arrangements, encounters on the streets, relationship with the press, the air in Congress, the political context, the effect of the spoils system. The key flaw I found in "Fields," its repetitiousness, was unavoidable: the descriptions of violence and threats and so on appear again and again because violence is the subject of the book; there's no way around it. I strongly suspect I was made more aware of the repetitions because I was listening to the book rather than reading it. That aside, I am envious of the author's students at Yale.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Alexis Kaelin

    Very good. The best part was about John Quincy Adams returning to the House after losing reelection and saying anything he damn well pleased because no one could touch him. I would read another 800 pages just on that. The rest was very interesting and offered a new (to me) perspective of the chaos and violence of the house floor right before the civil war. I understand the framing of the book around the life of a single clerk, but I can't shake the feeling that it detracted rather than enhanced Very good. The best part was about John Quincy Adams returning to the House after losing reelection and saying anything he damn well pleased because no one could touch him. I would read another 800 pages just on that. The rest was very interesting and offered a new (to me) perspective of the chaos and violence of the house floor right before the civil war. I understand the framing of the book around the life of a single clerk, but I can't shake the feeling that it detracted rather than enhanced the book. It felt like two separate books, though closely related. Still very good.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Tracy

    Interesting book on a congress that fought even more than ours does today. Of course, they used actual weapons instead of words, and the battles culminated in the Civil War. Let's hope that our congressmen and women can learn from the lessons of the past and start working together. Interesting book on a congress that fought even more than ours does today. Of course, they used actual weapons instead of words, and the battles culminated in the Civil War. Let's hope that our congressmen and women can learn from the lessons of the past and start working together.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Thomas

    Hmm, this is an interesting bit of little-known history. It’s not the least bit surprising, but it does put the build up to the American Civil War in a new light. In some ways, U.S. politics hasn’t changed much.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Daniela

    Excellent read Timely, well written, thoroughly researched. This book puts current events into perspective. I will not soon forget French, on whose experience this book is based. I highly recommended it.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Brandt

    So what is the point of history anyway? I mean when we look deep down, what is the point of researching and writing about the past? Would we bother digging if there wasn't something we were trying to learn about now? If I'm going to bother to write a book about something (or somethings) that happened in the past, there must be some contemporary motivation for wanting to do this. I mean, I guess someone could be writing a dissertation to get their PhD, but even then that is something that interest So what is the point of history anyway? I mean when we look deep down, what is the point of researching and writing about the past? Would we bother digging if there wasn't something we were trying to learn about now? If I'm going to bother to write a book about something (or somethings) that happened in the past, there must be some contemporary motivation for wanting to do this. I mean, I guess someone could be writing a dissertation to get their PhD, but even then that is something that interests the writer and they have their reasons. Case in point--I recently walked away from a 600+ page biography of D.W. Griffith just because in the long run I just didn't care about what would obviously be a very thoroughly researched book. But I'm not a filmmaker and so reading about how Griffith changed the industry (while also making one of the most racist films ever) just didn't rate for me. However, when I heard Joanne B. Freeman interviewed on NPR about her latest book The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to Civil War and with the obvious parallels to the current disfunction apparent in our political process, I just had to read this. Here's my problem with most historians--they get so wrapped up on what happened that they ignore what is happening. Ultimately this was what my problem was with Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture. Historian Michael Bellesiles goes into that novel bound and determined to expose that the current view of the Second Amendment of the United States Constitution is not borne out by the history of this country, even though Second Amendment proponents argue that Americans have been firing guns to tame the wilderness, the indigenous population and even slaves since the first boats landed in the 17th Century. But the problem with this thought experiment, regardless of whatever "evidence" Bellesiles cites is that pointing out that the origin point of gun use and rights is historically incorrect doesn't change a goddamned thing. Do the victims of Parkland, Orlando and Las Vegas rest well in their graves thinking, "well, at least someone pointed out that these beliefs are grounded in historical lies...surely that helped me to survive the attack that killed me." Freeman's primary goal here seems to be to reassure us? She seems to say "hey guys, if you think political discourse is rancorous now, let me show a time when our legislators literally kicked the shit out of each other, and it eventually lead to a war!" Yes, physical violence no longer happens on the House floor, but in a country where the current state of political discourse leads to things like Charlottesville can we really be reassured? If The Field of Blood is meant to be a cautionary tale, it's too late--Heather Heyer is already dead and this isn't going to change it. Another problem I have with this book is Freeman's reliance on the diaries of Benjamin Brown French, who is a sort of early 19th century Washington D.C.-area version of Samuel Pepys. Freeman explains this because French's personal diaries contain records of violence happening in the halls of the Capitol building--when correlating these events with reports in the newspapers of the time, the publishers always downplayed the violence because in those days politicians held the keys to the press narrative, only losing control once the telegraph was invented. At times, this becomes less about violent, bullying legislators and more about French. I think if I wanted to read about French, it would probably be better to just go to the source (although, unlike Pepys diaries, I don't know if French has ever been published--these diaries are held by the government.) Ultimately, I think the reason this book disappoints me is that there are obvious parallels to contemporary society in this book. Why did Southern legislators bully their way through getting bills passed? I think it is because they knew slavery could not sustain itself. History has shown us that slavery was morally untenable and the Southern legislators that we quick to draw knives, guns and canes probably knew it--they now exist as being on the wrong side of history. In contemporary society we see the same--racist attitudes of privileged whites lead to bullying and blustering because they can see their own pending extinction. These are the reactions of small and petty people and they are lashing out. But Freeman doesn't make that connection here and to me, that diminishes this book because eventually those racists will be on the losing side of history as well. Those who don't learn from the past are definitely doomed to repeat it.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Chris Chester

    History is a funny thing. In the rush to get in all the broadest of strokes, even the earnest student is liable to miss the subtleties, the nuances that underlie the truth. If there even really is such thing as truth. When you learn about the Civil War, one of the precipitating events is said to be the vicious caning of the abolitionist Charles Sumner, the senator from Massachusetts, for a speech he made critical of slaveholders. But while it's true that this event was a major signal of the growi History is a funny thing. In the rush to get in all the broadest of strokes, even the earnest student is liable to miss the subtleties, the nuances that underlie the truth. If there even really is such thing as truth. When you learn about the Civil War, one of the precipitating events is said to be the vicious caning of the abolitionist Charles Sumner, the senator from Massachusetts, for a speech he made critical of slaveholders. But while it's true that this event was a major signal of the growing tensions in the nation, this is not an event that occurred in isolation. Joanne Freeman seeks to give the full context for the presence of violence in Congress by pulling the microscope back from the years immediately preceding the Civil War and offering a greater context for the presence of violence in the legislature. She does this using the vehicle of Benjamin B. French, a long-time House clerk and Democratic operative who had a front-row seat to Congress for most of the interesting period before the Civil War. His life provides a useful lens because of his access, his meticulous note-taking in his journals, as well as his somewhat representative political beliefs, starting as a moderate Northern Democrat and gradually moving towards Republicanism as the political scene shifted under his feet. What you learn is that violence was actually quite endemic for decades preceding the Civil War. Fist fights, bowie knives, canings and pistols were not at all uncommon on the floor of Congress. It's rare that violence there actually grew deadly -- the worst was more likely to occur in attacks on the streets of Washington or in formal duels. Both of these were not considered abnormal at all. And indeed the threat of violence was seen as something ordinary. What's particularly interesting though, and what Freeman explores at length, is how this violence actually molded the politics of the day. Confederate flag-waving Southerners today still like to talk about the War of Northern Aggression as though the Civil War and its tremendous body count was something natural to the northern states. But it was the slave-owning South that used tools of violence to control discourse in Congress.The South maintained codes of "honor," which allowed -- perhaps even required -- members to meet any perceived challenge with a duel, a row or a threat thereof. Northerners of the time were a different breed. For the most part, their constituents abhorred violence of this sort and would punish that kind of behavior from their representatives. This put Northern Congressmen in a bind. And for a time, it allowed Southerners to control discourse in Congress with the ever-present threat of physical violence. It was only as sectional violence grew, particularly that surrounding the loyalties of newer western states like Kansas and Nebraska, that the scales began to tip the other way. As the stakes grew, Northern constituents started to want to see their representatives stick up for themselves. Because if they could be cowed, then those in the North couldn't get proper representation. The scales only become entirely even with the formation of the Republican party out of the wreckage of the Whigs. Then they were explicitly sent to Washington with a mandate to stare down Southern aggression. And they did. The previous dynamic between the Whigs and the Democrats featured two national parties trying to manage issues on both sides of the Mason-Dixon. The Republicans were more explicitly Northern and more explicitly abolitionist. The moderating influence of the national party was gone. And with the growth of the telegraph and national newspapers, the stakes grew ever higher. Constituent feedback would essentially back Congressmen into a corner. All that leads directly to secession. No longer able to bully their Northern counterparts with threats of physical violence, they had to turn to threatening the Union to try and force concessions. Obviously this could only go so far before they had were forced to act on it. And thus you have the Civil War. It's an interesting narrative, though I have to confess that the storytelling was a little dry. The manifest ridiculousness of many of these men of power adds a natural levity to a lot of the proceedings. And I did flag historic pillars of the time that seem worth reading more about -- like the pugnacious John Quincy Adams. But this is still a somewhat slow read despite how short it is. I enjoyed it though!

  13. 5 out of 5

    Tim Callicutt

    I initially picked this book up more as a curio than a serious read. Teaching middle school history means that any violent historical anecdotes you can bring to the table tends to win you some adherents. However, as I made my way through the book, it started to become more vital. The best history books are those that make me reframe my understanding of an era, figure, or topic. Usually, I am not blindsided by a book in this regard. I can often gauge early on whether this is a read more for pleasu I initially picked this book up more as a curio than a serious read. Teaching middle school history means that any violent historical anecdotes you can bring to the table tends to win you some adherents. However, as I made my way through the book, it started to become more vital. The best history books are those that make me reframe my understanding of an era, figure, or topic. Usually, I am not blindsided by a book in this regard. I can often gauge early on whether this is a read more for pleasure or thought. However, this one caught me by surprise. While this book didn't necessarily propose a new paradigm for understanding the antebellum era, on numerous counts, it shifted my thinking, and allowed for a fuller understanding of the time. Despite the subtle nature of these shifts, there were multiple points that stuck out: 1. Presenting a corrective of members of Congress. Rather than considering the high-flying rhetoric of Henry Clay or Daniel Webster as normative, this book offers a stark reminder of the sheer normality of the majority of Congress throughout history. If offered the question directly, I would probably recognize the truth of this statement, but left to my own devices, my mental image owes more to the legislative giants of the era. No longer, though! 2. Recognizing the ways in which Congress offers a "barometer" of the time. Freeman never argues that congressional violence is a cause of the Civil War. Rather, she argues that we should consider the violence in Congress more of a litmus test of the tipping point towards the Civil War. Congress is ultimately a microcosm of the country as a whole. As a result, the tensions in Congress offers a succinct picture of the larger issues embroiling the country. And its ill-defined goal of cooling tensions and acting as a preventative to less moderate forces ultimately fails as a result. 3. The place and purpose of duels at the time. Perhaps the most interesting single event that she interprets in the book is the Cilly-Graves duel. Not only does she offer this moment the historical import it largely deserves as a harbinger of the dysfunction to follow, she does the best job I've seen of placing the duel within its social context. That is, it is the first duel between two congressmen that actually leads to a death, and it is a duel that neither man really wanted. Instead, there were intense social pressures and key miscommunications throughout. With each man beholden to the social expectations of their respective regions (blindspots and all), there is an inevitability in the result that would not have been felt had both been Southern. 4. Lastly, placing today's Congress within historical perspective. Many people have made the comment that they often wonder if any other Congress has misbehaved as much as our current one has. Reading through the violence of prior generations allows for a sigh of relief. While I see the point, and agree that things have been worse, I find more to frighten me than reassure me here. If we take Freeman's thesis of Congress as microcosm seriously, the current dysfunction of our Congress is even more troubling. Rather than write-off Washington as a bunch of self-driven, unpatriotic snakes, we need to wrestle with the fact that we are just as much part of the problem. The partisanship and invective doesn't halt at the doors to the Capitol. Their polarization is ours, and simply blaming it on them, as we are apt to do, means that we are not effectively dealing with it. Keep in mind that Freeman is still a professor. Her research is top-notch, but the book can be dry if you primarily read popular histories. But as a piece that straddles the line between popular and academic, it is lively in its own way. If you think you're up for it, I heartily recommend picking it up.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Robert Melnyk

    So, if you think the tension and friction between Republicans and Democrats in the U.S. Congress is bad today, you need to read this book. The infighting that we see going on now is nothing compared to what it was back in antebellum times in this country. Actual physical fighting on the floors of Congress during the 1850's was fairly commonplace. Congressmen, both Representatives and Senators would come to the floor armed with knives and pistols. Fortunately, the fighting usually involved fistic So, if you think the tension and friction between Republicans and Democrats in the U.S. Congress is bad today, you need to read this book. The infighting that we see going on now is nothing compared to what it was back in antebellum times in this country. Actual physical fighting on the floors of Congress during the 1850's was fairly commonplace. Congressmen, both Representatives and Senators would come to the floor armed with knives and pistols. Fortunately, the fighting usually involved fisticuffs, canes, and chairs rather than knives and pistols. Picture a baseball game where the pitcher beans a batter and both benches empty - this was what occurred fairly often in the halls of Congress in the years leading up to the Civil War. If you are interested in American History, especially around the time of the Civil War, you will enjoy this book.

  15. 4 out of 5

    John Yingling

    I had read stories about violence in Congress, particularly the infamous caning of Charles Sumner by "Bully" Brooks in 1856. But I had no idea of the pervasiveness of not just physical but verbal abuse heaped upon our U.S. representatives by angry fellow members of Congress. Using extensive quotes from primary documents, the author discusses how there was, in essence a mini Civil War taking place in Congress well before the actual event. It's riveting reading, although cringeworthy when you read I had read stories about violence in Congress, particularly the infamous caning of Charles Sumner by "Bully" Brooks in 1856. But I had no idea of the pervasiveness of not just physical but verbal abuse heaped upon our U.S. representatives by angry fellow members of Congress. Using extensive quotes from primary documents, the author discusses how there was, in essence a mini Civil War taking place in Congress well before the actual event. It's riveting reading, although cringeworthy when you read about the lack of any kind of compromise or even civil discourse among men with, granted, quite different views on slavery and law and its applications in America. Reading this book, I can see that the inevitability of the Union breaking apart was quite obvious. An eye-opening book that helped increase my knowledge of this part of American history.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Lisa

    3.5 stars. As historical nonfiction, there is a large amount of people and events to wade through, ponder, analyze, and remember. A worthwhile, slower read, for me.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Myles

    So much of what we learn from Dr. Freeman’s “The Field of Blood: Violence in the Congress and the Road to Civil War” is relevant to today’s Congress that I shudder to think of what could happen were US legislators today allowed to pack guns on their bodies in either the House of Representatives or the Senate, as they were allowed to do in the 19th century. Many of the ingredients for civil war in the 19th century are there again: refusal to compromise between party factions, incentives to back up So much of what we learn from Dr. Freeman’s “The Field of Blood: Violence in the Congress and the Road to Civil War” is relevant to today’s Congress that I shudder to think of what could happen were US legislators today allowed to pack guns on their bodies in either the House of Representatives or the Senate, as they were allowed to do in the 19th century. Many of the ingredients for civil war in the 19th century are there again: refusal to compromise between party factions, incentives to back up strong words with stronger medicine (“Lock her up!”), and powerful outside interests to keep the warring factions apart. Few Americans today recall that their early representatives fought physically in the houses of Congress, that they sat and spat tobacco juice from their chairs sometimes hitting, sometimes missing their targets, and that they legislated well into the night sometimes so thoroughly intoxicated that they spread themselves out over their desks. In some ways, the American Civil War had several dress rehearsals in Congress: men fought and yelled and bullied each other. Southerners bullied some northerners into duels, caned them when they wouldn’t yield, and insulted them to feed the frenzy. They fought on the floor of the House, they attacked one another outside the Capitol on the streets of Washington, and they abused them while at a meal or drinking session in public houses. The institution of slavery was the source of many disputes and they did not wait very long after Confederation before they came front and centre to the operation of government. The American experiment grew quickly: many new states came into being not long after the original ink was dry. With new states inevitably came the question of whether they were to be free or slave states. John Quincy Adams, only the sixth US President, stayed on after his Presidential term in office (1825-1829) in the House of Representatives and repeatedly fought the “gag rules” intended to prevent a discussion to ban slavery in the United States. I picked up this work because I am thoroughly engrossed in the question of why were southerners so intent on perpetuating violence against their former slaves. This volume held some hints. For one thing, the culture of a code of honour prevented southerners from forgetting that their birthright had been stolen from them. They continued to believe that the blacks were inferior to them and it enraged many that after the 1860’s blacks were equal to them before the law. But it is also so because violence was so common and in many ways acceptable behaviour when one was wronged. This culture seeped into the American response to aboriginal groups no less than against the imported black population. And that undercurrent of violence feeds present obsession with the Second Amendment, the right to bear arms. Violence came with the untethered frontier, but it was not only the frontier where men were expected to defend the homestead. It happened wherever personal or state rights were believed under threat. The presence of bullying and violence in the national capitol led me to ask a question Dr. Freemen does not broach in this book: given the culture of intimidation present, how good were American legislators during this period? There was no parallel experiment in operation during the same years, although we Canadians and our Australian cousins had similar institutions of self government on the frontier. That Civil War actually broke out leads us to the conclusion that they ultimately failed, either because they were poor legislators, or because the early framers of the Constitution stacked the deck against them. Because States’ right were so integral to the system, Civil War was bound to develop eventually. And that very same structure today inhibits US governments from acting in concert with other nations to slow global warming. That goose called “sovereignty” will cook us all.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Geoff Sebesta

    1. This is an extraordinary book. 2. The author uses the word "literally" far, far too often. At one point, towards the end, they use it twice in two pages. 3. But seriously, this is an extraordinary work. There's a growing body of modern literature on the run-up to the Civil War, and it is good. Rorabaugh's "The Alcoholic Republic" provides a helpful backdrop for the rising tides of congressional violence. There's also a lot of support for my idea that a huge amount of the Civil War came from Sam 1. This is an extraordinary book. 2. The author uses the word "literally" far, far too often. At one point, towards the end, they use it twice in two pages. 3. But seriously, this is an extraordinary work. There's a growing body of modern literature on the run-up to the Civil War, and it is good. Rorabaugh's "The Alcoholic Republic" provides a helpful backdrop for the rising tides of congressional violence. There's also a lot of support for my idea that a huge amount of the Civil War came from Sam Houston's bad karma for things he did when he was a young man. Sam Houston, by attacking other legislators and getting away with it, appears to have started something of a fad. But he was only acting like his mentor, Andrew Jackson. And Jackson only ever got away with it because he wrapped his violence up in the limiting abstraction of the "code of honor." Jackson's "code of honor" was generally just a bunch of crap that he made up, but he was consistent about it. Jackson (and the other progenitors of what became the Slave South, which to be perfectly fair they did not exactly mean to progenitate) found that, within a certain bandwidth of personal action, there was room for a whole bunch of interpersonal violence. So they exploited it. It took about fifty years for those chickens to completely come home to roost. So there was a lot of violence in Congress from the era of Jackson until the Civil War. And, you know what? There isn't any now. There certainly isn't a thirty years tradition of rising violence graduating from fists to knives to guns to deaths by dueling. So much for the theory that America is on the precipice of a new Civil War; if we are, it will be a very different one than the last one. But there sure was some violence then then. If anybody wanted to watch the symbolic approach of a war through punching and stabbing in a legislature, they had a lot to watch back then. It took very little to convince me of the book's central thesis that America's early legislators were a bunch of rootin' tootin' roarin' shootin' drunks who knew more fightin' and fussin' than debatin' and discussin'. After that, I settled in to watch the show, and just like any good sports event, there were players on the field that I knew. Before this book I had no idea that Henry Wise, the governor of Virginia who insisted so mightily on the right to murder John Brown, pursued such a long and checkered career. As a matter of fact, Wise was an old man, just like Brown, when they crossed paths in 1859. He'd fought his way across Congress for a quarter century before he got to that point. That psychotic fool Henry Foote is in here too, as is Elijah Lovejoy and plenty of Thaddeus Stevens. I don't think I ever saw Joshua Giddings as well as I did in this book, and once again, I could sense the sorrow and rising terror that Sam Houston must have felt as, one by one, his sins found him out. I wish there had been something about Cassius Clay, but I guess he was outside the scope of the book. Anyway, if I had a list of the first ten books to read about Antebellum America, this one would go on it.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Keith Parrish

    Everyone can agree that we are living in an age where partisanship runs rampant and the divide between what one side believes and what the other believes is canyon-like. Many people tend to think that our government has never been so divided, so uncooperative with each other, so at odds with each other. In The Field of Blood, however, Joanne Freeman sets out to chronicle the antics (I think the word is entirely appropriate here) of Congress in the three decades or so leading up to the Civil War. Everyone can agree that we are living in an age where partisanship runs rampant and the divide between what one side believes and what the other believes is canyon-like. Many people tend to think that our government has never been so divided, so uncooperative with each other, so at odds with each other. In The Field of Blood, however, Joanne Freeman sets out to chronicle the antics (I think the word is entirely appropriate here) of Congress in the three decades or so leading up to the Civil War. This is a time when verbal and physical bullying was common; when brawls and fist fights were regular occurrences; where challenges of honor were almost daily; where members of Congress saw fit to attend congressional sessions armed with bowie knives, hard wood canes, and pistols; and where one Congressman was bludgeoned nearly to death by another on the floor of the House of Representatives and in another instance, one Congressman killed another in a duel, despite the fact that neither had any real, long-standing beef with the other. Freeman presents this history of the Congress as a strife-torn, often violent place. Freeman presents much of this history through the eyes of Benjamin French, a long-time clerk, and office-holder in Washington who kept a thorough and fascinating diary of the comings and goings of Congress. He was an insider to the Congress who, to a certain degree, stayed outside the fray and his insights are invaluable. Much of the violence in the Congress came about as a result of bullying, especially by the Southern delegations. Because of the Southern Honor Code, just about any affront could lead to a duel or just simply a street fight. Northerners were not used to dealing with the Honor Code and Southerners used this to their advantage. Denying a challenge could have you labeled a coward (a serious charge, even for Northern voters), accepting means you were playing a game that you didn't really understand the rules to and which potentially could get you killed. As a result, a great deal of policy in the antebellum period came down to pissing matches between members. It was not until the rise of the Republican party in the 1850's that Northerners finally were able to stand up to Southern bullying, and by this time, nearly all members of Congress were bringing guns with them "for self-defense." Both sides saw the other as the aggressors and neither was willing to back down. Of course the crux of arguments was slavery. Southerners were willing to do what was needed to preserve it and expand it against what they saw as Northern aggression to dismantle it. Freeman presents all this in a style that is easy and accessible but is still very scholarly. The book is thoroughly sourced and cited. But there is something very personable in her style. I would love to sit in on one her lectures at Yale.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Casey

    A great book, providing a history of the culture of violence that dominated the workings of Congress in the three decades prior to the Civil War. The author, Joanne Freeman, presents a very well researched narrative, looking deep into the contemporary accounts to discover a surprising level of bullying and violence in the Capitol. She makes a strong case that, aside from a few well known incidents in the years immediately prior to the Civil War, the public is generally not aware of the violent c A great book, providing a history of the culture of violence that dominated the workings of Congress in the three decades prior to the Civil War. The author, Joanne Freeman, presents a very well researched narrative, looking deep into the contemporary accounts to discover a surprising level of bullying and violence in the Capitol. She makes a strong case that, aside from a few well known incidents in the years immediately prior to the Civil War, the public is generally not aware of the violent culture which influenced the actions of Congress in the ante bellum period. Physical clashes between Congressmen, duels (along with many threats of duels), and open intimidation were as much a part of the political environment as the speeches of which we are much more familiar. Freeman goes into great detail on the why and how, explaining that the violence inherent in a still-frontier dominated country, as well as the transient nature of most national politicians in that era, meant that the level of violence, though shocking to us today, was not considered abnormal then. It was when the telegraph allowed America a better glimpse into the day-to-day actions of their representatives in the decade prior to the war that the dichotomy between Northern and Southern norms towards violence became a nation wide conversation. Northern politicians, long intimidated by the sheer physical force of the south’s representatives and unwilling to risk negative images amongst their constituents by fighting back finally had the political space to confront the threat, thereby removing the last motivation for continued compromise with slavery. Freeman makes a strong case that it was a constant and inescapable cycle of violence in Congress, influenced by uncompromisable regional differences over the question of slavery, which subtly acclimatized the entire country for the looming conflict. Indeed, my understanding of the Civil War’s roots was greatly advanced by this work. What I liked best about the book was how Freeman did not dwell on the big personalities of that era. Webster, Clay, and Calhoun are barely mentioned; JQ Adams plays a larger role, mostly through his example of courage in standing up to the worst of violent physical bullying by those supporters of slavery (North & South) during the Gag Rule era. A great book for those wanting to know more about the culture and processes of Congress during the rise of abolition and how that inevitably led to Civil War.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Katherine Addison

    This is an excellent and extremely readable history of violence in Congress in the decades leading up to the Civil War. The infamous caning of Charles Sumner was not an isolated incident, and Freeman does a fantastic job of showing how violence and the threat of violence were used as tools by Southern congressmen to bully Northern congressmen into silence (just as they were using the threat of secession for a long time before anyone actually seceded). Freeman explores the ideology of Southern vi This is an excellent and extremely readable history of violence in Congress in the decades leading up to the Civil War. The infamous caning of Charles Sumner was not an isolated incident, and Freeman does a fantastic job of showing how violence and the threat of violence were used as tools by Southern congressmen to bully Northern congressmen into silence (just as they were using the threat of secession for a long time before anyone actually seceded). Freeman explores the ideology of Southern violence (the "code of honor") and presents the logic by which Southern congressmen considered themselves the victims of "degradation" and sectional violence. And she shows Northern congressmen's fear and frustration (and the marvelous non-violent tactics of John Quincy Adams) and how that fear slowly turned into responsive violence. Northerners started physically fighting back, and she argues that Congress acted as a microcosm and a barometer, both a cause and an effect of the growing tension and mutual mistrust between North and South. Violence in Congress didn't CAUSE the Civil War, but it was part of the vicious, escalating circle that kept North and South at each other's throats. This is also, as sort of a subplot, a biography of Benjamin Brown French (whose claim to fame today is probably that he was the uncle of Daniel Chester French, who sculpted the Lincoln Memorial). French was a lot of things, but one of them was a voluminous diarist and another was someone who, through his various jobs and political activity, had a front row seat to the goings-on in antebellum Washington D.C. She uses him as a primary source, but she also traces his political development from what was called a "doughface" (a Northern Democrat who sought to appease the South) to a fervent Republican and supporter of Lincoln, due in no small part to the way he witnessed Southern and Northern congressmen behaving from the late 1830s through to the outbreak of war. French is a method for her to maintain continuity of narrative even as her cast of Congressional characters come and go, and although I'm reluctant to play the Everyman card, French is a profoundly ordinary man, vain and a little gullible and not very good at self-reflection (though extraordinarily energetic), and his journey offers an intimate look at how what happened in Congress affected the people of the United States.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Joseph Stieb

    An enjoyable, interesting, even funny look at violence, masculinity, and politics before the Civil War. The book's central device is the extensive diary and life of Benjamin French, a Congressional clerk and party activist who provides the insider's perspective. French is an excellent vehicle because A. he's likable and lively and B. He shifted from passionate Democrat to Republican in the 1850s because of his resentment of the slave power in Congress, providing a lens into the thoughts and pers An enjoyable, interesting, even funny look at violence, masculinity, and politics before the Civil War. The book's central device is the extensive diary and life of Benjamin French, a Congressional clerk and party activist who provides the insider's perspective. French is an excellent vehicle because A. he's likable and lively and B. He shifted from passionate Democrat to Republican in the 1850s because of his resentment of the slave power in Congress, providing a lens into the thoughts and personalities of thousands of others who followed this path. The main argument of this book is that from the late 1830s to the start of the CW, violence, the threat of violence, and general bullying escalated in Congress. The most interesting dynamic here was regional. Northerners of any party generally eschewed dueling culture and other forms of violence, but southerners used that to their advantage. Freeman records numerous instances of such bullying or out and out violence. This was part of the larger problem of the Slave Power's domination of Congress, its imposition of the gag rule on slave petitions, its suppressing of free speech on slavery, and its support of a pro-slavery foreign and domestic policy. However, in the 1850s, with the founding of the GOP, this dynamic started to shift. Northerners started to embrace a party designed to confront and stop the Slave Power, the parties aligned on regional lines, and Republican Congressmen started to fight back, mainly by not backing down to southern threats and occasionally "bum-rushing the show" when scuffles broke out. Freeman sees these dynamics of regional masculine cultures as contributing to the radicalization of politics before the Civil War. I buy it. I think it is an important and vividly told piece of the larger puzzle. However, I do have a criticism. I would have liked to get a sense of the "original" culture of COngress. Going back to the founding, what were the norms and institutions that dominated? Was it the rise of Jackson that really brought about the arrival of a fighting culture in COngress? I think this argument would stand out more starkly if painted against the backdrop of previous masculine cultures in Congress, especially the Senate, which was designed to be somewhat above the fray. Still, this is a useful and interesting book.

  23. 5 out of 5

    E B

    The author follows one persons Journal with exerts from various media sources, which leads to a very one sided viewpoint. It would have been nice to have seen a bit more of the other side of the coin to understand all the feelings involved. It is also not the best writing and can be a bit of a slow read at times and only really catches is stride in the last third of the book. It is however, an eye opening idea on the calamity that was the Congress leading up to the Civil War. Often shadowed by t The author follows one persons Journal with exerts from various media sources, which leads to a very one sided viewpoint. It would have been nice to have seen a bit more of the other side of the coin to understand all the feelings involved. It is also not the best writing and can be a bit of a slow read at times and only really catches is stride in the last third of the book. It is however, an eye opening idea on the calamity that was the Congress leading up to the Civil War. Often shadowed by the bloodied battles of the Civil War is how we even got there. I found it quite timely as our country continues to find itself very divided in polarizing ideals. While I am not suggesting that we are on the precipice of another civil war, I do think that it leaves a lot to consider. One of the most direct points is found on page 231 as quoted below. {Given the extreme emotion, it's easy to forget how not everyone shared it. But even in the midst of the uproar, some moderate people remained moderate, at least in private; the din of sectional battle cries silenced most such voices in public. "Nothing but denunciation & defiance seem to be tolerated by the masses," moaned the former Massachusetts congressman Robert Winthrop, commiserating with his former Virginia colleague William Cabell Rives. "Timid Men" fear speaking out "for fear of being stigmatized . . . as disloyal to the South," said Virginian Alexander Rives, Edward Everett said much the same. "No one dares speak aloud on the subject except to echo the popular voice" Even failing to be angry enough was dangerous. Everett was assailed by the press when he didn't attend a large indignation meeting in Boston. Ironically, in the fervor to defend free speech, Northerners were stifling it.} Its a lesson from yesterday, which is just as poignant today.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Steve Majerus-Collins

    Joanne B. Freeman deserves credit for wading into the realities of the pre-Civil War Congress to find something beyond the eloquent speeches and forlorn compromises that are dimly remembered precursors to the nation's bloodiest struggle. She began looking into the fascinating duel that led to the untimely demise of a young Maine congressman and discovered decades of violence beneath the Capitol dome -- not just duels and canings, but a constant undertone of threats real and imagined. Slavery was Joanne B. Freeman deserves credit for wading into the realities of the pre-Civil War Congress to find something beyond the eloquent speeches and forlorn compromises that are dimly remembered precursors to the nation's bloodiest struggle. She began looking into the fascinating duel that led to the untimely demise of a young Maine congressman and discovered decades of violence beneath the Capitol dome -- not just duels and canings, but a constant undertone of threats real and imagined. Slavery was at the root of nearly all of it, manifested through the weird code of honor that permeated Dixie. I remember reading Bertram Wyatt-Brown's wonderful history Southern Honor: Ethics and Behavior in the Old South back in my college days, when I lived in Virginia and desperately sought to understand the motivations of Dixie. It was a revelation, an astounding look at a way of life that has almost completely died off. What Freeman has done is to show how that culture manifested itself in the political world of Washington, how it was used as a weapon in the growing battle over slavery. You wouldn't think on its face that slavery, which we as a nation are still trying to come to grips with more than 150 years after its demise, could underlay so much fussing and feuding in the corridors of Congress and the streets of the nation's capital. But it did, in spades. That Freeman dug up the evidence -- surprisingly thin, by the way, given all the violence that she shows -- is a service to her country, a revelation that in our time, too, ought to shed light on politics. You wouldn't think, though, that Bowie knives and revolvers on the floor of the House would be so little noticed in previous histories. But there it is. Anyway, thank you, Professor Freeman, for doing the work.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Phi Beta Kappa Authors

    Joanne B. Freeman ΦBK, Pomona College, 1984 Author Shortlisted for ΦBK’s Emerson Award From the publisher: In The Field of Blood, Joanne Freeman recovers the long-lost story of physical violence on the floor of the U.S. Congress. Drawing on an extraordinary range of sources, Freeman shows that the Capitol was rife with conflict in the decades before the Civil War. Legislative sessions often were punctuated with mortal threats, canings, flipped desks, and all-out slugfests. When debate broke down, co Joanne B. Freeman ΦBK, Pomona College, 1984 Author Shortlisted for ΦBK’s Emerson Award From the publisher: In The Field of Blood, Joanne Freeman recovers the long-lost story of physical violence on the floor of the U.S. Congress. Drawing on an extraordinary range of sources, Freeman shows that the Capitol was rife with conflict in the decades before the Civil War. Legislative sessions often were punctuated with 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.

  26. 5 out of 5

    James Bechtel

    Political polarization is nothing new in American history. Not today and especially not in the decades before the Civil War. What is surprising, prior to 1861, is how much violence existed and to what ends it was used. Congressmen carrying knives and guns onto the floor of the House of Representatives became common. Bullying was weaponized as a tactic used by southerners to silence northerners. Asserting "rights" or defending "rights" - personal honor, state honor, sectional honor became paramou Political polarization is nothing new in American history. Not today and especially not in the decades before the Civil War. What is surprising, prior to 1861, is how much violence existed and to what ends it was used. Congressmen carrying knives and guns onto the floor of the House of Representatives became common. Bullying was weaponized as a tactic used by southerners to silence northerners. Asserting "rights" or defending "rights" - personal honor, state honor, sectional honor became paramount. Were northern representatives degraded by southern bullying? Were northern voices, antislavery voices, prevented from getting heard? By the 1850s the new Republicans had to employ southern tactics as well - they had to confront, demand, and accuse. The attack on Charles Sumner was a result. Had free speech ended? The same for free debate? Joanne Freeman, professor of history at Yale, examines this breakdown of parliamentary rules in an imaginative way. Her focus is on an eyewitness to these violent decades in the person of Benjamin Brown French from New Hampshire - a clerk in the House of Representatives who kept a meticulous diary. All of the key events of legislation seemed to have this heightened anger, emotion, and violence about them. She has an important appendix that reveals some her methodological struggles over the reliability of sources and evidence relating to emotions in diaries, letters, speeches, newspapers, and politics. Maybe not quite a 5 star book, but close.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Josh Liller

    This book bills itself as covering violence in Congress from the 1830s until the Civil War and I found this a bit misleading. While it does cover that topic, the book gives a great deal of time to B. B. French, a congressional clerk turned lobbyist who kept extensive diaries of his time in Washington. While his diaries are an excellent source for this book, French himself was only a witness. There is also much less actual violence then might be expected given the lurid title (which is actually d This book bills itself as covering violence in Congress from the 1830s until the Civil War and I found this a bit misleading. While it does cover that topic, the book gives a great deal of time to B. B. French, a congressional clerk turned lobbyist who kept extensive diaries of his time in Washington. While his diaries are an excellent source for this book, French himself was only a witness. There is also much less actual violence then might be expected given the lurid title (which is actually derived from a quote given late in the book). There were much bullying and (often veiled) threats of violence, but little actual violence. Other than the well-known caning of Charles Sumner, the only sensational act of violence is the Cilly-Graves Duel which may be one of the stupidest duels ever fought. Credit should be given to the author for extensive research (extensively cited) and a determination only to present verifiable acts of violence. That said, an appendix containing alleged violence that the author was unable to definitely verify would have been interesting as well as beneficial to future scholars on this subject. This is an eye-opening look at antebellum Congress, including the impact of the complicated Southern honor code on proceedings there. I found it less than I'd hoped, but an overall good read. Highly recommended for Civil War buffs and those interested in antebellum American politics.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Donna Herrick

    High school history class gave me the desired story of the American Civil War as a righteous battle to first preserve the Union and second to eliminate slavery in the United States, that the Civil War started because South Carolina in a fit of pique at Lincoln's election seceded and then laid siege to Fort Sumter. This book lays out the troubled mayhem that was ordinary amongst Congressmen and Senators. History class portrays the debate over slavery as episodic, this book reveals that it was a b High school history class gave me the desired story of the American Civil War as a righteous battle to first preserve the Union and second to eliminate slavery in the United States, that the Civil War started because South Carolina in a fit of pique at Lincoln's election seceded and then laid siege to Fort Sumter. This book lays out the troubled mayhem that was ordinary amongst Congressmen and Senators. History class portrays the debate over slavery as episodic, this book reveals that it was a bitterly contested battle from the time of Andrew Jackson through the time of Lincoln. The author relies heavily upon the diaries of B. B. French, a New Hampshire man who was elected to Congress, and then held a number of offices supporting the government, including Clerk of the House of Representatives. In the first half of the 1800s our nation was divided between North and South, between industrial and plantation. The Southern Plantation class wielded power by using the structure of the government, their wealth, by threat of disunion, and by bullying. From the 1850s through the 1950s the Southern bloc wielded their power to suppress the rights of people of color using similar tactics. Today, the bloc has expanded to include most of rural America, but they are using the same tactics . I see the fight now as between progressive, pluralist, cosmopolitans and fundamental religionists.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Matt Fitz

    In the current vitriol of our current Congress, this book is a timely read to another time where it was probably worse: the antebellum Congress in the decades leading up to the Civil War era. I think many of us have been taught or allowed or minds to believe that these were mental giants, stately gentlemen who carried the day and their way through fine oratory. Yeah...not so much. The author uses the incredibly detailed accounts of one B.B. French, a Clerk of Congress, Commissioner of Public Bui In the current vitriol of our current Congress, this book is a timely read to another time where it was probably worse: the antebellum Congress in the decades leading up to the Civil War era. I think many of us have been taught or allowed or minds to believe that these were mental giants, stately gentlemen who carried the day and their way through fine oratory. Yeah...not so much. The author uses the incredibly detailed accounts of one B.B. French, a Clerk of Congress, Commissioner of Public Buildings, and most importantly, a prolific diarist on the matters going on in Congress. Those accounts coupled with historical records provide a telling story of the coarseness of that era that time (and lack of audio or visual recording instruments) have treated like a rock tumbler, softening all the rough patches. This is a great book for those who want to understand the "states rights" vs "slavery" debate as to what the Civil War was all about. Guns, Bowie knives, duels, and death threats in an era where news traveled slowly but tempers rarely subsided. None of us probably read enough about the pre-civil war era. This book will fill in a lot of the gaps between the Missouri Compromise and Fort Sumter. It's an engaging work by an author who weaves together an easy narrative.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Dawn S

    Interesting subject matter, a little tedious to read. Like a lot of research books that cover numerous people over a lengthy time period, it's not the most readable book. That said, it's a fascinating look at Congress in the 3 decades leading up to the Civil War. Freeman uses numerous resources, but her main through-line is the diary of Benjamin Brown French. He is a House clerk and political operative with a front-row seat to happenings in DC. Freeman looks specifically at the use of intimidatio Interesting subject matter, a little tedious to read. Like a lot of research books that cover numerous people over a lengthy time period, it's not the most readable book. That said, it's a fascinating look at Congress in the 3 decades leading up to the Civil War. Freeman uses numerous resources, but her main through-line is the diary of Benjamin Brown French. He is a House clerk and political operative with a front-row seat to happenings in DC. Freeman looks specifically at the use of intimidation and violence in Congress during this time. While members of the parties were distributed across the states, on the subject of slavery the southern delegates were united. They use parliamentary procedures and threats of violence--and sometimes actual violence--to silence opposition to slavery. Northern delegates were at a disadvantage, as they felt the sting of insults, but were reluctant to fight or accept duels because northern constituents disapproved. As the years wore on, northerners chafed at being silenced, and the north/south divide became stark. The breakdown in Congress mirrored the breakdown in the country, and civil war became inevitable.

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