1850s America Was More Bitterly Divided Than Today

Joanne Freeman's The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to Civil War is a timely reminder that American political institutions were once even more dysfunctional, American citizens even more bitterly divided, and American leaders even more clownishly belligerent than they are today. Freeman, a distinguished historian at Yale who has also written a fine study of the political culture of the early Republic, Affairs of Honor (2001), provides here the best account yet written on the intensifying climate of violence that permeated Congress in the decades preceding the Civil War. The foremost virtue of The Field of Blood is Freeman's skillful handling of material that is as serious as the moral conflict over slavery, and yet also an amusing spectacle of middle-aged men scratching and snapping at one another like a pack of feral cats. She gives the moral stakes of this struggle their full due while taking impish delight in the wild ridiculousness of it all. Her style is light but serious, refreshingly free of the overbearing didacticism that too often creeps into this subject, and she shows an artful talent in combining the dramatic and comedic elements of her story.

Freeman wisely avoids pressing too much on the causal significance of the congressional violence she so thoroughly and vividly brings to light. The connection between the escalating violence in Congress and the violence that engulfed the whole nation is obvious but also incalculable. Congress became the center stage of the sectional conflict, the arena in which stark cultural and moral differences inevitably first collided. As Freemen puts it, congressmen performed the sectional conflict before “a watchful national audience, giving human form to the fraying of national bonds.” If this seems vague, it is because the causes of the war cannot be described with the precision of a physics equation. Good political history, like good political leadership, begins with modesty. The key point, which Freeman demonstrates, is that Congress established a pattern of political violence that framed how all sides understood the climax of disunion.

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