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Acts of incivility in antebellum Congress unveiled in Yale historian’s book

Historians in the News
tags: Civil War, The Field of Blood, Joanne B Freema, antebellum Congress



It took Yale historian Joanne Freeman 17 years and three worn-out desk chairs to write her latest book, “The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to Civil War.”

Freeman’s book about violence in the antebellum Congress grew out of her interest in the history of honor culture in early America. When she started the book, she knew of only a handful of violent incidents in the House and Senate chambers, prominent among them the 1856 caning of Massachusetts abolitionist Charles Sumner.

A professor of history and of American studies at Yale, Freeman would go on to uncover 70 accounts of violence — most of them in the House or Senate chambers, and long lost to the historical record.

The Washington newspapers were a good source for Freeman. Reporters during the antebellum period would write versions of what they heard during sessions of Congress — not quite abstracts but not really verbatim, says Freeman. And they veiled the violence. “They would write, ‘The debate became unpleasantly personal at one point.’ Or, ‘There was a sudden sensation in the corner of the chamber” — and I eventually came to realize that this kind of vague description often referred to physical violence. In the case of one “sudden sensation,” two men began punching each other and flipped a desk. During one particularly “unpleasantly personal” encounter, one congressman pulled a gun on another. And a massive brawl featuring scores of men pummeling each other was summed up as: ‘The House was like a heaving billow.’”

Occasionally, the only mention of an incident was the apology. “Sometimes, the record contains no sign of anything untoward, aside from a congressman standing up and saying: ‘It gives me great pleasure to announce to the House that yesterday's unpleasant incident has been settled with mutual apologies.’”

As luck would have it, says Freeman, early in her research, she read the letters of a congressman who wrote almost every day to his wife, and his letters were filled with violence. “I started reading his letters, and in them he described violent acts such as someone pushing up his sleeves to throw a punch. This was not my image of the antebellum Congress,” she says.

Freeman had a fellowship at the Library of Congress for three months, and in that time, she said, she never opened the papers of a congressman without finding at least one violent incident in Congress.

In the course of her research, Freeman also pored through the entire record of congressional proceedings from the period — which is available online. During this time, Freeman says, “I literally wore a hole in my desk chair.”

When she sat down to write the book, Freeman couldn’t quite figure out how to tell the story in a cohesive way. That is, until she discovered that there was a minor clerk of the House named Benjamin Brown French, who worked in and around Congress for several decades, serving as the House Clerk from 1845 to 1847. French, who acts as a kind of narrator of the book, left behind a remarkable 11-volume diary full of his observations. ...

Read entire article at Yale News

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