There was violence in Congress! (Hard to believe, I know—but true…)

Hyper-partisanship in the halls of Congress is nothing new. But at least we don’t have physical violence there anymore.

Not today, at any rate. Are you listening, Mitch?

Joanne B. Freeman has written an outstanding history book, The Field of Blood, about violence in Congress, mostly in the decades leading up to the Civil War. Depending on how thorough your U.S. history course in high school was, you will or will not be amazed at what you find in this book. Personally, although AP US history was absolutely the best course I took in high school, we learned nothing about this topic—a lot about the antiseptic legal decisions of the Supreme Court, but nothing about violence in Congress, ranging from fist fights to a duel in which one Representative shot and killed another. And that wasn’t the only duel (or threat thereof), although it was the only fatal one.

Before we go into detail, we need a word about the highly effective POV that Freeman has adopted. Although this is a very serious history book—complete with 135 pages of notes and bibliography!—it’s not the least bit dry. It comes alive primarily because of a literary device: seeing everything through the eyes of one person, Benjamin B. French. No, I hadn’t heard of him either, despite his importance in the Washington scene for decades. But there are two reasons why his eyes were the right ones for Freeman to borrow:

  • He was in the corridors of power for decades, being close to Congressmen, presidents, and almost every important politico of the times.
  • He kept thorough and careful diaries during that entire time.

Let’s look at an informative paragraph, informative both about history and about the book itself:

Staring out at the House for fourteen years, French saw a lot of fighting. He saw screaming matches, finger-pointing, and desk-pounding. He saw Southerners rise en masse in a chorus of fist-clenched outrage, bellowing for all they were worth. He saw men so red-faced and angry that they could baleful speak. (John Quincy Adams’s bald head was a barometer of anger; the redder it got, the madder he was.) He saw stamping and shoving, fistfights and flipped tables. He saw a few all-out melees—“interesting and intellectual exhibitions,” he called them—with dozens of congressmen pounding one another or standing on chairs to get a good look. He saw bowie knives brandished and pistols drawn, and even saw one gun fired on the floor. Most of it didn’t faze French, not even the stray bullet that wounded his hunting buddy, Capitol police officer John Wirt. He was “in very great pain,” French reported to his brother, but because he was “a Democrat, with of course a clear conscience, he will no doubt soon get over it.”

Perhaps you want a concrete example that involves specific Congressmen, not just these generalities where it’s only a Capitol police officer who is mentioned by name (hmmm… still sounds familiar):

Finally, on April 17, 1850, Benton snapped. Throwing back his chair, he lunged at Foote, who responded by pulling a pistol and aiming it at Benton. Predictably, this produced chaos. Congressman stampeded though the Senate to break up the fight (or get a better look). Some of their fellows howled for order in a panic. Mass pandemonium erupted in the galleries. A few moments later, Foote’s gun was taken from him and the chamber regained some semblance of order.

A crisis had been averted…

Aren’t you glad that things aren’t that bad today!?

But some quotes resonate uncomfortably well. For instance, from the South Carolinian Lawrence Keitt: “It would be the duty of the South to take possession of the Capitol…and expel from it the traitors to the Constitution.”

I suppose we should end with a quote from French himself:

When Republicanism becomes in the least treasonable, I am no longer a Republican. My Republicanism teaches me to stand by my Country & her Constitution.

Of course the new Republican party of the day was not the one we are now familiar with. Anyway, go read the book, but budget a lot of time for it: it’s a history book, not a work of fiction, so it’s not a quick read!

Categories: Books, Life