I recently finished reading The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to Civil War by Joanne B. Freeman, and in all honesty, I can’t remember a history book that seemed more relevant or resonant.
Published in 2018, the book is a couple years old now (I’m that far behind in my reading list!). It traces Congress’s culture of violence, driven in large part by the South’s “code of honor” and the ever-present undertone of violence that kept slavery in check. Southerners threatened and used force to bully Northerners—a “might makes right” attitude that curtailed Northern free speech and gave the South tremendous political advantage. Once Northern politicians began to confront that violence rather than back down, tensions in Congress began a long, slow boil, with the issue of slavery sat at the very center of the pot.
The book resonated so strongly with me because as the nation unknowingly barreled toward Civil War, the decade leading up to that conflict grew increasingly fraught with political and social strife. Yelling and grandstanding replaced discussion and dialogue. Obstruction replaced debate. Compromise vanished. Moderation became rarer and rarer and, eventually, impossible. New technologies expanded the reach of the press, but society lacked the moral maturity to use those technologies responsibility (that went for not just the press but also media consumers), which only worsened rather than improved the situation.
Any of that sound familiar?
And the deeper into the book I got, the more and more familiar circumstances appeared to be. I couldn’t decide whether I should be comforted that we’ve all been here before or discouraged that the precedent led to national bloodletting.
Let me share just a few of the lines that jumped out at me as I read. I’m cherrypicking here, but each exists within carefully crafted context.
- “By framing those crises for maximum impact, newspapers created an endless loop of sectional strife: congressmen issued rallying cries to their constituents from the floor; the press played up the implications and the public urged their congressmen to fight for their rights…. These extreme emotions were spread throughout the Union with ever-increasing speed and efficiency.” (184)
- “National institutions of all kinds were under fire at precisely the moment when their influence most mattered.” (185)
- “Ironically, the workings of a free press encouraging congressional accountability—the very touchstone of democracy—were helping to teach the nation apart.” (185)
- “If the public knew the truth about Congress they would hold their representatives to account…. There would be less dilly-dallying, less misuse of public funds, less stealing of stationery….” (189)
- “It was hard to be moderate in immoderate times.” (189) (This one really hit home because I feel like I personally live this struggle every day.)
- “Even failing to be angry enough was dangerous….” (232)
- “by 1856, the nature of moderation had changed.” (232)
- “the crisis of the Union was a crisis of communication.” (232)
- “for Congress and the Union to survive this crisis—for cross-sectional conversation to even be possible—people had to watch their words. The alternative was Union-rending violence.” (233)
Think about that last one for a second and let it sink in: for the Union to survive, “people had to watch their words.”
Freeman saves her most concise and incisive analysis for the epilogue, slipped in innocuously but lurking there with all the power of a thunderclap (at least for me):
But responsibility for these failings does not rest solely on Congress. As a representative institution, the U.S. Congress embodies the temper of its time. When the nation is polarized and civic commonality dwindles, Congress reflects that image back to the American people. The give-and-take of deliberative politics breaks down, bringing accusation, personal abuse, and even violence in its wake. National political parties fracture. Trust in the institution of Congress lapses, as does trust in national institutions of all kinds, and indeed, the trust of Americans in one another. At such times, they are forced to reckon with what their nation is, and what it should be…. (283)
The book offers wonderful context for the outbreak of war, and that alone makes it worth reading. That it’s accessible and well-written adds even more to its appeal. But I urge readers to read it because it will not only help them understand history, but because I hope it will help them better see today and, perhaps, give them pause to think about what they might do to help make things better.
The alternative, to evoke Freeman, might be “Union-rending violence.”