[Marxism] [SUSPICIOUS MESSAGE] Congressional Bloodshed: The Run-Up to the Civil War

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Sep 30 18:18:12 MDT 2018

NY Times Sunday Book Review, Sept. 30, 2018
Congressional Bloodshed: The Run-Up to the Civil War
By David S. Reynolds

Violence in Congress and the Road to Civil War
By Joanne B. Freeman
Illustrated. 450 pp. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $28.

So, you think Congress is dysfunctional?

There was a time when it ran with blood — a time so polarized that 
politics generated a cycle of violence, in Congress and out of it, that 
led to the deadliest war in the nation’s history.

In her absorbing, scrupulously researched book “The Field of Blood,” 
Joanne B. Freeman uncovers the brawls, stabbings, pummelings and duel 
threats that occurred among United States congressmen during the three 
decades just before the Civil War.

Freeman, a professor of history and American studies at Yale, mines a 
valuable document that gives us a front-row view of the action: the 
11-volume diary that the political observer Benjamin Brown French kept 
between 1828 and his death in 1870. A New Hampshirite who worked as a 
lawyer and journalist before turning to politics, French moved in 1833 
to Washington, where he served as a congressional clerk for 14 years. 
After that, he stayed close to the political scene, working as a 
part-time clerk, a lobbyist and a buildings commissioner under three 
presidents. Originally a Jacksonian Democrat, French became an 
antislavery Republican loyal to Lincoln, whom he served as commissioner 
of public buildings.

Using French’s diary as a lens on Congress, Freeman describes many 
violent episodes. “Between 1830 and 1860,” she writes, “there were more 
than 70 violent incidents between congressmen in the House and Senate 
chambers or on nearby streets and dueling grounds, most of them long 
forgotten.” In 1841, an exchange of insults between two representatives, 
Edward Stanly of North Carolina and Henry Wise of Virginia, led to a 
wild melee in which nearly all the members of the House pummeled one 
another. John B. Dawson of Louisiana “routinely wore both a bowie knife 
and a pistol” into the House and once threatened to cut a colleague’s 
throat “from ear to ear.” Angry over a speech delivered by the 
antislavery Ohioan Joshua Giddings, Dawson shoved Giddings and 
threatened him with a knife. Another time, Dawson pointed his cocked 
pistol at Giddings and was prevented from shooting him only when other 
congressmen intervened.

Giddings, an outspoken abolitionist, was accustomed to such treatment 
from the pro-slavery side. He was attacked at least seven times. Like 
the acerbic John Quincy Adams, the antislavery former president who 
represented Massachusetts in the House, Giddings intentionally goaded 
Southerners to violence in order to expose the barbarism of the slave power.

As Freeman notes, the Southerners were vulnerable to such goading 
because of the code of honor they followed. According to the code, even 
a mild insult could trigger a fight or, in some cases, a duel. Freeman 
tells us of the fiery Mississippi senator Henry S. Foote, who fought 
four duels in his political career and was wounded in three of them. On 
the Senate floor, he raised a pistol toward an opponent, the Missouri 
senator Thomas Hart Benton, who bared his chest and invited Foote to 
shoot, yelling: “I have no pistols! Let him fire! I disdain to carry 
arms!” Another senator grabbed Foote’s weapon and locked it in a drawer.

Although this confrontation did not prove fatal, another one, between 
Congressmen Jonathan Cilley of Maine and William J. Graves of Kentucky, 
did. Cilley, a Democrat, had charged a Whig editor, James Watson Webb, 
with having accepted a bribe. Outraged by the accusation, Webb wrote a 
letter in which he challenged Cilley to a duel. He sent the letter 
through Graves, a Whig friend. When Cilley refused to accept the letter, 
Graves felt insulted and made his own duel challenge to Cilley. The two 
men faced off with rifles on a dueling ground outside Washington. Both 
missed their targets in the first two rounds, but in the third Graves 
killed Cilley.

Offended Southern honor also lay behind the most famous violent 
congressional incident of the era, the near-deadly assault in May 1856 
on the Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner by the South Carolina 
representative Preston Brooks. Having delivered his withering 
antislavery speech “The Crime Against Kansas,” Sumner was sitting alone 
in the Senate at his desk, which was bolted to the floor, when Brooks 
approached him. Declaring that Sumner had libeled his state and 
slandered a relative of his, Brooks pounded Sumner with his gold-headed 
cane, delivering at least a dozen blows before his cane broke. Sumner, 
trapped behind his desk, lurched and writhed under the assault, at last 
falling, “barely conscious,” in a pool of blood. Sumner, who eventually 
recovered from his wounds, became a hero in the North and a lasting 
reminder of the violent tactics of slavery’s defenders. Brooks, 
meanwhile, was lionized in the South, where editors, mass meetings and 
student groups hailed him. He was showered with gifts, including canes 
with inscriptions like “Good Job,” “Hit Him Again” and “Use Knockdown 
Arguments.” His state quickly re-elected him to the House.

Freeman notes that the violence in Congress was like a spectator sport. 
Men and women crowded the congressional galleries with the expectation 
of seeing entertaining outbreaks, much the way fans of professional 
wrestling or hockey do today. Sometimes, she shows, French recorded in 
his diary his delight as a spectator. Describing the huge brawl of 1841, 
he wrote, “The Speaker & I had the best chance to see all the fun, & 
while he stood at his desk pounding & yelling, I stood at mine ‘calm as 
a summer’s morning’ — enjoying the sport, and keeping the minutes of the 

But Freeman never loses sight of the fact that the fighting in Congress 
was far more than a sport. It was part of the ever-escalating tensions 
over slavery. Throughout much of the period, Southern congressmen were 
the aggressors, and Northerners, who disdained violence, were considered 
timid or cowardly. By the 1850s, however, the North’s backbone had 
stiffened. As slavery became increasingly entrenched, Northern 
congressmen vowed to take action against Southern bullying and insults. 
Daniel Clark, a Republican from New Hampshire, warned that “a different 
class of men now came from the North. … They are sent not to bow down, 
but to stand up.” The Pennsylvania Republican Galusha Grow declared that 
Southerners were “under the delusion that Northern men would not fight,” 
when, in fact, they “will fight in a just cause.”

Not long after Grow made the statement, Union soldiers under Abraham 
Lincoln were marching south to fight for a just cause. The South, 
despite its years of bullying and bravado, eventually buckled under the 
relentless advance of Lincoln’s armies. In the end, some 750,000 
Americans lost their lives in the war that preserved the Union and ended 

Like other good historical works, “The Field of Blood” casts fresh light 
on the period it examines while leading us to think about our own time. 
Although incidents like the Sumner caning and the Cilley duel are 
familiar, the contexts in which Freeman places them are not. Nor are the 
new details she supplies. She enriches what we already know and tells us 
a lot about what we don’t know. Who knew that the Sumner incident, for 
example, was just one of scores of violent episodes in Congress?

Freeman doesn’t make explicit comparisons between then and today. She 
doesn’t have to. A crippled Congress. Opposing political sides that 
don’t communicate meaningfully with each other. A seemingly unbridgeable 
cultural divide. Sound familiar?

All that’s missing is an Honest Abe to save us.

David S. Reynolds, a distinguished professor at the CUNY Graduate 
Center, is the author or editor of 15 books, most recently “Lincoln’s 
Selected Writings: A Norton Critical Edition.”

More information about the Marxism mailing list