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The Field of Blood
Violence in Congress and the Road to Civil War
Joanne B. Freeman
read on February 20, 2020

Damn I really don't know much about American history. The book covers two major topics, as per the subtitle, and both are absolutely gripping. My biggest takeaway here was anger at the south. Like, flat out indignant, vitriolic, fuck the south. The 'violence in congress' angle was super interesting, something I really didn't expect and knew nothing about, but it's easier in my head to brush that all away under the "it was a different time" rug. The world's supposed greatest deliberative body — turns out — are a bunch of immature and privileged schoolyard bullies. But learning about the lead up to the civil war was just arresting; I previously didn't really know much beyond the really broad strokes, and this left me really hungry for more. Perhaps most disappointing of all were the clear similarities to today. 

  • The book primarily follows Benjamin Brown French, a lifetime political figure in the mid 1800's. He had an interesting story, but I found most compelling his lamentations of how the union was dissolving over time. It felt quite current for him to describe the polarization over congress, and the coming civil war.
  • The 'code of honor' is hilarious. It is so ineffectual and unnecessary, but so interesting to view from our perspective now. This odd system of manners, where men felt compelled to kill each other by this very odd set of rules (even when, neither wanted to engage further, but each felt that the code compelled them to do so)... it's so interesting to imagine what customs we have today that are similarly ridiculous.
  • The "antislavery toreador" Joshua Giddings (W-OH 1838) may be one of my favorite politicians. A man of courage and conviction, who "would rather lose my election at home the suffer the insolence of these Southerners."
  • Astonishing how new tech (telegram) changed the nature of congress, dramatically changing the press. The telegram allowed news to go back 'home' on a same day cycle, and drove increased engagement in politics nationally. Congressmen began giving 'bunk' speeches (where the intended audience was not the Congress itself, but hometown constituents by way of the press. This led directly to increased polarization, and ultimately increased violence.

The full impact of this perfect storm of conspiracy theories, policy conflicts, physical violence, and press coverage was growing distrust between North and South. Not only the public become ever more distrustful of their sectional foe, but congressmen did too. The fact that large numbers of congressmen armed themselves in this period speaks volumes. These men were prepared for sectional warfare in the halls of Congress. They believed that the driving impact of aggression on aggression could spark a firestorm that would bring the Union down, and if things went that far, they considered it their duty to fight with and for their people. To reverse a much quoted aphorism: politics was becoming ware by other means. When congressmen themselves lost faith in the institution of Congress and in one another - when they no longer believed that the institution was powerful enough to prevent sectional bloodshed within the Capitol - a line had been crossed. Resolution would have to come from elsewhere, if not from mediation, then in open war.

I finished this book with a strong desire to learn more about the lead up to the civil war. It was very well written. (And I should also say that the paperback version was very well put together. Great paper, binding, type, etc. This book was physically a pleasure to read.)

Author Bio:

Joanne B. Freeman, Professor of History and American Studies at Yale University, specializes in early American politics and political culture. Her interest in political violence and political polarization—dirty, nasty, politics—has made her work particularly relevant in recent years. Freeman’s award-winning first book—Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic (Yale University Press, 2001)—explored political combat on the national stage in the Founding era. Her forthcoming book (coming this September from Farrar, Straus and Giroux!)—The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to Civil War—focuses on physically violent clashes in the House and Senate chambers, and how they shaped and savaged the nation. Freeman has long been committed to public-minded history. Co-host of the popular American history podcast BackStory, Freeman is a frequent public speaker, commentator, and historical consultant whose work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and Atlantic Magazine, among others; she has been featured in documentaries on PBS and the History Channel, and been a political commentator on CNN and MSNBC. Her Yale online course, The American Revolution, has been viewed by hundreds of thousands of people in homes and classrooms around the world. Freeman was elected to the Society of American Historians in 2010 and the Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2015. Board of Trustees or Advisory Board memberships include the Library of America, the National Council for History Education, The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, and the Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies. She is also a Distinguished Lecturer of the Organization of American Historians. Freeman has received numerous awards and fellowships. In 2007-08, she was a fellow at the New York Public Library Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers, and a fellow of the American Council of Learned Societies. In 2017, Yale University awarded her the William Clyde DeVane Teaching Award; one year later, Yale awarded her the Sidonie Miskimim Clauss '75 Prize for Teaching Excellence in the Humanities.