If you think our nation’s political leaders have become about as divided, irrational and petty as it’s possible to get, perhaps it’s time to stroll back to Washington D.C. in the 19th century.
I’m reading Joanne B. Freeman’s “The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to the Civil War.”
Freeman, a professor of history and American studies at Yale, is also a cohost of BackStory, an interesting podcast I listen to that explores parallels between current hot-button social issues and their historical precedents.
Although I haven’t finished “The Field of Blood” (I’m a slow reader, and also simultaneously reading a half-dozen other books — hurrah for Christmas presents!), so far I’ve found it both comforting and disquieting.
It’s comforting to see that as dysfunctional as our U.S. senators and representatives have become, they still look almost statesmanlike compared with those of the 1800s.
It’s disquieting to consider that we might not have reached our own nadir yet. Freeman’s book demonstrates that Congress could get way, way worse. The last time it got a whole lot worse, we wound up in the internecine slaughter of 700,000 Americans.
Here’s to praying that soon cooler, wiser heads will prevail. But as the Civil War approached, hotheads and idiots carried the day.
The central divisive issue back then was slavery, of course. That subject poisoned all wells in Washington, creating between pro- and anti-slavery stalwarts an atmosphere of self-righteousness, distrust and mutual contempt. Even routine partisan disagreements could be interpreted as personal affronts that must be avenged in the name of “honor.”
Honor was a particular obsession for the Southern delegates, who delighted in demonstrating why the Northern politicians had none.
Vengeance progressed from political paybacks to violence. Neither side would yield what it believed to be its moral high ground.
Benjamin Brown French, a longtime clerk in the U.S. House of Representatives, arrived in Washington, D.C., in 1833 from New Hampshire. A devoted diarist, he kept what ultimately became an 11-volume journal.
French recounted congressional tantrums and threats and screaming matches and desk pounding, Freeman says. He witnessed fistfights and flipped tables.
“He saw bowie knives brandished and pistols drawn, and even saw one gun fired on the floor,” Freeman says.
French, the diarist, absorbed most of this lunacy with good humor.
But an 1838 duel between Rep. Jonathan Cilley, a Democrat from Maine, and Rep. William J. Graves, a Kentucky Whig, badly shook him.
Cilley and Graves both were good-humored men and not even direct antagonists.
Yet misunderstandings, exacerbated by an elaborate Southern social code that Cilley, the Yankee, failed to plumb, forced them to the so-called field of honor. The congressmen couldn’t risk losing face with their peers and constituents by backing down.
In a Maryland farm field, they exchanged two harmless volleys with rifles. Attendants repeatedly — and unsuccessfully — negotiated, trying to settle the matter before blood was spilled.
On a third exchange, Cilley fell mortally wounded.
Today, there’s a great deal of fretting among the media because President Trump has publicly referred to journalists as the enemies of the people.
In the 1800s, criticism of the press by offended politicians was even blunter.
A Virginia congressman, William “Extra Billy” Smith, assaulted newspaper editor William “Dug” Wallach —evidently nicknames were all the rage — for calling him a Know Nothing in an article.
Legendary New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley, of “Go west, young man” fame, was attacked twice in quick succession by Rep. Albert Rust (D-Ark.) over news coverage Rust considered unfair. First, Rust punched Greeley in the head on the Capitol grounds, then shortly afterward hit him with a cane near the National Hotel.
Greeley armed himself to ward off further incidents with unhappy readers.
Perhaps the most notorious aggression of those antebellum years, though, was the savage caning in 1856 of Massachusetts Sen. Charles Sumner.
Offended by a fiery anti-slavery speech Sumner had made two days prior, Rep. Preston Brooks (D-S.C.) walked into the Senate chamber, found Sumner at his desk and beat him nearly to death with a walking stick. A House colleague brandished a pistol to prevent other senators from intervening.
This touched off a storm of outrage and counter-outrage. Northerner politicians demanded that Brooks be expelled by the House. Southerners bristled. Threats flew.
A worried representative warned the House speaker in an anonymous note that if the matter of Brooks’ expulsion came to a vote, “calamity” would result in the Capitol, a “general melee and perhaps a dozen deaths in the twinkling of an eye.”
That battle never took place, fortunately. (And, astoundingly, Brooks wasn’t expelled.)
But the fact that a pitched battle among senators and representatives was a real concern gives us some idea how crazed Congress had become by the brink of the Civil War.
As I said, I take a certain comfort from knowing that in the 21st century our elected officials haven’t reached such a state of bedlam. There may be hope for us yet.
Still, we should keep in mind that if we don’t mend our ways, there are further depths to which we might descend. We’ve been there before.