Professor Joanne Freeman Speaks on the History of Violence in American Politics

Joanne Freeman, author and a professor of history and American studies at Yale University, addressed members of the Lawrenceville community at 7:00 PM last Thursday as part of the annual Weeden Lecture series.

Joanne Freeman, author and a professor of history and American studies at Yale University, addressed members of the Lawrenceville community at 7:00 PM last Thursday as part of the annual Weeden Lecture series. As a leading scholar on Alexander Hamilton and the political culture of the early national periods in American history, Freeman focused her lecture on her 2018 book, The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to Civil War, which tells the previously largely untold story of physical violence in American politics in the decades leading up to the Civil War.

Freeman began her lecture by introducing one commonly known incident of violence in Congress, the caning of abolitionist senator Charles Sumner in 1856. Freeman received the inspiration of her book’s title—The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to Civil War—from one of Sumner’s friends’ description of the event: “Blood would flow—somebody’s blood, before the expiration of your present session on that field of blood, the floor of Congress.”

Continuing to expand on the prevalent violence within the House of Representatives and the Senate, Freeman revealed that there had been more than 70 violent incidents between congressmen from 1830 to 1860. She guessed that around 10 percent of a given House was likely to be physically violent, including instances of “canes, shoving, fist fights, people pulling knives and guns on each other, duels, wild melees, and street fights.”

Most of the violence was censored out of the period’s congressional record, so Freeman investigated multiple different primary sources to uncover the untold stories. Freeman attributes the lack of publicized violence during that time period to the partisan press. According to Freeman, writers would “check their notes with congressmen before publishing them in partisan newspapers. Objective news was not a goal at this point in time because it was in the interest of the reporter to make their party’s congressmen look good.” When researching, the most valuable sources of information for Freeman were letters written by congressmen to their wives, through which she learned about the power dynamics in Congress. She found that the House was often much more violent than the Senate. While the congressmen in the Senate typically challenged one another to duels, there were cases of knives and pistols drawn in the House.

Freeman went on to discuss two groups of newcomers in Congress: fighting men and noncombatants. “These fighting men tended to be armed Southerners, who favored man-to-man combat, while the noncombatants tended to be Northerners… As a result, Southerners bullied Northerners in Congress to protect the instituation of slavery through insults, assualts, and threats to intimidate them into complicance or silence,” she explained.

As the debate over slavery and political polarization heightened in the 1850s, the invention of the telegraph changed American politics by connecting politicians and the American public in new ways. Rallied on by the American public, both Northern and Southern congressmen engaged in violence, creating “an endless loop of sectional strife as congressmen rallied cries to their constituents from the floor of the House and Senate.”

Drawing from Hamilton’s first Federalist essay, Freeman added, “Most nations are founded based on accident and force, but the Americans were trying something different. They were trying very deliberately to create a government through a process of reflection and choice, and they assumed that during moments of crisis the constitutional process, grounded on debate and compromise, would be the key to national survival.” Hence, for many politicians, this violence came from the anxiety from the desperate desire for this “experiment” to succeed. After struggling to find a format to convey her story, Freeman finally decided to use documents from Benjamin Brown French, a clerk in the House, allowing readers to track congressional violence through his eyes. An acquaintance of 12 consecutive presidents, French had kept a diligent diary and had personally witnessed many famous events throughout American history.

Freeman used French’s recountings of these events to “explore the emotional logic of disunion, the ground level process by which Americans turn on each other to the point of violence.”

Reflecting on the importance of her findings, Freeman concluded, “It's a story about extreme polarization, conflicting visions the kind of nation the United States will be, splintering political parties, new technologies complicating the conversation of politics, and about widespread distrust in national political institutions.”

On Freeman’s lecture, Chelsea Wang ’21 said, “[Freeman] had very good stage presence, and I found it really interesting how she was able to animate the history she talked about.”

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