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Book Scene: Congressional bloodletting is nothing new

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No, “The Field of Blood” is not the title of the latest beach read murder mystery.

It’s about the U.S. Congress from 1830-1860. Yale historian Joanne Freeman has written a very readable account, based primarily on the diaries of a man named Benjamin Brown French, a little-known but important establishment player in Washington from Andrew Jackson to Abraham Lincoln.

“The Field of Blood” recounts the astonishing amount of violence that took place in our legislative branch: how often physical assault, dueling and sometimes even murder happened; and perhaps more perniciously, how much the threat of violence against political opponents for expressing anti-slavery views shaped the national debate and became central to the body’s operations.

If you feel depressed about the state of politics today, you might want to read this book. We hear a lot of complaints about our current politics being the worst they’ve ever been, combined with pining for the “good old days” of elder statesmen gone by.

“The Field of Blood” won’t necessarily make you feel better, but it will at least provide you with some historical context. It doesn’t spend a lot of time recalling the speeches of figures like Henry Clay and Daniel Webster that we all remember reading about in U.S. history textbooks.

The book opens quoting from Charles Dickens’ American tour, where he sat in the gallery watching Congress operate, and being amazed at how everyone was spitting everywhere, the carpets being stained with tobacco juice and covered with other rugs in an attempt to hide the ugliness beneath, an apt metaphor for the way the nation’s business was conducted.

While some of the early violence related to partisan politics in the Age of Jackson, the vast amount of it swirled around slavery. A system based on oppressive violence bred further violence as a tool of debate in the halls of the Capitol building. For a long time, Northerners were cowed into silence and complicity. Gradually, this proved untenable as the borders of the Union expanded, and the new technology of telegraphy changed the speed and nature of media reporting on the government.

By the late 1850s, violence in the chambers of the House and Senate had become commonplace, reflecting what was happening in Kansas and Nebraska and many other parts of the country.

If you place a high value on ideas like civility and mutual understanding between people, as French and many contemporary media commentators say they do, the book doesn’t offer much ground for comfort. Not engaging that culture of violence on its own terms kept the Union together for a while, but at the cost of complicity in an evil system. Meeting violence with violence escalated into the Civil War.

There aren’t a lot of easy answers to be drawn in relation to today. As with any point in history you look at, you can find some similarities and differences. The key is to realize that American politics and discourse has never been inherently nonviolent and civil.

The moment we’re in today has other analogues in the past, one of which is the period covered here. If we want to make things better, it’s important to understand that our current moment didn’t come out of nowhere.

• “The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to Civil War” was published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in September. It retails for $28.

• Chris Saunders works for Inklings Bookshop. He and other Inklings staffers review books in this space every week.

Reach Tammy Ayer at or on Facebook.

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