Thursday, September 6, 2018

Booknotes: The Field of Blood

New Arrival:
The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to Civil War
  by Joanne B. Freeman (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018).

Most people probably view the shocking caning of Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner in 1856 as an exceptional act of violence perpetrated on Capitol Hill. However, Joanne Freeman's The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to Civil War shows that, while the Sumner-Brooks altercation was the most famous incident of its kind, violence between U.S. Senate and House legislators had been occurring since the 1830s.

Freeman's extensive research has discovered "roughly seventy physically violent incidents in the House and Senate chambers in the pre-Civil War decades." As recounted in the book, such fights consisted of "throwing punches, toppling desks, brawling, brandishing guns and knives, and occasionally engaging in duels." In her examination of this phenomenon, the author comes to the conclusion that violence or threats of violence became "a core part of the political process" during the antebellum period, particularly when slavery was the political topic of contention.

From the description: "These fights didn’t happen in a vacuum. Freeman’s dramatic accounts of brawls and thrashings tell a larger story of how fisticuffs and journalism, and the powerful emotions they elicited, raised tensions between North and South and led toward war. In the process, she brings the antebellum Congress to life, revealing its rough realities―the feel, sense, and sound of it―as well as its nation-shaping import. Funny, tragic, and rivetingly told, The Field of Blood offers a front-row view of congressional mayhem and sheds new light on the careers of John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay, and other luminaries, as well as introducing a host of lesser-known but no less fascinating men. The result is a fresh understanding of the workings of American democracy and the bonds of Union on the eve of their greatest peril."

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