When American politics was a blood sport
In the winter of 1838, vague accusations of corruption lobbed between Whigs and Democrats on the floor of the House of Representatives sparked a conflict that would ultimately cost one congressman his life. After an exchange of pointed letters, Representative Jonathan Cilley of Maine found himself standing 80 paces across a Maryland field from Kentucky Representative William J. Graves. Both men felt their honor was at stake. Both were armed with rifles. Only one — Graves, as it turned out — would walk away.
Cilley would go down in history as the only congressman killed by a colleague, but the duel was far from an isolated incident in the decades before the Civil War. In fact, as Yale University historian Joanne B. Freeman writes in her new book, “The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to Civil War,” 19th-century House and Senate members were a rough crowd — frequently drunk, often armed, and quick to take offense — and political disagreements regularly turned physical. And as tempers flared over the question of slavery, escalating violence in the House and Senate helped pave the way for violence that would wrench the nation in two.
Ideas spoke to Freeman about bullying, brawls, the code of honor in the antebellum Congress — and about what timely lessons that history holds for our own age of political incivility. Below is an edited transcript.
As any frequent C-Span viewer could testify, the work of the House and Senate can be quite dull — whether or not anyone is speaking, the chambers are usually empty, except for a few members hanging around checking their phones. Things were different in the decades before the Civil War — can you set the scene for us?
In the first half of the 19th century, Congress generally, and specifically the House, was chaotic and loud and crowded. There were people all around the edges talking and debating, there were people running on and off the floor, congressmen clapping their hands to get the attention of pages. People could stand and speechify, but it was really hard to be heard, and it was really hard to have any kind of prolonged debate. And whenever there was an overnight session, things got really ugly, because congressmen were tired, grouchy, hungry, and probably drunk.
How did fights usually start?
The typical fight would be a Southerner deliberately taking offense at something. Let’s say a Northerner says something about slavery being barbaric. A Southerner would stand up and say something vaguely threatening: “Are you suggesting, sir, that. . . ?” Either the Northerner would apologize and sit down, or he wouldn’t, in which case the Southerner would hint at a duel challenge, and things would be taken off the floor, or he would march across the floor towards the person who had given the insults — at which point others would rush to join in, to stop it or to watch. One of the fights that stands out was a mass rumble that took place in 1858. [South Carolina Representative] Laurence Keitt and [Pennsylvania Representative] Galusha Grow get into an argument, and Grow slugs Keitt and floors him, just knocks him flat. And immediately scores of Southerners rush towards that spot, and Grow’s Republican friends rush over themselves. They’re all jumping on desks and chairs in their hurry to protect their allies, and what you ended up with is dozens of congressmen slugging each other and tossing spittoons. One poor guy has his toupee pulled off.
Duels were governed by a “code of honor.” How did that work?
There were all kinds of rules about letters of inquiry, and determining what the precise nature of the insult was, and appointing seconds, and the seconds going back and forth between the two principals trying to negotiate apologies. Over time it became increasingly complex, because the point of it wasn’t to get to the dueling ground, but to prove you’re willing to die for your name and reputation. Northerners were in a sticky situation, because by the time the events in this book are taking place, in the North dueling is seen as barbaric. Southerners know this, and it gives them something of an advantage, because Northerners are stuck. Either they say, “No,” and look cowardly, or they say, “Okay, I’ll do it,” and they might be ostracized back home. That dynamic is part of why Southern bullying had some real power in this period.
Southerners deliberately used the threat of violence to suppress debate about slavery — did that help ensure the impossibility of a peaceful solution?
It sure didn’t help. The fact of the matter is, in the end you’re going to have slavery or not have slavery — it’s not a compromise-able issue. But the violence silenced some people who might have been willing to stand up and criticize slavery, for sure. Bullying had an impact.
What happened after the Civil War?
When the war starts, Southerners leave, and things calm down. There’s a little flame-up of violence when the Southerners return after the war, but when you’ve just gone through a bloody, terrible civil war, violence does not have the cachet it might’ve once had. I also think it mattered that the South lost. After that war, Northerners are no longer going to be cowering. They won, and they set the terms of debate, and they now have the power. The fundamental dynamics changed.
We’re also living through an era of hyperpartisanship and harsh rhetoric. We might not expect our current leaders to engage in duels, but do you see parallels with the antebellum Congress?
In the 1850s, there were also extremely polarizing issues up for debate, and very sharply conflicting views about what the United States should be. Political parties were splintering, people were losing faith in the ability of national institutions to corral and shape debate, and Americans were beginning to turn on each other. I’m not suggesting we’re walking into a civil war today, but when the president goes on Twitter, it certainly does make me think about the political narrative spinning out of control in the 1850s.
You don’t use it to pick fights, but you’re pretty active on Twitter yourself, and you also cohost a podcast, “BackStory.” Why do you feel it’s important for a historian to connect so immediately with the public?
Twitter is just one tool among many — other historians are writing for newspapers, speaking publicly or working with museums or historical societies. It’s important because if you don’t understand where we’ve come from, you can’t understand our nation and where it’s going and who we are. During the 2016 campaign, there were some extreme things being said, particularly by Trump, about our government, and I began commenting about them on Twitter in part because I thought, “Well, that’s really not in line with the tradition of American governance. Let’s talk about why we have three branches. Let’s talk about what separation of powers means.” And to my surprise, I got a lot of response from the public.
What lessons do you hope that the public draws from our history of political violence?
There is a tradition of thinking of the United States as being above such things. The fact of the matter is we’re vulnerable and flawed, and we have been flawed in the past, and that’s part of who we are. It’s also so tempting to say, “It’s never been this bad before.” I can say, “Well no, actually it’s been bad before!” There is something reassuring about that.
History does echo — it doesn’t repeat, but it echoes, and we should learn from those echoes and do better.