Congressional Bloodshed: The Run-Up to the Civil War

Offended Southern honor also lay behind the most famous violent congressional incident of the era, the near-deadly assault in May 1856 on the Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner by the South Carolina representative Preston Brooks. Having delivered his withering antislavery speech “The Crime Against Kansas,” Sumner was sitting alone in the Senate at his desk, which was bolted to the floor, when Brooks approached him. Declaring that Sumner had libeled his state and slandered a relative of his, Brooks pounded Sumner with his gold-headed cane, delivering at least a dozen blows before his cane broke. Sumner, trapped behind his desk, lurched and writhed under the assault, at last falling, “barely conscious,” in a pool of blood. Sumner, who eventually recovered from his wounds, became a hero in the North and a lasting reminder of the violent tactics of slavery’s defenders. Brooks, meanwhile, was lionized in the South, where editors, mass meetings and student groups hailed him. He was showered with gifts, including canes with inscriptions like “Good Job,” “Hit Him Again” and “Use Knockdown Arguments.” His state quickly re-elected him to the House.

Freeman notes that the violence in Congress was like a spectator sport. Men and women crowded the congressional galleries with the expectation of seeing entertaining outbreaks, much the way fans of professional wrestling or hockey do today. Sometimes, she shows, French recorded in his diary his delight as a spectator. Describing the huge brawl of 1841, he wrote, “The Speaker & I had the best chance to see all the fun, & while he stood at his desk pounding & yelling, I stood at mine ‘calm as a summer’s morning’ — enjoying the sport, and keeping the minutes of the proceedings!”

But Freeman never loses sight of the fact that the fighting in Congress was far more than a sport. It was part of the ever-escalating tensions over slavery. Throughout much of the period, Southern congressmen were the aggressors, and Northerners, who disdained violence, were considered timid or cowardly. By the 1850s, however, the North’s backbone had stiffened. As slavery became increasingly entrenched, Northern congressmen vowed to take action against Southern bullying and insults. Daniel Clark, a Republican from New Hampshire, warned that “a different class of men now came from the North. … They are sent not to bow down, but to stand up.” The Pennsylvania Republican Galusha Grow declared that Southerners were “under the delusion that Northern men would not fight,” when, in fact, they “will fight in a just cause.”

Not long after Grow made the statement, Union soldiers under Abraham Lincoln were marching south to fight for a just cause. The South, despite its years of bullying and bravado, eventually buckled under the relentless advance of Lincoln’s armies. In the end, some 750,000 Americans lost their lives in the war that preserved the Union and ended slavery.

Like other good historical works, “The Field of Blood” casts fresh light on the period it examines while leading us to think about our own time. Although incidents like the Sumner caning and the Cilley duel are familiar, the contexts in which Freeman places them are not. Nor are the new details she supplies. She enriches what we already know and tells us a lot about what we don’t know. Who knew that the Sumner incident, for example, was just one of scores of violent episodes in Congress?

Freeman doesn’t make explicit comparisons between then and today. She doesn’t have to. A crippled Congress. Opposing political sides that don’t communicate meaningfully with each other. A seemingly unbridgeable cultural divide. Sound familiar?

All that’s missing is an Honest Abe to save us.

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