by Joanne B. Freeman
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018
When exploring the history of the House of Representatives one invariably comes to the caning of Charles Sumner detailed in Stephen Puelo‘s 2012 book on the incident. It’soften used to illustrate just how violent, divided, and zealous our nation was leading up to the the Civil War. It is also frequently used in a rather trivia like manner as a flashpoint leading up to the Civil War. However, this has never really felt satisfying, or rather, it always seemed too easy of a go-to, too unexamined and superficial. This is why discovering Joanne Freeman’s book The Field of Blood was so intriguing as it recreates and explores the climate of the House leading to the rising tide of violence by our legislators upon one another, “Congress was the Union incarnate, for better and worse, and its collapse would bring down the nation in its wake.”
Freeman has done a proper historian’s deep delve into the exhaustive journals of Benjamin Brown French, clerk of the House of Representatives. Through French’s journals, both official and personal, Freeman excavates every small slight, official argument, tone and tenor of debate, and details of melee during the period.
While French provides an intimate resource, Freeman is also able to turn her eye to the national and local press of the time to explore how it participated in and often facilitated the growing tide of violence not for any noble purpose but to profit itself. With this trove of insight, she then sculpts a narrative showing readers just how the divide in the nation was a queer mix of intraparty politics, patriarchal notions of chivalry and honor, and fascistic tendencies towards claiming victimhood.
It is this last quality that is the most fascinating. We have long thought of the Civil War divide to be between regions and/or parties, and it certainly was, but Freeman shows how Southerners regardless of party used their dominance to defend the practice of slavery as an extension of their rights. The South during this time had outlawed criticism of slavery. Thus, when representatives arrived in Washington, D.C., they encountered opposition for the first time nearly exclusively from Northerners (regardless of party) and conflated this criticism of slavery with a challenge to their personal freedom. Southerners as a unit then would descend upon anyone who evinced a whiff of anti-slavery rhetoric knowing such bullying would play well back in their home districts ensuring them continued power. The act went from perhaps a yokel’s sense of insult to a deliberative tactic to silence criticism: “…anyone who bullied an opponent knew that the nation might be watching. Indeed, sometimes, that was the point. Bullies were proving themselves champions to their constituents. Extreme rhetoric often followed the same logic.” It is far too easy and cruelly tempting to see a parallel between this and our contemporary national dysfunction–a trait that makes for not just engaging but meaningful history.
The great strength of The Field of Blood is how Freeman breathes life into a past all too frequently disconnected, romanticized, and distorted. Her prose moves with easy and while she may have a vast store of insight to drawn from, she keeps her book from every feeling dense or overly academic. Instead, Freeman allows readers to see how personal slights turned into regional resentments which then turned into political tactics leading to war. The Field of Blood is fascinating study of the social climate of the time.
About the Author
Joanne B. Freeman, a professor of history and American studies at Yale University, is a leading authority on early national politics and political culture. The author of the award-winning Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic and editor of The Essential Hamilton and Alexander Hamilton: Writings, she is a cohost of the popular history podcast BackStory.