History from the Spit-Stained Carpet: What We Can Learn from Joanne Freeman’s Field of Blood

Presented at Valparaiso University, in Valparaiso, Indiana, at Books & Coffee, January 24, 2019.

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So I want to talk about a new history, Field of Blood, by Joanne Freeman. This is an excellent book that does some really interesting things. Freeman is a fantastic historian and I’m happy to recommend this book. I think we can learn some really interesting things from Field of Blood—about America, about the world we live in, and about ourselves, past and present.

What I’m going to do here is look, one, at the big historical question at the heart of this book. Then, two, I’m going to look at Freeman’s methods—as a historian and a story teller. The narrative structure is critical to what she’s doing here. Three, I’ll recount her story to you, the story of Field of Blood, which is: violence, government breakdown, compromise that doesn’t work, and finally a new political solution. And then, four, I’m going to talk about what we might learn from Field of Blood in our own historical moment.

OK. First. The big historical question. There was a lot of violence in America in the years before the Civil War, in the 1850s. Violence not just on the wild frontier or in the crowded cities, but in Congress. In the Senate. On the streets of the capitol. Elected representatives were fighting in the streets. Not metaphorically but fighting fighting, with like guns and knives. Sticks! There was at least one brick. And the big historical question is: why? What was going on?

Consider the most famous fight of the time. This is on the floor of the Senate in 1856, an election year. It is mentioned in every single survey of American history before the Civil War: the caning of Charles Sumner. It is in the textbook I use to teach American history at Valpo. It is in the most popular online textbook. It is in a brand new text book, published this year. You basically can’t talk about the 1850s, the sectional crisis and “Bleeding Kansas” and the government break down, before the Civil War, without talking about May 22, 1856, and what happened to Sumner. AKA: the caning.

What happened was, Sumner gave a speech called the “Crimes Against Kansas.” It took five hours, over two days. The speech was 112 pages, printed. No one ever accused Charlie Sumner of not having something to say. People did accuse Sumner of saying it—at—length. He was a 45-year-old senator, abolitionist, more than a little self righteous, and he loved the center stage. Always with the drama, Charlie Sumner. Always the interminable speeches. 

This speech, like Sumner’s other speeches, was about slavery, and how it was bad. The people who wanted slavery to spread, for example to the new territory of Kansas, they especially were bad. This was the point of the five-hour speech. Slavery’s supporters and advocates would upset the balance of power in the Senate, Sumner said, the balance between the slave-states and the free-states. It was so precarious; the nation was teetering. But the pro-slavery senators— Sumner called them the slave power, the slave oligarchy,  the slavocrats—they were going to just tip everything over. 


Sumner had an answer. 

The slavocrat senators loved slavery. They loved slavery so much, they wanted to have sex with it.

If that sounds rude—well, yes. Exactly. This was a five-hour speech filled with innuendo and insult. One Senator in particular Sumner said wanted to have sex with slavery so much he was like the deluded Don Quixote. Sumner said, “The senator from South Carolina … believes himself a chivalrous knight … Of course he has chosen a mistress to whom he has made his vows, and who, though ugly to others, is always lovely to him; though polluted in the sight of the world, is chaste in his sight—I mean the harlot, slavery. For her, his tongue is always profuse.”

So, the day after he’s done with the speech, Sumner is sitting in the Senate and he has a stack of his speeches, all printed up with a picture of himself inside, and he’s putting on the postage, to mail them out to supporters. (It is an election year). And the Senator from South Carolina has a second cousin in Congress named Preston Brooks. And Brooks is very upset. He takes this all quite personally and feels his honor—his state, his family, and he himself—have all been besmirched (that’s a great word: besmirched). So the besmirched Brooks is quite unhappy and he walks up to Sumner and the stack of speeches and hits Sumner in the head with his cane. Actually, first Brooks sees there are some women in the gallery overlooking the Senate so he sits and waits for them to leave. Because he’s a gentleman. Then he hits the senator over the head with a cane and again and again, a dozen times, brutal blows, knocking the Senator to the floor, knocking him bloody, until someone shouts “don’t kill him” and the cane actually breaks against Sumner’s head. Shatters. (It took Sumner three years to recover. And he had chronic pain the rest of his life. Serious, traumatic brain injury).

This is shocking violence. In the seat of American government.

So this one story, understandably, is ubiquitous in U.S. history textbooks. It appears like a kind of eruption—or maybe a pre-eruption, like a little pssst! of violence before the full volcano of the Civil War. Typically, the story, you get Sumner, the conflict on the ground in Kansas, John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, and then the firing on Fort Sumter. Full Civil War.


Now you might reasonably come away from that narrative with the sense, oh there was that one time with that one Senator. But that’s not right. This incident was one of many. This is where Freeman’s investigation starts in Field of Blood: violence was so so common. Freeman discovered more than 70 physical conflicts and confrontations involving legislators between 1830 and 1860—an average of two or three every year! 

“I found canings,” she writes, “duels; shoving and fistfights, brandished pistols and bowie knives, wild melees in the House; and street fights with fists and the occasional brick” (6).

These are just, and remember, these are just incidents involving elected representatives. So in Washington D.C. in 1856, the same year, there were three nativist gangs—the Plug Uglies, the Chunkers, and the Rip-Raps—who teamed up to terrorize immigrants who were trying to vote, and the mayor of the city had to call out the Marines, and the street gangs seized a canon and turned that on the soldiers in the nation’s capital—and that violence doesn’t even count. That’s not part of Freeman’s tally. There were 70—70!—violent clashes just involving Congressmen and Senators in 30 years. 

The caning of Charles Sumner is the most famous, but actually later in the same session there were eight physical confrontations, some of which were responses, spinning out from responses to Brooks’ attack of Sumner. And earlier, the same month, May 1856, a Congressman named Philemon Herbert actually shot someone. He shot a waiter at a capitol hotel in an argument over breakfast. You know when you have an argument over breakfast and it makes you murderous. Like that. 

The violence was so shocking, the British government issued a travel advisory at the time, not as a joke, a real warning, a travel advisory for the floor of Congress. They said if you go to America, don’t go to the Capitol Building, it’s too violent. Too dangerous. Not safe. Closer to home, there were people who said the same thing. One minister from Massachusetts wrote to his congressmen that he expected that “blood would flow,—somebody’s blood … before the expiration of [the] present session on that field of blood, the floor of Congress” (231). 

So Freeman sets out to explore, to figure out what is happening here. How do we answer this big question, why? And Freeman is a good person to do this because Freeman is an expert on American duels. She’s actually best known for the research behind the song in the musical*Hamilton, Ten Duel Commandments. This comes from her first book, Affairs of Honor. I’d recommend this too. Affairs of Honor looks at the early republic, starting with the first congress and George Washington’s first term. Focusing on—manners. Freeman points out that, essential to this new idea of this new American experiment was an idea of virtue, Republican Virtue, and honor. The founders believed that representative government was possible because there were selfless men, men of honor, who could rise above their own interests, to be wise and just and care about the common good. So honor was very important to them and decorum was very important to them and they had to prove, over and over again, that they lived up to these ideals. Sometimes in a duel, which was this very elaborate dance to demonstrate that honor was more important than life (because if it was more important than life, it certainly would be more important than, say, a bribe, or something so shabby as partisanship). You’d rather die. 

The genius of Freeman’s first work is that she focuses on manners. To understand these big, dramatic moments of violence, she looks at cultural practices, customs of politeness. Dinner parties, how gossip worked, and social calls—calling, like George Washington would call on all the Congressmen, in the first Congress, even though this sometimes only meant walking in the door, bowing, and going out again. But if he didn’t do that, people’d be very upset. Manners, Freeman argues, tell us about rules and values, implicit understandings, codes that are unspoken, and when we look at these, we can understand the whole world. That whole world.

Freeman’s method is hugely important to what she’s able to do. There’s a big argument for a certain kind of history implicit in Field of Blood. She actually starts by explaining her approach with a metaphor, looking at the floor of Congress—the literal floor. The metaphor is the literal floor. (I see why that might be confusing. Stick with me. The actual floor). The way Freeman does history, she wants us to ask not just about the “floor of Congress,” but the floor floor, that people walk on. Like: look at the carpet. 

In Congress before the Civil War there are these rugs and they are, Freeman tells us, stained with tobacco spit. Those were the days everyone chewed tobacco and Congress had more than 100 spittoons, scattered around, but people’d spit their chew, they’d still miss, or spatter, or not even try, just pfffft on the floor. On the carpets.

The tobacco-juiced carpets, Freeman says, have been ignored, because we focus, historians focus, on the soaring rhetoric, the arguments, the grand ideas. “But,” Freeman says, *“underneath the speechifying, pontificating, and politicking was a spit-spattered rug. The antebellum Congress wasn’t an assembly of demigods, it was a human institution with very human failings” (4). What Freeman is doing here is called, officially called, “cultural history.” Really it’s just trying to think about history as made by humans. Humans who, I don’t know, leave the toilet seat up. Miss the spittoon. And sometimes insult each other with words where it’s not immediately obvious why that would be an insult, like “puppy.” There were Congressmen who dueled over that terrible insult, “puppy.” History is a very human thing. And what we want to do, when we’re studying history, is make sense of humans. So look at the stains on the rug.

Freeman, in practice, does this by thinking very carefully about how she’s going to tell her story. How she’s going to construct the narrative. What she does is find one person, a real human who sometimes misses the spittoon, so to speak, and tells that person’s story, follows that person through the messy, dirty, human history. 

Here, the person is Benjamin Brown French. A “history stalker,” according to Freeman. Never the main player, not a center-stage guy, but always there. Always watching. Always—so important for the historian centuries later—writing. stuff. down.

French was from New Hampshire and moved to D.C. in 1833 to be a clerk in Congress. Not elected, but he keeps the records. His main job, at the start, was copying documents, and then he was promoted to organizing and counting votes. He became an expert on parliamentary rules of order, so he was always on hand, in the House, when people wanted to consult about what was allowed, or not. Eventually he became the head clerk. The clerk of clerks for Congress. Freeman says he was basically a professional Congress watcher.

French kept a very detailed diary this whole time. A diary about the daily workings of Congress. Very detailed. He wrote 3,700 pages. 11 volumes, over 30 years. And if you follow him, in these diaries, you follow him through the inner workings of government, through a series of government crises, a personal transformation, a national transformation, and the arc of history. 

French is not famous. I’d never heard of him before. But it’s like trying to understand a restaurant from the perspective of the bus boy, instead of the head chef. Both are going to go home at the end of a day of work and complain, they’ll complain about work, a bad day, an annoying colleague, but it’s going to be different, right? Different explanations. Different ideas of what happened and what’s happening. The bus boy, he sees things. That perspective can be the most valuable vantage point, to see how things work. That’s a strong choice she’s making as a historian and as a story-teller. And you can tell both are important to her, reading Field of Blood.

Because of this focus on French, the clerk level of the floor of Congress, we see two things that it seems like we wouldn’t (and other people haven’t) if we looked at, say, important Congressman. 

First, the shifting shape of Congressional conflict. That’s hard to say—the shifting shape of Congressional conflict. I mean, people are fighting but who is fighting, and how, and what happens when someone starts something, that changes over time. 

French starts, you know, bemused. He writes, in 1832, right before he goes to Washington he writes “the members of Congress are carrying on quite a little business in the way of pounding and shooting and being pounded and shot. I expect some of them will get a hole made in their bread basket” (17). A couple years in, he sees a full fight on the floor, a melee, and calls it an “interesting and intellectual exhibition.” Then it’s less funny, and he starts complaining about the “bombastical heroics” (68), the representatives always talking about fighting. As clerk, though, he’s kind of in the middle of it, so he starts trying to guess who’s going to be violent before it happens. He’s worried. He starts trying to figure out the patterns of the insults and threats, and who are the real instigators. French, like a lot of political people at the time, decides the real problem, the real divisiveness, is the people who wouldn’t stop talking about slavery. He supports what is called the “gag rule,” banning discussions of slavery in Congress. There was some real passive aggressive logic, here. If only they wouldn’t bring up that unpleasantness, there would be no unpleasantness. That only worked for a while. French, like many, was shocked by what happened with Kansas and the the caning of Charles Sumner and saw the Slave Power involved in a brutal conspiracy to control the Union. The violence goes from being kind of a joke, and just how things are, to the revelation of the problem at the heart of the division ripping America apart. We see that because this story is told through French. 

Second, because Field of Blood looks at French and history through French’s diaries, we see one man’s shifting loyalties. He’s a partisan and his politics, his partisanship, isn’t static, over time. It moves. This kind of evolution is often very hard to see for historians because we just look, or we have tended to just look at the leaders of movements. The top people are there for a moment. They articulate a position. That position is the position of the movement or the party, the faction they’re leading. Right? By definition. And then another partisan faction will come into play, and there will be another leader who articulates another position, a counter argument, and we understand them in their opposition. What that misses is how people, over a lifetime, evolve. They change. Arguments that made sense or seemed convincing in 1833 are not, just not plausible or really persuasive in 1856, or 60 or 62. People move, as arguments develop and time passes. And they flow from one position to another. 

French is like this. It’s interesting. He’s someone who’s very worried about the divisions in the country—we might describe it as polarization. He thinks the country might very well come apart, North vs. South, slave states vs. free states. His response to this, at first, is loyalty to the Democracy, the party affiliated with Andrew Jackson. French loves Jackson. Lot of people did. Jackson crafted this national party that appealed to people in all the different sections, based on his own fame as a war hero, an economic message that was relevant in every region, and the way he contained or suppressed (I think that’s a better word) suppressed the issue of slavery, which was the real issue causing the divisions. Jackson, for a lot of people, basically was Mr. America. And his partisans, like French, really thought loving their party and being partisan was going to save the country. Then section divisions start tearing at the party, and Southern Democrats and Northern Democrats turn on each other. French loses faith in the Democracy. Some of this is personal: He was a strong, strong supporter of Franklin Pierce and then treated pretty poorly. French disagreed with Piece over policy, about the expansion of slavery, the compromise over the expansion of slavery, and Pierce purged the party, axing everyone he viewed as disloyal, and French felt betrayed. At this time, he starts to think that slavery is the real problem, and rising above it, like Jackson did, or surpassing discussion of it, like happened with the “gag rule,” is actually making things worse. French, kind of without realizing how radically he’s been transformed, becomes a Republican. He ends up a strong supporter of *Abraham Lincoln. French ends up arguing that slavery has to be stopped,  even if that means the country comes apart, North vs. South, slave states vs. free. 

Lincoln says a nation cannot long endure, half slave, half free. 

French says, 

If o’er that Freedom glorious

For which our fathers died

Slavery must be victorious

‘Then let the Union slide!’

That’s a dramatic development you wouldn’t see if you just looked at Jackson, Pierce, Lincoln, people like that. Because this story is at the carpet level, though, and focuses on a clerk, working on the floor of Congress, we really get a sense of how this change happened in the hearts and minds of American partisans. Field of Blood makes a compelling case for a certain kind of history, that starts from a different place.

So the history Field of Blood gives us is story of violence, government breakdown, compromise that doesn’t work, and a new political solution. 

At the start, Freeman tells us, this idea of honor, necessary to a representative democracy, where people could rise above their own interests to really do what was best of the common good, that has become a politics of bullying. 

The best example of this is probably Henry Wise, a congressman from Virginia. Wise was a Virginia gentleman: flamboyant, high strung, genial, good sense of humor, and a sense of honor so fraught it had to be defended at all times with threats of violence. By his second term in Congress he’d been involved in one duel, one fist fight, and he’d pulled a gun in a committee meeting. There was a joke, actually, about how a committee he was chairing had to cancel a session because he’d forgotten his pistols that day, and wouldn’t be able to shoot the witnesses. Wise had something of a reputation. 

But it’s not just that he was quick to violence. The important point is that this violence had become a legislative strategy. Violence and threats of violence was how Wise got things done in Congress. Wise, Freeman writes, was a bully. More, he was a bully with a legislative agenda who “routinely and strategically used threats, insults, and physical force to intimidate opponents out of their objections and potentially their votes” (130). (Someone once called Wise a bully on the floor and he pulled a gun. Which wasn’t as convincing a counterargument as maybe he imagined. Anyway) Wise realized that many people, faced with a threat, would back down. They would retreat. That might mean they would do what he wanted, with a particular bill or issue on the floor, or just that they wouldn’t say anything to oppose him. If they didn’t back down, there were very real risks.

Wise, and those like him, could basically hold the House hostage, when they wanted to. And as Southerners, they cared a lot about one issue in particular, and felt like one issue, in particular, was an insult to their honor when it was discussed: slavery. 

In the early part of the Republic, at the founding and for the first few decades after, most pro-slavery people were kind of reluctantly *pro-slavery. They thought it was bad, but necessary, but bad for one race of humans to own the bodies and work and offspring of another. They also felt—perhaps self-servingly, but that’s not to say they didn’t honestly feel it—they felt that ending slavery or interfering with the peculiar institution would be way, way worse than just doing nothing. 

By the 1840s and ’50s, though, an increasing number of Southerners and almost all elite Southern opinion sees slavery as an unmitigated good. This is how it’s supposed to be. This is civilization. Slavery is the foundation of the modern order, including the representative Republic of these United States.

So you get this interesting chemical mix: people most likely to think its an insult to talk about ending slavery? Southerners. People most likely to fight over slights to their honor? Southerners. 

So that’s how you get two or three physical fights per year, involving Congressmen, mostly Southern Congressmen, for years and years.

The compromise, which didn’t quite work, was to make a rule saying Congress couldn’t discuss slavery. This was called the gag rule. This started in 1836 when John C. Calhoun proposed the Senate reject all anti-slavery petitions. There were too many of them and the Senate honestly wasn’t going to ban slavery, they were just a nuisance. Let’s just not accept this mail. That won’t work, though, since the right for people to petition the government is an important part of the American system, so the compromisers came up with an alternative: when an anti-slavery petition was presented, a Senator would raise a point of order, and question whether it should be received. Then another Senator would move to table the question. You can’t debate the petition until you settle the point of order, and if that’s tabled, indefinitely, there’ll never be a debate about the petition on slavery. The House actually passed a rule, to this effect. House Rule 21. The gag rule.

Of course it didn’t work, though, because the issue, dividing the nation, was fundamental.  It was fundamental to the nature of the Union, and the ideals of the American project, what it meant to say “all men are created equal.” It was fundamental to the kind of nation the United States would be, and how it would expand, and what that expansion would look like. It was fundamental to the question of federal power, and what Congress had the power to do, and fundamental to understanding the relations of the different parts of the country together. You couldn’t just not talk about it. Or, you could, but that really wouldn’t make it go away. Slavery was suppressed, again and again, and came up, again and again. 

The gag rule was overturned in 1844—John Quincy Adams, the former president who went back to congress—fought a nine year campaign against the rule. But even without the formal rule, the threat of violence was always there. “Many Northerners,” Freeman writes, “silenced themselves rather than face violent or humiliating repercussions … Fearful of the price of resistance, Northerners were victims of the gag of violence” (??). 

At the start of the session of 1849, for example, there was a question about who would be speaker of the house and whether or not the speaker would oppose the Wilmot Proviso, which banned slavery from any territory taken in the Mexican War. A congressman from New York said a congressman from Virginia shouldn’t be speaker, because he didn’t support the Wilmot Provisio. There were insults traded, and suddenly the slaveholding congressmen started a melee. It was an all out brawl. And, since there was no speaker of the House elected yet, there was no one to call things do order.

The violence, Freeman shows, lead to a kind of stalemate. It was a stalemate that favored the slavocrats, but even for them was a kind of tenuous victory, because it was so temporary. Teetering. Then there was a compromise, but that didn’t resolve anything. 

Out of this, emerged a new political solution. Anti-slavery politicians decided they needed to meet the violence, confront it. But they would do this smart. Sly. They would meet it obliquely. They would respond to the violence in ways that showed who the real aggressors were, showed that the bullies were bullies, who had taken the country hostage with their bad behavior. 

There are multiple examples of this, but let’s look at just one, to close. Henry Foote, a Senator from Mississippi, was trying to bully Thomas Hart Benton, a Senator from Missouri. Benton had given a whole series of campaign speeches against “Southern extremism,” and threats of secession. Foote—egged on by Henry Wise, bully extrodinaire—decided to publish a public letter accusing the Missouri Senator of sacrificing Southern honor on the alter of his political ambitions. He went on for 20 pages, insulting Benton’s politics, saying he was a small, selfish man. This continued in the Senate. Foote would, week after week, bait Benton, insult him,  threaten him. Call him names. Either, this was the logic, either Benton would voluntarily stop saying things about slavery or he would have to fight and risk real injury, with a Southerner who knew how to fight and liked to fight. 

Foote fought four duels in his political career. He was actually shot three times and had a permeant limp, but just kept going. Tough. He definitely wanted to be seen as civilized, really refined, and would drop Greek and Latin quotations into all his speeches. It didn’t always have the desired effect. One paper said he was “eloquent like a galvanized frog.” But this was the Southern posture. A flamboyant style, with an edge of violence. Just so no one missed that potential for violence, he carried a gun on him, in the Senate.

So he insults Benton and insults Benton until one day, they were fighting over whether or not there would be slavery in the new state of California. Benton was talking and Foote interrupted him to insult him to his face. Barrages of insults. Now, according to Freeman, this is a tough situation. Benton agrees to duel, he loses and maybe dies. But he does nothing, it hurts his reputation and he looks like a coward. Or he stops talking, and gives up the political fight. 

So Benton comes up with another solution: one day, Foote is insulting him, and Benton says, you’re not trying to fight a duel, you’re just an assassin, trying to find an excuse. Benton actually jumps up, overturns his desk, pulls open his coat to show he is unarmed and yes “I have no pistols, let the assassin fire!”

Benton succeeds in using the violence against Foote, in turning the whole situation on its head, to make the Southern look, not manly, but like a fool. A bully who got his come-up. Benton managed to respond in a way that showed the Southerners weren’t just defending their poor, poor beleaguered honor. They were the aggressors. They were violent. They were holding Congress captive. 

That’s actually the same thing that was happening with the caning of Charles Sumner. Sumner knew he was being provocative, insinuating weird sexual relationships between Southern gentlemen and their lust for slavery. He knew he would likely be attacked. When his friends lifted him off the floor and carried him, after that cane was shattered against his head, he said “well I hope that will be some service for the cause.” The new politicians, the forces against the expansion of slavery, who would rally around the new Republican Party and Abraham Lincoln, found a way to respond to the violence that didn’t just give in, but found a way to break it. Just by being brave enough to suffer, and not be silenced by threats. 

The violence in Congress ended in 1861, with the succession and then the war. The Southerns left, the question of slavery changed, and the people left to debate it believed in debate, not guns and knives, an occasional brick. But the North had also found, in this new politics, the courage of its convictions. So when Lincoln rallied Congress to go to war to save the Union, the Northerners found they weren’t afraid anymore.

So, to conclude, what can we learn from this history about our present moment. We have to be cautious. Then is not now. Things are different. But maybe a few lessons can be ventured. Here are three: 

1. We should watch for the ways bad behavior gets rewarded. If the response to someone violating the rules and norms, the decorums, of our democracy, is to give that person what they want, then they will do more of it. There are structural reasons, built-in incentives, that encourage the kind of actions we, the public, decry. We decry it, and get more. Pay attention to why and how that happens, Freeman suggests. 

2. We should beware of bad compromises. It’s possible that the “moderate” position only makes things worse, delaying the inevitable, while giving a temporary advantage to the people who created the problem in the first place.

3. Looking at the tobacco-stained rugs of our own world will help us understand our world and how we might change it. We should turn our attention to the floor, and the structures of human life underneath the ideology, below the “speechifying, pontificating, and politicking” to better understand ourselves and our neighbors and his country. 

Thank you.