In The Field of Blood, Joanne B. Freeman recovers the long-lost story of physical violence on the floor of the U.S. Congress. Drawing on an extraordinary range of sources, she shows that the Capitol was rife with conflict in the decades before the Civil War. Legislative sessions were often punctuated by mortal threats, canings, flipped desks, and all-out slugfests. When debate broke down, congressmen drew pistols and waved Bowie knives. One representative even killed another in a duel. Many were beaten and bullied in an attempt to intimidate them into compliance, particularly on the issue of slavery. Freeman’s dramatic accounts 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. Her book also holds important lessons about how these echoes of the past continue to surface in Congress today.
In the middle of December 1833, the thirty-three-year-old Benjamin Brown French set off for the nation’s capital and a new life as a clerk for the U.S. House of Representatives. Duty drove him more than anything else; as he explained in his diary, he needed to earn money to pay his debts. He was too extravagant with his earnings, he knew, and now he was paying the price. His wife—“all I love on this earth”—was back in New Hampshire. And he was trundling in a stagecoach, then three steamboats, then another stagecoach to Washington.
During his trip, French bumped up against concrete evidence of just how localized the nation and he himself were. State banks printed their own currency, so interstate travel required preparation, and French wasn’t prepared. In Pennsylvania, he discovered that his New Hampshire bills weren’t much good. When his wife followed him to Washington a few months later, he had sage advice: “Use New Hampshire or Massachusetts money until you get to New Haven, and then begin upon your Southern money. I had some trouble in Philadelphia to get rid of my New Hampshire money.”
Southern money in hand, French arrived in Washington on December 21, 1833—at 1:30 a.m. on a cold morning, to be precise—and he spent the day doing what any visitor would do; he toured the capital with fresh eyes. What he saw was a raw young city with pretensions of becoming something more.
Planned in the 1790s and first serving as the seat of government in 1800, Washington was a new capital for a new nation. Boosters called it the City of Magnificent Distances; critics called it the City of Magnificent Intentions. Either way, it embodied big hopes and an uncertain future.
You could see the city’s rawness everywhere.
You could see the city’s rawness everywhere: in its sprawling dimensions and empty expanses; in its clusters of low wood houses and straggling rows of buildings pocked by vacant lots; in the odd isolated splendor of its scattered handful of large government buildings (as if “the British Museum . . . suddenly migrated to the centre of an exhausted brick- field”); in its broad unpaved avenues and its seemingly permanent blanket of dust from ongoing construction. As late as 1850, houses weren’t numbered, street signs weren’t mandatory, there were no streetlights, “and the visitor who wanted to find a residence had to depend upon the hack-drivers, whose method of memory seemed to be that each person lived ‘just a little way from’ somewhere else.” Thanks to poor planning, sewage pooled in low-lying areas; there was a “miasmatic swamp” near the White House, and in 1857 a sewage-induced dysentery outbreak in the National Hotel killed three and sickened dozens, including the president-elect. Cows, geese, and pigs roamed the streets. Over the years, French had countless livestock run-ins; on one evening in 1838, he was convinced that “nearly all the dogs in Washington” were behind his boardinghouse barking at cows. A few years later, a cow wearing a bell woke him night after night for months; even as he was complaining in his diary, the cow seemed to “gingle” her bell “as if she knew that I was writing about her. . . . D—n that cow.”
In a city networked by more roads and alleys than New York or Philadelphia, the streets themselves seemed to rise up in rebellion. Crossing one of the broad avenues could be an adventure. When it rained, they were mired in mud. When it didn’t, the wind stirred up dust clouds so dense that people were choked and blinded. The wise Washingtonian carried a handkerchief to cover nose and mouth when crossing the street. (“You have no idea of the dust,” noted a clerk searching for a place to board that wasn’t enveloped in a thick cloud of it.) In the summer of 1856, Congress spent nearly $2,000 watering down Pennsylvania Avenue, roughly equivalent to $56,000 in 2017; French, commissioner of public buildings at the time, supervised the watering.
Of course, Washington changed during its first five decades, transforming from a town of roughly 8,000 people in 1800 to a city of more than 50,000 in the 1850s. But one thing didn’t change: Washington revolved around the openings and closings of Congress. Just before the start of every session, a migrant group of politicians and their families trouped to the capital, joined by a throng of hangers-on: “distinguished foreigners, gentlemen who are traveling for amusement, political demagogues, claimants, patentees, letter writers, army and navy officers, office hunters, and a host of gamblers and blacklegs”—not to mention socialites eager for fun. (One congressman included “lunatics” in this group, noting that Washington had more than its share because some government claimants literally went insane waiting for Congress to act.) To French, it was a “cloud . . . equalled only by the locusts in Egypt.”
French was part of that cloud in 1833. He spent his first day seeing the sights with two New Hampshire congressmen, including Franklin Pierce. The three men probably saw the White House and strolled down Pennsylvania Avenue, the city’s main thoroughfare (known as “the Avenue”), with its array of houses, hotels, churches, saloons, small businesses, and newspaper offices. But of all that French saw on that first day, one thing stood out: the United States Capitol. “I viewed it with thoughts and emotions which I cannot express,” he confessed in his diary that night.
Perhaps he was struck by the grand sweeping architecture; the iconic statues and artwork in the rotunda; the look, sound, and feel of the House and Senate chambers. Perhaps he was anticipating this new phase of his life on an elevated stage. He was certainly excited to hear “the great men of the land debate.” But more than anything else, French was struck by the symbolism of his surroundings. Thus his reaction to viewing the Capitol for the first time: “will it always be the capitol of my happy country? I fear the seeds are already sown whose fruit will be disunion, but God forbid it!” French was responding to the Nullification Crisis of 1832–33, a standoff between the national government and South Carolina, which had nullified a federal tariff; for a time, the threat of federal military intervention had been all too real. French may have been looking at a brick-and-mortar structure, but he was seeing the Union incarnate.
The Capitol encouraged this kind of thinking by design. Not only was it an architectural anchor of the city—an enormous structure at one end of Pennsylvania Avenue, in a permanent showdown with the White House at the other end—but it was also a national monument of sorts, open to the public and filled with commemorative works of art. The exterior was adorned with “colossal” allegorical statues: the Genius of America, War, Peace, Hope, and Justice (though somewhat forebodingly, in 1842 “Justice” was damaged, her arm and hand—clutching the Constitution—broken off and smashed on the Capitol’s steps). The interior was filled with statues and portraits of Great Americans and paintings of Great American Moments, most notably John Trumbull’s iconic paintings in the rotunda: the Surrender of General Burgoyne at Saratoga, the Declaration of Independence, the Surrender of Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown, and General George Washington Resigning His Commission. American values, American heroes, and American history, all on display.
The building’s scope and scale were equally symbolic, designed to capture the spirit of American governance. The imposing rotunda with its impressive dome signaled the high ambitions—even the majesty— of popular representation, as did the House and Senate chambers, open to public view: the House, grand in scale, with a dramatic domed ceiling and crimson drapery; the Senate with its clubby intimacy and luxurious red Moroccan leather chairs. The concentric arc-shaped rows of simple desks in both houses captured the other half of the republican equation: a plainspoken, straightforward approach to business with little to no frippery to get in the way. (Newspaper ads seeking craftsmen to build them requested “strong, neat and plain” furniture “without any superfluous ornament.”) The desks were the only offices that congressmen had, aside from their paper-strewn boardinghouse or hotel rooms. In his first months in office French saw it all, touring the building from bottom to top, glorying in its wonders, and laughing at how the “superb” view from the dome made people in the rotunda look like “little squab looking fellows.”
All in all, the Capitol’s structural design was intended to have an impact, and French got the message. He could think of “no more imposing spectacle” than an evening session of the House: the light “equal to that of at least 1,000 candles,” the galleries jammed with the Washington “gentility,” the “vast pillars,” the plush drapery that looked “richer, if possible, by artificial light than by the light of day.” If conditions were right—“If the House happens to be in good humor, & some interesting subject is under debate”—it was a magnificent sight, suggesting all that Congress was supposed to be.
And Congress was supposed to be quite a lot; in the first half of the nineteenth century it had a particularly large role to play. By the time of French’s arrival in 1833, the government had been in operation for forty-four years. On the one hand, this was long enough to prove that one stupid policy or one sweeping crisis wouldn’t dash it to ruins. America’s survival through the War of 1812, the nation’s second war against Great Britain, suggested that the American experiment might just have legs. On the other hand, forty-four years wasn’t long enough to take things for granted; there were kinks to be worked out, fundamental understandings yet unreached, major decisions yet to be made, and large, looming power vacuums waiting to be filled. Here, too, the Capitol embodied the Union; it was still under construction, and would be into the Civil War and beyond.
There was also the destabilizing influence of national expansion. The young nation was still in its adolescence, spreading across the North American continent at a remarkable rate. Between 1840 and 1860, seven new states were added to the Union; in 1860, fifteen out of thirty-two states were less than forty-five years old. For many Americans, it was exciting and empowering, seemingly the groundwork of a future empire. It was also unsettling, because each new state raised fundamental questions about the nature of the nation. The question of slavery was front and center—would it, should it, spread and survive?—but it wasn’t the only one. What of native peoples who owned western lands? How far could new states go in setting their own terms? What was the relationship between periphery and center? And what about the logistics? How would this far-flung nation be interconnected? By toll roads? Canals? Railroads? Who would fund and manage their development, and how? And speaking of funding, how active should the national government be in harmonizing the nation’s unsteady and diverse economy as the Industrial Age began to unfold? What role should the government play in handling the period’s many financial panics? There were endless uncertainties, logical enough in a new and growing nation, but unsettling nonetheless.
There were endless uncertainties, logical enough in a new and growing nation, but unsettling nonetheless.
Congress would help to answer many of these questions, establishing vital precedents. It would play a role in crisscrossing the continent with roads and canals. It would foster industry with protective tariffs on imported goods—or not, depending on which party was in power. It would weigh in on the terms of statehood for every new state, but not without turmoil; although the Constitution and subsequent legislation outlined this process, it left room for interpretation, and the question of slavery expanded to fill much of it. In one way or another, during the first half of the nineteenth century, Congress was shaping the scale, scope, and influence of the national government and how far it could go in shaping the nation.
And the American people knew it. Congress was where the action was. Although the presidency got its share of press coverage—and more during election years—Congress got the lion’s share of column inches. Newspapers routinely printed lengthy summaries of congressional debates as well as congressional commentary. Popular culture kept pace. By the 1850s, there was a virtual school of Congress-bashing in squibs, plays, cartoons, even mock epic poetry. All of these efforts were filled with inside jokes grounded on the assumption that the reading public was remarkably knowledgeable about the day-to-day happenings in Congress.
They were certainly well versed in the words of Congress’s star orators. This was the great age of speechifying, and the Senate was its national headquarters, though the House held its own. Oratory was a vastly popular form of entertainment through much of the nineteenth century. People would flock to hear stump speeches and lectures that went on for hours (testimony to the long-lost art of having a long attention span). This was the realm of Henry Clay and Daniel Webster, as well as a number of their peers who have since lost their luster. When these men were due to give speeches, crowds packed the galleries, Senate attendance improved remarkably, and Representatives migrated from the House to hear them. One 1848 speech by Clay—before the American Colonization Society, after hours in the House—attracted a crowd of thousands who not only filled every square inch of the chamber but packed the rotunda and the space outside the windows. (One disgruntled congressman quipped that Clay, a repeat presidential contender, “could get more men to run after him to hear him speak, and fewer to vote for him, than any man in America.”) Such grandstand performances didn’t necessarily change congressional votes. But they might change public opinion, and that could change everything. A reliable source of praise and fame, impressive oratory was political muscle. As one reporter put it, “Eloquence, in this empire, is power.”
At their best, the best speakers voiced shared sentiments so eloquently and forcefully that their words became a kind of patriotic gospel; generations of schoolchildren memorized and delivered Daniel Webster’s speeches as American anthems. Even French, a firm Democrat when he arrived in Washington, almost genuflected at the mention of the mighty Whig’s name. Webster was a New Hampshire native and the voice of America: it was impossible for French not to be proud. When French was accused of attacking Webster in his newspaper column, he anxiously checked every column he’d ever written, breathing a sigh of relief when he came up empty-handed: he was “[t]oo proud of being a native of the same state with him to abuse him.” As much as he disapproved of Webster’s Whig politics, French considered him “one of the greatest men in this Union.”
It’s no wonder that some people viewed Congress as the land of Great Men. French did at first. “The color of the rose was about everything I saw,” he later recalled. Even congressmen themselves could be impressed by some of their fellows. French’s friend John Parker Hale (D-NH) acknowledged as much when he asked big-name colleagues to frank his letters home so his wife could save their autographs.
This was the Congress enshrined in the Capitol’s architecture and artwork, the Congress that took French’s breath away. But there was another Congress, a place of negotiating and compromising, of parliamentary power plays on the floor and politicking in back rooms, of ego, bravado, and boozy backslapping with an occasional ultimatum delivered behind closed doors. The man-to-man challenges and the sense of community; the heated debate and drawn-out pauses; the quiet asides, muttered insults, and fistfights: this was the ground-level workaday Congress, an often contentious, sometimes tumultuous, and occasionally even dangerous assembly charged with crafting policies and precedents that would shape the nation, a fitting reflection of a restless people pushing the bounds of empire.
• • •
As impressive as the House sometimes seemed to French, evening sessions rarely ended that way. Sometime around midnight, with the audience long gone and members straggling off, the mood often changed. The niceties of debate would break down. Men would become tired and testy. There would be interruptions and constant (desperate) calls to adjourn. The Speaker’s pounding gavel and screams for order would only add to the prevailing noise and confusion. Members would be sleeping in their seats or on the sofas bordering the room, some stretched out on the carpet behind the Speaker’s chair. (It wasn’t only the House that was sleeping; partway through a twelve-hour Senate session in 1843, the ever-energetic Thomas Hart Benton [D-MO] declared himself “quite fresh and vigorous,” having “just waked up from the sofa.”) At about 2:00 a.m., someone would make a call of the House, summoning all members to the floor; by 5:00 a.m., the sergeant at arms would be dragging them into the chamber half-dressed, their hair uncombed, their faces unwashed and unshaven, looking “as little like ‘the first gentlemen in America’ as possible,” French thought.
It’s hard to imagine a more human Congress: an assemblage of sleepy, grouchy, disheveled men. But this was what most evening sessions were like. French saw “this farce” time and again. And this wasn’t the worst of it. Take, for example, the last night of the session in 1835. A military bill had been bouncing back and forth between the two houses all night, the Senate rejecting a House amendment granting President Andrew Jackson three million dollars to spend on the military, the House standing firm. Although a conference committee devised a compromise, it wasn’t enough for House Democrats, who defeated it by stopping any and all action until the session expired. To hasten the end along, they played the rule-stickler card, refusing to vote after the session’s formal closing hour of midnight; at various points, between seventy and one hundred Democrats left their seats in protest, and they didn’t leave quietly. Drunk and belligerent, they were, as French put it, “laughing and scolding, swearing and joking, hissing & cheering & all sorts of things.” Reflecting that he was “in the August presence of the American Congress,” French felt “a sort of sickness at the heart.” Here was rug-level politics at its best, or rather its worst: drunken chaos as a political ploy. And it worked. Nothing got done. And Congress adjourned at 3:00 a.m.
This was hardly a typical day in the House. Even so, it reveals much about the routine dynamics of Congress. It reminds us that the everyday business of legislating had rough edges—sometimes very rough. Alongside the debating, discussing, conferring, and voting was a healthy (or rather, unhealthy) dose of belligerence, violence, and drunken swaggering with its own logic and tempo. The Congressional Globe often glossed over such things; its account of March 3, 1835, looks remarkably sedate. But they were there, and they shaped what Congress did and how it evolved. It’s an obvious fact with broad implications: What a legislature does and how it does it are direct reflections of how its members get along. Of course, “getting along” is a hard thing to measure, and that’s precisely the point. People are unpredictable, and for that very reason their interactions matter, affecting outcomes in unexpected ways.
Alongside the debating, discussing, conferring, and voting was a healthy (or rather, unhealthy) dose of belligerence, violence, and drunken swaggering with its own logic and tempo.
Look closely at the Capitol’s working spaces in action and you can see the rough edges. These weren’t pristine stages for speechifying and voting. Take, for example, the House chamber. The Congressional Globe makes it seem calm and orderly, with a smattering of sniping and scattered interruptions, but in truth the chamber was a roiling sea of noise and motion. Members were continually coming and going, chatting and laughing and arguing, reading newspapers, writing letters, franking printed speeches, and tossing off quips at a speaker’s expense or urging him on. Men who wanted the floor were shouting to the Speaker and waving their arms; those already speaking were gesturing dramatically, pounding their desks, sometimes yelling to be heard. During the debate over Oregon statehood, Senator William Allen (D-OH) pounded his desk hard enough to draw blood, leading one newspaper to declare it “the first and only blood shed in the Oregon war.” (Allen must have been quite a performer; another paper described him as “a cross between William Pitt and an angry cockatoo.”)
All in all, the House was in a constant state of organized chaos. Looking down from the gallery, one reporter thought that a deaf man “would be apt to think himself in a spacious gymnasium” filled with men practicing “odd exercises of the arms and legs and head.” Add the comings and goings of clerks shuffling papers, the pages darting between desks running errands, and the buzz from the galleries, punctuated by an occasional hiss or cheer, and you get a sense of working conditions on the House floor.
In part, this was a product of numbers; there were too many people in too small a space. When the chamber was completed in 1807, there were 145 seats representing seventeen states; fifty years later, there were thirty-one states represented by roughly 240 men: nearly a hundred more men, desks, and chairs crammed onto the floor. (French prided himself on learning their names faster than anyone.) The acoustics didn’t help matters. Ironically, the room’s symbolic grandeur wreaked havoc on the actual voice of the people. The high-domed ceiling created strange echoes and the crimson drapery absorbed sound, bouncing voices all over the hall or swallowing them entirely. The end result was laughable. People would call to the Speaker from one side of the room and he would turn to the other to recognize them, mistaking the echo for the voice. Whispers inaudible only inches away were quite audible in random pockets around the room; once, a young man’s “whisperings” from the “love corner” of the ladies’ gallery made it all the way down to the Speaker’s chair. New members had to learn the tricks of the chamber, the “modulations of the voice” and “turns of the body” that were likely to get them heard. Thus the “odd exercises” of the arms, legs, and head. People were battling the acoustics.
All this in a room that was hot, stuffy, and smelly. At the end of a typical day, with the galleries full and hours of body heat trapped in the chamber, French thought that reading aloud to members was like reading “with his head stuck into an oven.” When the House moved to larger windowless quarters in 1857, the acoustics improved but the air didn’t. This wasn’t just a matter of cigar smoke, whiskey fumes, and body odor. A series of climate studies revealed the scope of the problem: no air was circulating in the chamber, and the wisp of a draft that rose through the floor grates had to pass through a layer of “lint, dirt, tobacco quids, expectoration, and filth of every sort.” One member claimed that the “confined and poisonous” air had caused “much sickness and even several deaths,” and indeed, a handful of congressmen died during an average session, though not necessarily because of the air. Ongoing whimpering from the floor produced another study, this one demonstrating that it was thirty degrees warmer inside than outside and that the chamber smelled of sewage from the basement. Visiting the new chamber not long after it opened, French wasn’t impressed. The idea of “shutting up a thousand or two people in a kind of cellar, where none of God’s direct light or air can come in to them . . . does not jump with my notions of living,” he groused. Thirty years later, members still declared the House “the worst ventilated building on the continent.”
Clearly there were limits to politicking on the House floor. Extended debates on fine points of legislation were difficult at best. Declaratory speeches were easier, assuming that you had mastered the acoustics and weren’t banking on the room’s rapt attention; often such efforts were aimed at a home audience. Group efforts were more effective. Tag-team obstruction was part of the parliamentary game and backup usually was right at hand. Anyone making a proposal, refuting a ruling, or hungry for a few extra minutes of speaking time only had to call out for the help of “political friends,” as did Francis Rives (D-VA) when denied a chance to refute an accusation; when he asked, “have I no friend in this House that will move a suspension of the rules, in order that I may be heard?” a “political friend” immediately did just that.
Sometimes the hubbub was handy. If you played the acoustics right, you could confer quietly around the edges of the chamber without being overheard. And if you lowered your voice to just the right pitch, you could threaten someone on the sly. In 1840, Daniel Jenifer (W-MD) suddenly dropped his voice in the middle of a speech to deliver what must have been either a threat or an insult; witnesses didn’t know what he said, but they saw its impact on the victim’s face.
This spat went no further, but that wasn’t always the case. Given conditions on the floor, it’s easy to see how angry words could spark a chain reaction. Colleagues on left and right were little more than an elbow away, some routinely wore weapons, many had short fuses (growing shorter all the time given the working conditions), and it was an easy slide from hard words to jostling, clenched fists, shoving, punching, and bowie knives.
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.