A hair-raising history of “extreme congressional discord and national divisiveness.” No, not today, but rather before and during the Civil War, when violence among members of Congress was not uncommon.
According to Freeman (History and American Studies/Yale Univ.; Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic, 2001, etc.), between the Jackson and Lincoln administrations, congressional sessions regularly featured “canings, duel negotiations and duels; shoving and fistfights; brandished pistols and bowie knives; wild melees in the House; and street fights with fists and the occasional brick. Not included in that number is bullying that never went beyond words.” History buffs will recall the brutal 1856 caning of Massachusetts Sen. Charles Sumner by South Carolina’s Preston Brooks, but Freeman emphasizes that this was just the tip of the iceberg. She emphasizes that, aided by the three-fifths rule, the South dominated the Congress before 1860, and its quasi-aristocratic macho culture accepted dueling, gunplay, and fisticuffs long after it became passé in the North. This had only a modest effect until the 1830s, when opposition to slavery became a national issue. Abolitionist arguments made the South crazy. By 1840, any expression of anti-slavery opinions was illegal in those states, so most Southerners never encountered them. Sent to Congress, they were outraged. Since Northerners disliked duels and often compromised to preserve party unity, Southerners considered them sissies. This encouraged “bullying”—Freeman’s favorite term—in which Southerners threatened violence, confident that opponents, knowing the threat was genuine, would yield. As the author demonstrates, this sometimes failed because pugnacious Northerners existed, and personal insults led to lost tempers and brawls. Quiet descended with secession, when Southern representatives moved to the Confederate Congress in Richmond, where, ironically, violence flourished.
Freeman leans heavily on journalists and diarists to deliver a vivid portrait of a dysfunctional government that—minus the literal bloodshed—has been compared to today’s but was probably worse.