AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
It's been an extraordinary day for rhetoric and partisanship on Capitol Hill. But there were decades when name-calling and skirmishes were all in a day's work for U.S. congressmen.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Reading) Monday, September 13, 1841 - during Thursday, another of those scenes so disgraceful to the House of Representatives occurred in that body. Mr. Wise called Stanley a mean, contemptible puppy and miserable wretch, to which Stanley replied, you are a liar. When Wise struck him and a fight instantly ensued - order, order, order - exclamations from the crowd of damn him; down with him. Where are your Bowie knives?
CORNISH: Those are notes from the diaries of the House clerk Benjamin French. He came to work in Washington in the 1830s, and he chronicled the day-to-day life of lawmakers in the raucous and violent years leading up to the Civil War. Joanne Freeman writes about this in her book "The Field Of Blood: Violence In Congress And The Road To Civil War." Welcome to the program.
JOANNE FREEMAN: Thanks for having me.
CORNISH: So set the scene. Early 1830s Washington, what were the House and Senate chambers like - like, smell and look?
FREEMAN: (Laughter) I notice you said smell.
FREEMAN: (Laughter) It's a good question. First of all, Washington generally in this period was more of a town than a city. If you had walked into the House of Representatives on a typical day and stood in the visitor's gallery, you would see a lot of people crammed into a small space, lot of noise, people standing all along the sides, talking to each other, people smoking. And the air would not be very good. It was actually exceedingly unpleasant to be in the House of Representatives.
CORNISH: So it's hot, it's smelly, and people are spitting their tobacco on the ground.
FREEMAN: (Laughter) Indeed.
CORNISH: And you say Congress is divided into fighting men, noncombatants and compromisers. Break this down for us.
FREEMAN: If you were a fighting man, then you were someone who was quite willing to back up your words with your fists or with a weapon or a threat of a dual challenge. And if you were a noncombatant, you were someone who was pretty much not willing to fight. Now, it just so happens that most of the fighting men were Southern, and many Northerners were noncombatants. And so that sets up an interesting dynamic in Congress.
CORNISH: I want to recount one of these outbursts on the House floor. You write about a dramatic fight in 1858.
FREEMAN: Right. So this is an evening session. And in 1858, we're coming very close to the Civil War. So the issue of slavery is particularly front and center. Galusha Grow is not standing in his portion of the House when something happens that he objects to. And he says out loud, I object. Now, he's standing amidst a bunch of Southern Democrats. He is a Northern Republican, an aggressive anti-slavery Northern Republican.
So that is when Mr. Laurence Keitt takes offense and strides over and basically says to Grow, say that back on your own side of the House. And Grow, who was an aggressive sort of an individual, says, I don't have to listen to the insults and demands of a slaveholder, who responds by grabbing Grow's throat. Grow throws a punch and knocks Keitt flat. A bunch of Southern Democrats who see their ally and friend has been knocked down begin swarming across the House to that point of conflict.
Now, on the other side of the House, Northern Republicans - they stream across the hall as well, jumping on desks, jumping onto chairs. And in the end, you have a massive brawl in which essentially you have two armed groups - Northerners, Southerners - fighting each other in the House of Representatives.
CORNISH: You've said that it seems as though the earliest battles of the Civil War were actually fought in Washington on the floor of the House. Can you help us understand what that meant going into the actual war?
FREEMAN: There's a long tradition in Congress in this period in which people who support the institution of slavery are using intimidation and threats and violence to silence anybody who opposes their regime. What you're seeing is the struggle over slavery literally being fought out in the House of Representatives.
CORNISH: One of the things we learn through your writing is that there wasn't a whole lot of reporting on this, right? Like, newspaper accounts didn't detail everything that was happening on the House floor. And so you found another narrator to inform your book, Benjamin French, who kept diaries. Tell us about him.
FREEMAN: He has this amazing 11-volume diary in which he wrote all kinds of things down.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Reading) Sunday, April 2, 1837 - the vast hall of the House of Representatives is lighted by astral lamps and candles. And I should judge the light when fully lighted for evening session is equal to that of at least 1,000 candles.
FREEMAN: And through that diary, you can really live with him the experience of watching your nation being torn in two and learning how Americans learned to turn on each other in this period. He shows that from a ground level. So you see him start out at the beginning of the book as a - what at the time would have been called a doughface Democrat, meaning a Northern Democrat willing to do anything to appease the slaveholding South. At the end of the book, he buys a gun in case he needs to shoot Southerners.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Reading) June 10, 1860 - I went down in the city and bought one of those little pistols that I can carry in my watch pocket for if we are to be bullied for our principles, I think we ought to be prepared to defend ourselves. I also bought two pairs of underwear, a dollar a pair. And I have one pair of them on now. They are very comfortable.
CORNISH: Very evocative writing there.
CORNISH: Great attention to detail. I now know the price of underwear...
CORNISH: ...In June of 1860.
CORNISH: But he had been a newspaper editor in the past. He became the House clerk. And he's the reason why you were able to find all of these stories.
FREEMAN: He was. That particular diary entry is a great example of how and why. On the one hand, the drama of him essentially saying, well, now I feel threatened, so I need to buy a gun - he also comments in that same entry that he bought some underwear. He doesn't know what's coming next. He doesn't know that there's going to be a civil war. He's just living his daily life. And I think that diary entry and diaries generally help you be in the moment so that you can see how people at the time were trying to work their way through the troubles of the time and not assuming, you know, only two years left, and we're going to have that civil war.
CORNISH: You spent years researching this book. How did you start to see this history in a new light as attention focused more intensely on how polarized Washington is today?
FREEMAN: Right. I do think there are a number of different moments in American history when we're particularly polarized, when the American public becomes particularly distrustful of national institutions like Congress and of each other. Part of what I saw in working on the book was that pattern. Given what we know of what happened in the past with these kinds of incidents, it makes me want to keep telling people, wait; be careful. You don't want to be that divisive with your rhetoric.
At the end of the book, there are a lot of people saying, be careful with your words because words could cause bloodshed in the House. And I sometimes feel the same way. Not that we're on the cusp of a civil war, which I don't believe. But I suppose the part that doesn't feel reassured is the part that realizes the implications and the impact of a divisive America much like the one that we're looking at now.
CORNISH: Yale professor Joanne Freeman, thank you for speaking with us.
FREEMAN: Thanks so much for having me.
CORNISH: Her new book, "The Field Of Blood: Violence In Congress And The Road To Civil War," is out now. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.