Congress Has Forgotten How to Fight

The problem with the Congress today is that its members are unwilling to take a punch for a cause in which they believe, much less throw one themselves.

On one level, this problem is actually a very good thing. We should celebrate the fact that we no longer decide our disagreements violently in America. Today, we instead define the common good and determine public policy by participating in politics. We bargain and negotiate with one another. We persuade. We compromise. And we rightly condemn violence as being incompatible with these activities.

Yet on another level, an unwillingness to fight is a problem for successful democratic governance when it reflects a broader apathy on the part of politicians to participate in politics. Unfortunately, such sentiment is prevalent in the Congress today. Its members are less interested in participating in politics because they fear the consequences of doing so. They are gripped by an unstated conviction that unchecked political conflict leads to violence. That is, they see violence as what happens when there is too much conflict (i.e., disagreement) in politics. To the extent that politics is a contact sport, members no longer have an interest in playing the game.

Cycles of Violence?

The assumption that conflict broke Congress is implicit in a new book by Joanne B. Freeman, The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to Civil War. In the book, Freeman, a Professor of History and American Studies at Yale University and author of Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the Early Republic, presents a vivid account capturing the deterioration of comity in Congress between 1830 and 1860, as well as the outbreak of war in 1861.

And it appears to be the lesson that the book’s readers are taking from it. Reviewing The Field of Blood in the New York Times, David S. Reynolds writes that the decades covered by Freeman were “a time so polarized that politics generated a cycle of violence, in Congress and out of it, that led to the deadliest war in the nation’s history.” In a review in the Wall Street Journal, H. W. Brands writes, “Ms. Freeman’s book goes far toward explaining why there was a Civil War. She doesn’t put it so directly, but her evidence makes clear that by the time the war came, its causes transcended slavery.” Most direct of all, Brian Matthew Jordan writes of the value of Freeman’s book in the New York Journal of Books. “Empowered by the knowledge that distrust and dysfunction in Congress have been far worse, may we find justice for our own times—and well before we reach the steep banks of Bull Run.”

The parallels to today are clear. In an introductory author’s note, Freeman describes writing a book about “extreme congressional discord and national divisiveness at a time of extreme congressional discord and national divisiveness.” She notes worrisome similarities between the present day and antebellum America’s “extreme polarization and the breakdown of debate,” the “scorning of parliamentary rules and political norms to the point of abandonment,” and the erosion of “structures of government and the bonds of Union.” The future appears ominous when viewed from this perspective. In Freeman’s words, “The nation didn’t slip into disunion; it fought its way into it, even in Congress.”

Yet while some people see in America’s present dysfunction the seeds of its future disunion, the reality is that Americans are not on the brink of another civil war. Freeman’s excellent case studies detailing incidents of violence in Congress prior to the only civil war that we have had in this country inadvertently help us understand why. The insight is inadvertent because Freeman ultimately extrapolates the wrong meaning from the violent trend she tracks. And in doing so, she misses the significance of what her excellent case studies reveal about America’s march to war.

It turns out that a collapse of political space, not violence, caused the Civil War.

The Spirit of Politics

The key to understanding why can be found in Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws. For the Frenchman, spirit was synonymous with action. The spirit of a people (i.e., how they acted in community) was directly related to the character of their government. A democratic republic like the United States requires a place in which its people, or their representatives, can act. The physical place in which people act is where they participate in politics.

Channeling our inner Montesquieu while reading Freeman helps to illuminate the real sources of popular frustration in both sections of the American Union prior to the Civil War. The space in which the people acted was collapsing around them.

With the help of Benjamin Brown French, a long-time House clerk, Democratic Party official and, most importantly, prodigious diarist, Freeman describes how that space changed amidst an increase in incidents of congressional violence, the boorish details of which she documents with startling clarity. She goes beyond the standard account of the 1856 caning of Charles Sumner, R-Mass., to reveal incidents that have long remained hidden. Freeman’s account of the duel between Jonathan Cilley, D-Maine, and William J. Graves, W-Ky., in 1838 is especially compelling. (Incidentally, the Cilley-Graves duel was the only incident in the history of congressional violence that proved fatal to one of the combatants.)

That Freeman gives violence a starring role in Field of Blood is unsurprising given that it is a book about violence in Congress. That is was an ever-present feature of congressional life, Freeman leaves us with no doubt. Still, Freeman overstates its role when she contends that it hardened sectional antagonisms, foreclosed the possibility of compromise, and made the Civil War all but inevitable. Violence was not responsible for fraying the bonds of Union, much less triggering the Civil War. It was instead a reaction to Congress’s—and the Constitution’s—inability to deal with the issue of slavery via politics. The democratic republic born in 1788 could not reconcile the increasingly homogeneous sectional views on slavery. Lacking a space in which to resolve their disagreements over the issue, Americans in both North and South would literally destroy the Union in their quest to prevail in the debate. That is why even abolitionists turned to violence as a means to achieve their ends toward the end of the period analyzed by Freeman. Their doing so constituted an acknowledgement that politics had failed. This is important because violence prevails in spaces where politics has already failed.

Yet implicit in Freeman’s account is her belief that violence caused politics to fail in this instance. This is the central flaw in her otherwise remarkable narrative. Moreover, the fact that Congress continued to debate and legislate on major issues throughout this period cannot be reconciled with Freeman’s assertion that an average of three non-violent incidents a year were sufficient to plunge the nation into Civil War.

Blood Flows When Politics Ends

The violence documented so thoroughly by Freeman was merely symptomatic of a more significant problem that had long plagued the American Republic—the inability of the political system to resolve sectional differences over slavery. This was not unique to the 1830s, 1840s, or 1850s. However, Freeman wrongly attributes inaction on slavery to “a domineering block of slaveholders at the heart of the national government who strategically deployed violence to get their way.” Considering that “get their way” meant stopping efforts to restrict the spread of slavery and abolition of the slaves, equal representation of the states in the Senate and the commitment of the Democratic and Whig parties to presidential tickets that were regionally balanced was far more important to the South than its pugnacious reputation and ability to bully individual congressmen from the North into not forcing abolition before the Civil War. It also overstates the commitment to abolition in the North prior to the 1850s. When taken together, these arrangements ensured that the majority of Americans, not just southerners, worked hard to keep slavery off the agenda.

Westward expansion and the annexation of Texas, ironically championed by the South, combined with the Industrial Revolution, which increased the power of the North, sparked a recurring struggle between slave states and free states that would eventually undermine the sectional balance of power in the Senate and destroy the second party system’s intersectional alliances. Consequently, slavery was thrust onto the agenda and the country was forced to grapple with it. No longer able to ignore it, members of Congress from the North and the South turned to violence as a means to mediate their disputes precisely because they never had a mutually agreed upon space in which to bargain, negotiate, persuade, and compromise on how to deal with the issue. Violence did not cause political conflict over slavery to deepen. The issue was not susceptible to compromise (i.e., the sine qua non of politics). Only then does sustained violence in relation to the issue make an appearance.

When it became apparent that the numerically superior North would not back down, southerners concluded that they could no longer achieve their goals within the framework erected by the Constitution. So they left that framework, and the world of ordinary politics, choosing instead to take up arms against their erstwhile countrymen. Lying on his deathbed in 1850, John C. Calhoun perceived what was to come. “The Union is doomed…within twelve years,” observed Calhoun. “The probability is that it will explode in a presidential election.” Calhoun was right. In 1860, Abraham Lincoln became the first president elected exclusively with the support of one section. Once the results were in, many in the South were out. Freeman’s poignant description of southern delegations bidding their colleagues goodbye as their states seceded underscores the reality that they knew they were leaving the world of politics.

When juxtaposed with today’s Congress, the unique nature of our present dysfunction becomes apparent. It results from the absence of conflict inside the House and Senate. In other words, the problem with Congress is that its members are apathetic. Unlike their counterparts for much of the antebellum era, they no longer see Congress as an important space over which they should fight. This is because the institution no longer plays a central role in making policy. Its members instead see administrative agencies and federal courts as more appropriate venues in which to make decisions, especially controversial ones.

Conflict Contained

Yet even now, political conflict does not inevitably turn into violence. There are three reasons for this. First, these are not violent times, comparatively speaking. Second, political conflict and violent conflict are not two sides of the same coin. They are separate phenomena. And third, members of Congress who are unwilling to expend the effort needed to legislate are also unlikely to fight.

Underlying all three reasons for today’s lack of violence, despite the crumbling space in which politics occurs, is the extraordinary growth of the administrative state. If, as Hannah Arendt observed, bureaucracy is the “rule of nobody,” violence is irrelevant. The American people can’t hold anonymous bureaucrats accountable in elections for the decisions they make. Related to that, frustrated members, much less the people they represent, can’t punch anybody.

The Field of Blood is an engaging account of an oft-ignored period in congressional history. And it underscores the importance of space to the practice of politics. However, it should be read with a firm understanding of the proper relationship between politics and violence, and the role conflict plays in both.

Congress does not need to relive the days of violence portrayed by Freeman. But it desperately needs more members willing to participate in politics; to legislate. That means more members who are willing to tolerate conflict—and not just the simulacrum of it we see on Sunday morning talk shows. And it means more members who, if push comes to shove, are willing to throw, or take, a punch on behalf of their cause, if for no other reason than it signals that they think what happens in Congress matters.

Reader Discussion

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on January 09, 2019 at 09:16:49 am

FWIW, I don't think Freeman would agree with some of these characterizations. In particular, she might reject the notion that the violence in Congress "hardened sectional antagonisms, foreclosed the possibility of compromise, and made the Civil War all but inevitable."

Instead, I think she'd say that the escalation of Congressional violence a symptom that the American people were no longer willing to allow a political solution to the crisis. Accordingly, they sent members would were willing to fight. Southerners sent members who would use violence in the cause of slavery while Northerners sent members willing to stand up to them.

I know, for instance, she does not agree with Brands' view expressed in his review that “by the time the war came, its causes transcended slavery." I think she would instead argue that slavery was the root of the violence (specifically she writes that "the nation didn't slip into disunion; it fought its way in, even in Congress" indicating that Congress was just one of the fields of conflict, although she does acknowledge a feedback loop of sorts as constituents read about Congressional fighting). More specifically, the violence was a symptom of sectional conflict and was not a tool that was used in equal proportions, but rather one used by southerners to further their political cause, using it to shut down debates. Violence was an acceptable part of the South's honor culture, and Northerners either needed to accept it and participate in it or meekly comply by withdrawing amendments and staying silent during debates.

Today's problem is similar. Members of Congress who "fight" (rhetorically not physically) are lionized by their increasingly extreme bases, while those who search for common ground are rewarded with primary challenges.

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Alec Rogers
on January 09, 2019 at 09:22:22 am

This may be the most intelligent essay ever written on this web blog, displaying as it does an understanding of the real cause of the Civil War ( the existential necessity of slavery's oligarchy to expand or die vs. the "civility narrative" so popular in today's media and in the Field of Blood which holds that a turn to national violence was/ is the consequence of the loss of political decorum in Congress. How silly.) and an awareness that (notwithstanding the occasional violent bimbo eruptions of the likes of Antifa and Black Lives Matter) the politics of our times are simply not violent; while they are fraught with conflict they are also, thank God, endowed with the ample political space necessary to resolve the conflicts politically and constitutionally.

Finally, Wallner expounds, without saying so, the Trump thesis that the answer to the "crisis of conflict" lies not in the media's favored but false narrative of more faux-civility but in more manly assertiveness of political courage and constitutional conviction among many, many more of our political representatives and especially among all of their Congressional leadership, and in their "Trump-like" willingness to challenge the false civility of mere smooth decorum in pursuit of the rougher, truer political path that a statesman (say Roger Williams and A. Lincoln) would choose (and Donald Trump has chosen) of relentless pursuit of aggressive debate and hard verbal confrontation on behalf of disrupting what's wrong and restoring what was right in stalwart fight for and defense of authentic constitutional, political and moral principles ( and where are the mainline churches in this debate? their Trumpian intrusion could add needed forces of aggressive civility,) so long as both sides of the divide keep talking. See Teresa Bejan's "Mere Civility."

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on January 09, 2019 at 11:46:03 am

Let me both agree and disagree, or perhaps, "amend."

"...while they are fraught with conflict they are also, thank God, endowed with the ample political space necessary to resolve the conflicts politically and constitutionally. "

And like many privileged with bequeathed *endowments* from their forebears, we observe that the *endowment* is either misspent, misused or otherwise vitiated by inaction, indolence, outright duplicity and or moral diffidence. The effect upon the viability of the *estate* is not salutary. Oddly enough, the dissolute heirs have often adopted a facade of refined, gentlemanly civility that may mask their dissipation.

Odder still, we observe that the Public Scribes applaud this mask, attribute all manner of generative properties to it, and proclaim the need for more of the same if the bequeathed "golden apple in a silver frame" is not to rot before our eyes.

But it is a strange attachment, is it not, when only one side of the frame is expected to maintain this gloss of civility purportedly necessary for the survival of the precious fruit. How is it that one Party, and ever curiously the SAME PARTY that engendered the earlier dissolution, is not subject to the same norms of civility. How is it that the SAME PARTY deploys violence again, albeit a somewhat milder form of violence - rhetorical violence and suppression of all whose views conflict with the "masked" purposes of that vociferous cadre whose aim is to reconfigure the *frame* holding the now "overripe" fruit.

How much space is truly left for politics? surely, the SCRIBES may highlight some minimal space in which to operate, providing it is "mere civility." Others not quite so sanguine, may observe that such space is oppressive and does not conduce to compromise but rather "surrender." Perhaps, it is a pleasant surrender BUT do not expect the victors of that SAME PARTY to be as gracious as was US Grant at Appomattox. After all, at least the Southerners actually "fought."

I applaud Wallner for the above essay and appreciate as does Pukka his willingness to recognize, if only implicitly, the value of The Trumpster's choice to fight when all before him were merely content to enjoy the pleasures derived from the facade of the "civil" exercise of (now illusory) power.

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Image of gabe
on January 09, 2019 at 12:20:46 pm


I feel like I was just tattled on to my third grade teacher or ratted out by Michael Cohen (no offense to Gabe, who bears no resemblance to that man) or shamed by Jeff Flake (again no offense, no resemblance.)

I can hear L&L's tall boots on the march, now.
"They're coming to take me away, Ha-haaa."

So geht die welt zugrunde.

Perhaps Timothy will resurface yet a fourth time as the Shadow or the Joker, or maybe just Fibber McGee and Molly. Or maybe like the banished Dante and Machiavelli I'll retire to accept exile and write my great work, rather than fooling and funning around commenting on a silly site.

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on January 09, 2019 at 12:30:17 pm

Oops, I forgot the Wink, Wink!

It was actually a mistake on my part as I had in the back of my mind the intention of informing "octothorp" that I had added both an "Absotively" and a "Posilutely" to the thread of earlier this week (comment #48) expressing support for "Pukka" return.

Oh well.

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Image of gabe
on January 09, 2019 at 12:30:47 pm

[…] Continue reading here. […]

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Congress has forgotten how to fight - LegBranch
on January 09, 2019 at 13:18:49 pm

I think that the essay, and perhaps the book, misses the key event that led to the Civil War; the decision in Prigg V. Pennsylvania (1842).

Had Story simply ruled that a free state had no constitutional duty to return escaped slaves, the Civil War might never have happened, slavery would have been confined to the states that allowed it and could have withered away. Rather, Story added that if Congress wanted all of the states to be scoured for escaped slaves, then a new fugitive slave act was needed. Eight years later, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was passed which encouraged the expansion of the Slave Power as both an economic and political force. This was soon followed by Scott v. Sandford (1857), which made disunion and civil war inevitable.

Also, I noticed that there was no reference to the period 1820-60 as being the "Golden Age of the Senate." So, the blame for the Civil War falls not on the Constitution or Congress or the governed in general but rather on the dominance of the Supreme Court and the Senate between 1820-60. This same evil conjunction has also dominated our government since at least 2001.

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Image of EK
on January 09, 2019 at 15:12:00 pm

Gabe, I'll make sure our friend gets "comment #48," which I know he will appreciate.

Yet, I think it best to go silent for now. I worry that the great minds of L&L, like those at Bletchley Park, will crack the code and reveal it to Jonah Goldberg, David French and others of dubious authenticity in matters of the intellect.

No Pukka Luftmensch's there.

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on January 10, 2019 at 09:11:18 am

Octothorp's characterization of Field of Blood as concluding that "a turn to national violence was/ is the consequence of the loss of political decorum in Congress" is completely inaccurate.

Rather it viewed such violence as an extension of sectional conflict as Members who were willing to engage in violence were encouraged and releected, and those that were not often lost.

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Alec Rogers
on January 10, 2019 at 13:19:20 pm

It all depends upon the what the meaning of "is" is.

What is a civil war? In my book a civil war is a conflict in which two (and possibly more) factions are fighting to control THE VERY SAME GOVERNING BODY.

The American "civil war," therefor was NOT a true civil war. The slave-holding south tried to secede. There appeared to be no prohibition in the Constitution against seceding. New York and other states in the northeast had threatened same earlier. The south merely wished to withdraw peacefully from the confederation of equally-sovereign states and escape the one-sided tariffs that had been imposed upon their region.

The south was fed up with the tariffs that burdened their trade with England and Europe. The south wished to have equal treatment before the law. Secession seemed the only alternative. Mr. Lincoln, USA's first dictator decided he was not going to let the south secede and he'd kill every southerner if necessary to "avoid disruption of the union."
Hence, Mr. Lincoln's "War Of Northern Aggression."

I predicted that had the south been allowed to secede peacefully, slavery would soon had withered and died out. But we will never know.

Politics is FUNDAMENTALLY force, deadly force, "if necessary for the majority to have its way." Tyranny of the majority is not an idle and useless phrase, but an expression of the true nature of politics.

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David Michael Myers
on January 11, 2019 at 11:34:27 am

" Its members are less interested in participating in politics because they fear the consequences of doing so." 100% agree.

"They are gripped by an unstated conviction that unchecked political conflict leads to violence. " - Here, I disagree. Their biggest fear is loss of office, not violence.

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Todd Noebel

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