Imagine what would happen if your Senator was beaten bloody on the Senate floor. Or if your Congressperson pulled a gun on a member of the opposition party. Our current political climate is ugly, but that kind of violence would be unfathomable today. In the early and mid-1800s however, it was a whole different story.
Joanne Freeman spent 17 years wrenching out the hidden history of just how endemic violence was within the political class in the decades leading up to the Civil War. Freeman shares riveting accounts of the Capitol Hill beatings, brawls, and duels and how that period of violence led to a war that shaped what our country would become.
CHRIS HAYES: There is a mythos about like, "When we founded the country we broke with the old ways of Europe that were blood-soaked."
JOANNE FREEMAN: Right.
CHRIS HAYES: "We created the rule of law and the revered Constitution, where we banished all of that stuff and we ... " And it's bullshit. That moment, that's just Mafia warlord-ism in a committee of Congress.
JOANNE FREEMAN: For sure. There is this level of violence. You're absolutely right, that there is a pretty shiny narrative of early America that goes on for quite some time in the way we understand the past, and there wasn't a shiny moment.
CHRIS HAYES: Hello, and welcome to "Why Is This Happening?" with me, your host, Chris Hayes.
It's weird to talk about this now because, whenever you're listening to this, it's gonna feel like an ancient memory. But two weeks before the midterms, a very obsessive Trump fan, MAGA-head with a van plastered with custom-made decals about Trump and Trump's enemies and the Deep State and all of that stuff, that he drove around south Florida. That individual, I think his name was Cesar Sayoc, sent pipe bombs to 13-plus people that he viewed as political enemies of the president.
From Joe Biden to John Brennan care of CNN, to the former president of the United States, Barack Obama and Michelle Obama, to the former Secretary of State and Donald Trump's opponent, Hillary Clinton, to George Soros. He tried to blow up, kill, murder 12 to 13 of the most prominent members of the political opposition to the current president because he loves the president so much. We were really lucky that he didn't build very good pipe bombs as far as we can tell. None of them went off. It turns out actually building a device like that and actually delivering it and having it go off takes some real technical know-how.
Luckily he lacked it, so we didn't end up with people being killed or mangled, thank God. Of course there's mail carriers who had to handle it, and there's staff at all these places that have to screen it. Think about what it would have meant if this was successful. Think for a second about what America would have been like if Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, George Soros, Tom Steyer and others had all been assassinated by bombs two weeks before the election. Madness. Chaos. Grief, tragedy, conflict. A sense of unwinding.
A sense that the country was in crisis in a way that would feel like order was slipping away. There's something specific about what political violence does to a society and people's sense of stability and order. Political violence chips away at our sense of order and stability. It destroys the fabric of shared civic life. It hurls us back from the light of peaceable resolution of conflict and difference, towards the darkness of war of all against all. That's the place that we all came from. All of us as humans. Violence and strength were the original means of resolving dispute.
"You took my land." "No I didn't." Okay. Well, who wins that? Who's stronger? Who's got the bigger club? Who's got the bigger crew to administer the beat-down? Who's got the bigger gun? "This land is my land," say these settlers. "No, it's not." "Well, we have the guns so it's ours." That's the way that human relations have worked for most of the time human beings have been on the planet. Then we have built this precious, beautiful thing that has allowed us to reach this kind of escape velocity from the endemic violence that has been basically what human life on the planet has been from the beginning.
That's a functioning, non-violent liberal democracy and a rule of law where all of those conflicts are still there. Like, "That's my land. I want to do this. You want to do that," but it's resolved non-violently. When political violence enters back into the picture of a society that has achieved that escape velocity, there is something so primordially dark about it, it wrenches us back like we're falling back towards a dark place. That's why I think a lot about political violence and the dangers of political violence.
There have been periods in American life of political violence. In the late 1960s era of political violence, there was shocking levels of political violence in the late 1960s in Europe. The Baader-Meinhof gang, which is a far leftist group in Germany going around assassinating people. The Red Brigades in Italy that killed the prime minister? Kidnapped and killed the prime minister. This kind of thing has happened in non-violent industrialized modern democracies. In the U.S., there were a spate of bomb attacks in the teens and 20s that precipitated the crackdown on anti-Communist Palmer Raids.
The subject of today is about the most important period of political violence in the country that led to the most important period of political violence for what the country became, and that's the Civil War. There's a big difference about the political violence that we're gonna talk about today. It's one thing when say, a devotee of the president sends a bomb. It's unnerving. Or when a radical faction of American political life threatens with violence or calls in a bomb threat.
It's another thing entirely when the members of the political class themselves do it. Imagine if a U.S. Congressman tried to kill members of the opposition. Imagine if prominent political figures drew their guns in the faces of other prominent political figures in the midst of heated dispute. Now we're talking about a whole other level. Now we're talking about a democracy and a political system that is coming apart before your eyes.
If you're living in a society with political leaders who are threatening and using violence against each other which exists. Let's be clear. Read an article about the current state of Libya. That's literally what life is like in Libya right now. That is a very, very tenuous and scary and dangerous place to be. That is a place the United States was in for decades in the 19th century, leading up to the Civil War.
My interview today is with a historian named Joanne Freeman, who has written an exceptional book. If I had to predict, I think this book will win a lot of awards. It's the kind of book that should win a lot of awards. I would give it an award.
It's the kind of book that… it was a product of 17 years of work and it feels like it in the best way, which is she has wrenched out a secret history of violence in Congress that no one else has done before. She has found the secret hidden history, lying just beneath the surface of the official history, about how endemic and systematic and constant violence and the threat of violence was in the United States Congress in the decades up to the Civil War.
It reveals a entirely different new way of thinking about the country. About thinking about the country's founding, from the period from the founding to the Civil War. Of thinking about slavery. Of thinking about the inevitability of the Civil War. Of thinking about how it was that we stitched the country together in the aftermath of the bloodshed that was the Civil War. I have to say, I read a lot of history, I read a lot of books for this podcast and it's actually one of the great delights of this podcast that I read a lot of books for it. This book is truly, truly, truly exceptional. The conversation was an absolute riveting delight. If you want to understand what political violence can do and what it can mean when it's at its most extreme, take a listen to my conversation with Joanne Freeman ... What did you do your dissertation in?
JOANNE FREEMAN: My dissertation was, this won't be surprising in a sense, it was on political combat in the first ten years of the government. Essentially, what it felt like to be a politician on the national stage in those first ten years of the government.
CHRIS HAYES: Do you mean combat in the literal or rhetorical sense?
JOANNE FREEMAN: Well, both. I do talk about dueling. I do have a chapter on the Burr-Hamilton duel. Surprise! But I also talk about newspapers, gossip campaigns. I mean, any number of other things. Pamphlet wars. The core of the book is that in that period before there were organized political parties, that personal honor was a lot of how people organized themselves. The book is titled "Affairs of Honor" because it talks about how honor played a role in how these guys were, essentially fighting each other.
CHRIS HAYES: Right, because what ends up happening is their identity, because you don't have political parties you have the identity of what is being insulted or what you stand for has to do with these very ancient notions of honor.
JOANNE FREEMAN: Well, for sure. You're absolutely right that your personal reputation gets bound up in your politics and your friends and everything else. Dueling is still at this point, something that is alive and reasonably well.
CHRIS HAYES: Meaning that Hamilton-Burr is not a ... Hamilton-Burr is the famous one. We all learn about it in school and, I don't know if you know this, there was a musical recently about-
JOANNE FREEMAN: I heard that. A little ...
CHRIS HAYES: Alexander Hamilton. That was a thing they did, right?
JOANNE FREEMAN: Right. Along the lines of what you're saying, that's not the only duel. In the "Affairs of Honor," in that first book, the chapter on the Burr-Hamilton duel actually talks about the fact that there were 10 or 12 other duels or near duels in New York City around the time of that duel.
It talks a little bit about how dueling essentially was politics. One of the things I found out doing my research was whoever lost an election sometimes would provoke a duel with someone on the winning team or the winner to essentially prove to the public, "I am clearly an honorable man who deserves your votes next time," to sort of redeem ...
CHRIS HAYES: Wait. Really?
JOANNE FREEMAN: Yeah. The important part of that is a lot of times, the vast majority of times, what that means is they end up sending each other threatening letters. The two seconds try to negotiate and they often negotiate their way out.
CHRIS HAYES: Yes. I know this actually, from the “Ten Duel Commandments” in Hamilton.
JOANNE FREEMAN: Yes, indeed.
CHRIS HAYES: Which I learned all of the procedures by which one goes about a duel, which are now-
JOANNE FREEMAN: Which comes from my book.
CHRIS HAYES: Oh, really?
JOANNE FREEMAN: Yeah.
CHRIS HAYES: That's amazing. Cool. Okay.
JOANNE FREEMAN: Full circle.
CHRIS HAYES: That's all right. I got it via Lin. But what's a thing that someone says that would escalate into a duel? What puts it in the category of a "duel-able" offense, versus just the back and forth of politics?
JOANNE FREEMAN: There's any number of situations that if you're humiliated in front of other people might do that, but there are also buzzwords. If you use one of these words, you're almost asking to be involved in some kind of a problem. Some of them have kept their zing and some of them are not very zingy. Liar and coward. You call someone a liar or coward, them's dueling words, basically.
CHRIS HAYES: Right. Coward is like, you are dishonorable and emasculated.
JOANNE FREEMAN: Well, exactly. You're emasculated. Almost the only response to being called a coward is to say, "I'm ready to fight." That's a dangerous one, but liar's pretty serious too. There was a time ...
CHRIS HAYES: That's funny, right? Can you imagine? Good God.
JOANNE FREEMAN: I know. I think about that. A lot.
CHRIS HAYES: What are the other ones that have lost their salience?
JOANNE FREEMAN: There are two that are medium zingy, rascal and scoundrel. Then my favorite-
CHRIS HAYES: Scoundrel, by the way, is one of my favorite words in politics.
JOANNE FREEMAN: Is it really?
CHRIS HAYES: Yeah. I describe people as scoundrels a lot.
JOANNE FREEMAN: Wow.
CHRIS HAYES: I think it has a great bite.
JOANNE FREEMAN: Maybe you'll bring it back.
CHRIS HAYES: Yeah. Well, I haven't been in a duel yet, thank God.
JOANNE FREEMAN: That would be good. Do not be in a duel.
CHRIS HAYES: Yes.
JOANNE FREEMAN: Rascal, scoundrel and the last one is my favorite one which is, puppy.
CHRIS HAYES: Puppy?
JOANNE FREEMAN: Puppy. "You insolent puppy." Which has absolutely no zing, right? It has no ...
CHRIS HAYES: Wow. That was a dueling word.
JOANNE FREEMAN: You call someone a puppy and it's a serious insult. That doesn't hold true. Scoundrel is still kind of zingy.
CHRIS HAYES: You write your dissertation on what's called the rough and tumble of politics in the first ten years of the Republic and you have a new book out, which is called "The Field of Blood." It's called “Violence in Congress and the Road to the Civil War.” It's an incredible book, and I learned a ton from it. Tell me how it came about.
JOANNE FREEMAN: Well, given the topic of my first book, clearly I'm interested in politics. I'm interested in political violence and I'm interested on the personal level of how politicians are engaging with each other. I thought, "I don't know what my next book will be on but I'll jump ahead in time and see what looks different and somehow or other, that will inform me about my next project." I knew that one Congressman killed another in 1838. I thought, "Well, there's some violence and there's some politics, so I'll delve in there."
I read the papers, the personal letters of a Congressman who was from the same state as the fellow who gets killed. As I'm reading along, he writes to his wife almost every day, I'm seeing these instances of violence. I'm seeing him describe people roll up their sleeves to throw a punch, or throwing a punch. Any number of different things like that, that I didn't expect to see.
CHRIS HAYES: As a daily, commonplace sight on the floor of the House of Representatives, particularly.
JOANNE FREEMAN: Exactly.
CHRIS HAYES: People ready to throw down.
JOANNE FREEMAN: Exactly. "Mr. Wise stood up today. I saw him rolling up his sleeves but then he stopped after Mr. White said," whatever. I began writing it down because I thought, "Well, here is something I don't really know about." I know about random, occasional incidents but this is a lot. I had a fellowship with the Library of Congress for three months. And for three months, I just read Congressmen's papers and I never opened a collection without finding at least one incident. Violent incident or near-violent incident in those papers. Then it was like, "Okay."
CHRIS HAYES: Wow.
JOANNE FREEMAN: There's a story here. I don't know what it is yet. It hasn't been told, so I'm gonna figure it out.
CHRIS HAYES: There's two moments of political violence, meaning violence between politicians that I think we learn in the schoolbooks. There is the Burr-Hamilton duel and there's the caning of Charles Sumner.
JOANNE FREEMAN: Right.
CHRIS HAYES: I think the way that we are taught those is like, these are exceptional moments. Which is why we learn about them. What I learn from your book is that they're maybe not that exceptional, though they do relate back to the history.
JOANNE FREEMAN: Well, right. Sometimes they're exceptional more because of the timing than because of the fact that they happened or because the people involved. In the case of the Burr-Hamilton duel, we do have the vice president shooting the former Secretary of the Treasury. It's kind of a big deal. With the case of Sumner, there were a number of violent incidents before the caning of southerners attacking northerners.
That already, people are linking it into a chain of southern intimidation, "Look what they're doing to us on the floor of Congress and in Washington." Then in addition to that, the way that that unfolded violated the pseudo-rules of violence. For example, if you're gonna stage an attack on somebody as opposed to erupt and punch him, you do that outside. You don't stage assaults inside. The fellow who ...
CHRIS HAYES: It's amazing! There's etiquette-
JOANNE FREEMAN: There is.
CHRIS HAYES: Over where you can whoop the ass of someone in Congress.
JOANNE FREEMAN: Yes.
CHRIS HAYES: That is lowbrow and uncouth and dishonorable to beat the living shit out of a guy on the floor of Congress.
JOANNE FREEMAN: Right.
CHRIS HAYES: If you did it in the hallway or outside on the steps, more tolerable.
JOANNE FREEMAN: More tolerable. Preston Brooks is the fellow who caned Sumner. For two days he tries to catch him outside, because he wants to do it the right way. Then finally gives up and goes in the Senate. Then of course, what happens is what you imagine would happen if someone goes to someone's desk in the Senate on the floor and pounds him to the ground. That's no longer… That's a representative act. It shows you, first of all, why that needs to happen outside but it makes the significance of it much larger.
CHRIS HAYES: All right. You introduce us to the world of Congress in the first half of the 19th century, through the eyes of an individual particularly, who kept record. Tell us who that person is.
JOANNE FREEMAN: He saved me in writing this book. His name is Benjamin Brown French, and he's a clerk in the House of Representatives. He's the house clerk for one term. But what makes him wonderful is, he's a fellow from New Hampshire. He's not particularly an outstanding kind of a fellow. Not really important. Comes to be a clerk. Comes at the beginning of the period when my book starts. Dies towards the period when my book ends, and he has this amazing diary. An 11-volume diary.
It's the kind of diary that historians become very happy for, because it's not just what he did every day. It describes his feelings and his fears, and his thoughts in a way that make him an amazing eyewitness. He's at the center of the book because one of the things I wanted to do with the book was understand how it felt to go through those moments. That divisive period. How do you get to a point where you're ready to turn and shoot another American? How did you get to war? French, by following him, he's kind of the guide. He helps me tell that story.
CHRIS HAYES: He's remarkable too, from a historical records standpoint as you know, because much of what he sees and particularly the violence or the intimidation which I want to get to, which is in some ways more interesting than the violence, is the shadow the violence casts. That it's not censored. Whereas the official Congressional record essentially just edits all this out.
JOANNE FREEMAN: Right. Or if it's there, and this is why people haven't found it, if you don't know it's there you're not gonna see it. Once I knew it was there, and I got a sense from letters and diaries where it was, you find things in the period's equivalent of the record like, "The debate became unpleasantly personal at one point." Or, "There was a sensation in the corner," and nothing else.
CHRIS HAYES: Wow.
JOANNE FREEMAN: Then you dig around and you find, oh yeah, it was unpleasantly personal. One Congressman pulled a gun on another Congressman and that is unpleasant and personal, but you wouldn't know that unless you dig around to reconstruct that moment.
CHRIS HAYES: You do a great job of, just let's start with what it is like to be physically on the floor of the House particularly, and the Senate to a certain extent. Describe the conditions. You did a very evocative ... I've read this… when you read about the founders in Independence Hall in Philadelphia, you always read about the fact that it's summer. The windows are shut because they don't want any spies listening on the deliberations. They're all in Petticoats and wigs, and they're all just unbelievably hot and sweating and disgusting. That's basically the operating procedures for Congress.
JOANNE FREEMAN: It's not a really pleasant environment. Particularly because the House of Representatives gets much bigger very quickly, because of expansion westward. You end up having masses of people packed into a space that was not initially designed for masses of people, so both houses are uncomfortable. They're loud, they're busy, they're hot. At one point there's a climate report and it says that it's routinely 30 degrees hotter inside than outside of the Capitol. It smelled apparently, really bad.
CHRIS HAYES: That is a recurring leitmotif, and also they're all spitting tobacco.
JOANNE FREEMAN: There was a lot of tobacco then.
CHRIS HAYES: It's just like if this dank, crowded, hot room of people jostling up against each other. Also that the procedures had not been developed so that the actual means by which people got recognized or talked is itself almost a physical contest.
JOANNE FREEMAN: Well, in particular because it's so hard, given the acoustics in the House, you can't make a noise and think you're going to get noticed. There's someone who describes looking at the House like watching people doing calisthenics because they're waving their arms and jumping up and down.
CHRIS HAYES: Literally like, "I want to say something. Pick me!"
JOANNE FREEMAN: "Me! Me!" Everything echoes in this period. Someone will say, "Mr. Speaker," from one side of the House and the speaker will turn to the other side of the House where the echo is. It's hard. Then in addition to that, there is all kinds of bustle and activity going on so it's physically unpleasant. It's also loud. We have this image, I think, of these guys in frumpy 19th century clothing all sitting in their seats. It was bustling.
CHRIS HAYES: Right.
JOANNE FREEMAN: In the book there's in image that was as close as I could come to just the fact that there's people standing and talking to each other there, there's people arguing with each other there. It's a ...
CHRIS HAYES: It's like a train station.
JOANNE FREEMAN: Indeed. Someone who read the book early on in draft form said it seemed like a bus station to him.
CHRIS HAYES: It's a fairly young Republic. It's hot, contested quarters. Describe the politics of the country in that moment, and how those divisions are starting to form.
JOANNE FREEMAN: Sure. In a sense, there are two tracks that are becoming heated up in this moment. One of them is a political track, and that is related to the fact that only recently, in the late 1820s, mid-1820s, do you begin to have really organized party politics in a way that we would recognize it today. For those who jumped on that bandwagon, that was really powerful. The party loyalty, right now of course, we're in a moment where people feel pretty intensely about their party loyalty.
It's not so much their party but their partisanship, I would say now, which side of an argument they're on. In that period, they didn't refer to the Democratic party. They called it The Democracy. It was like a thing. Almost a physical thing that you swear your loyalty to. There were these intense feelings that haven't existed before, in that way.
CHRIS HAYES: This is an important point because now I think about the country being so, I think it's ideologically polarized. It's polarized along, spatially, in terms of education levels. In terms of racial and ethnic makeup of the different coalitions, but it's less about the, "I identify as a member of this thing that is the Democratic Party."
Whereas what you describe in the book, it looks more to me like sectarian disputes between different religious sects in say, England in the 17th century. Like, "I am a Protestant in this deep way of, that's my identity. I am a Democrat. That is who I am and you're on the other side of me."
JOANNE FREEMAN: Right. There's kind of a deep meaning to it, and particularly because it's new, that kind of meaning feels powerful. If you haven't experienced politics in that way before, that there's an organized team of people, like a network of people and they're acting together and doing things together and there's slogans and there's campaign promises. All of the things that we take for granted that weren't around in the early years of the Republic. You can see that that would be powerful and just as you said, that creates a deep sense of loyalty to these parties.
The other track that's happening in this period is the nation is expanding west. There's Native American genocide going on as the nation expands and new states enter the Union, but every state that enters the Union raises the question of slavery. Will it be a free state? Will it be a slave state? The slavery debate and thus sectional loyalties are also really big in this period, though the book shows how they sort of veer over time or alter over time.
CHRIS HAYES: So you've got these debates, every time there's a new state the big debates about whether it'll be a free or slave state. And you've got this growing partisanship. Maybe talk a little bit about this for background context of violence in the society or among these people. We talked a little bit about dueling. How common is it? What is the sort of etiquette or role for it?
Get the think newsletter.
JOANNE FREEMAN: Right, and that's a really good and important point because the United States was a violent place in this period and politics was violent. Generally speaking you have Native Americans being killed, you have the institution of slavery which all by itself has all kinds of violence.
CHRIS HAYES: Constant violence.
JOANNE FREEMAN: Yeah, exactly. But you also had nativists rioting, you have rioting of all kinds. And particularly elections were really violent times where sometimes people got killed at polling places. In French's diary he describes at one point, "Wow, this election went really well. No one was killed."
CHRIS HAYES: Wow.
JOANNE FREEMAN: So politics was violent. So, some of what is going on in Congress is matching with the rumble of violence that's in the nation as a whole.
CHRIS HAYES: I think this is an important point because we talk about violence and political violence in particular in this moment and we look back in the past. When I was writing my second book "A Colony in a Nation", which has a chapter on the founding of the country and I was going and doing historical research, I was amazed at how violent the pre-Revolutionary period is. Obviously the Revolutionary War is violent but you had mobs beating up customs officials, literally tarring and feathering them, beating the crap out of them in the town square. Mob violence was a huge part of the movement that then became the actual formalized violence of the Revolution.
JOANNE FREEMAN: Well, for sure. There is not a golden non-violent period of American History, there really isn't. This begins at the beginning and marches its way through and what changes over time is the nature of it and who's fighting who and what the restraints are on it at any given time. But yeah, there is always a hum of violence in the United States and in politics particularly.
CHRIS HAYES: How do people at the time understand, how do they theorize, talk about the role of violence in politics? You just mentioned French saying, "Oh, this was a great election, no one got killed." There's other parts in the book where people are talking about the way violence interacts with how they do their politics.
JOANNE FREEMAN: Right. So in some ways they either anticipate the fact that there might be that kind of trouble in politics. In some ways they're trying to prove that the people who they're promoting for their party are people who will stand up for a cause. So this leads towards the point that you made earlier that intimidation, not just physical violence, but intimidation and politics are also bound together.
CHRIS HAYES: Reading the book, you talk about the specter of violence that hangs over it. The House of Representatives is not, to use a modern term, a safe space, in a literal sense. I thought about like when you watch a mob movie, the iconic scene in "Goodfellas" when Joe Pesci's like, "What you think I'm funny? I'm a funny guy?" Everything about that interaction, right, the reason for the drama, the reason that's such an incredible scene is that it's a banal point that he's saying, that's the text. The subtext is he's a murderer psychopath.
I got the sense from reading your book like that was kind of what all conventional debate was about. Maybe that's overstating the case, but that whole debate was happening in the specter and shadow of the possibility of this menace. There's a menace that hangs over everything.
JOANNE FREEMAN: Oh, there's definitely a menace. I do have to make the important point that Congress was doing things and it wasn't always violent. Right? I do feel the need as a historian to…
CHRIS HAYES: Yeah, I am sort of intentionally overstating because what I am trying to communicate to the listener, who has not yet read the book, is just put yourself in the space of imagining the back and forth wrestling of conflict in a place where violence is more often used, right?
JOANNE FREEMAN: Oh, absolutely.
CHRIS HAYES: Like in a mafia social club, right? It's a little more like that than how we imagine Congress today.
JOANNE FREEMAN: Oh, for sure, for sure. There is a menace and you know that certain people in Congress are more likely to fight than others.
CHRIS HAYES: Right, that's the other thing.
JOANNE FREEMAN: Right, so you're like, "Oh, if I say something to this guy..."
CHRIS HAYES: Like the enforcer on the hockey team.
JOANNE FREEMAN: Which everyone said when I started this book, and I don't know hockey. I kept saying, "Yeah. Whatever you say. Just like that." So here's an example, kind of the Joe Pesci-esque moment or one of them in the book. You have a Congressman from Virginia, his name is Henry Wise. He walks into the House. He says, "I have your own newspaper that charges the Democratic Party with corruption." A Democrat stands up and says, "How dare you say that about the Democracy. We're not corrupt." And Wise says, turns very dramatically and faces the fellow who said that and says, "Are you calling me a liar?" And that's the exact equivalent of, "You think I'm a funny guy?" It's the same moment, right? And the person who said the comment, who said, "That's not true," back pedals really quickly. "No, no, that's not what I meant. I meant something else." That's a moment…
CHRIS HAYES: Because they know, they know what that dude is capable of.
JOANNE FREEMAN: Absolutely. And liar, in particular, that's a dueling word. That's a Southerner using the hovering menace of a duel over who what happens to be a Northerner who was just standing up to defend his party. So there you see a great example of how things can become violent very quickly.
CHRIS HAYES: A Congressman kills another Congressman in 1838, I think you said. Tell me about that.
JOANNE FREEMAN: Yeah, so as a matter of fact the guy who stands up and defends his party is the unfortunate victim of that duel. It starts out as sort of party conflict. This poor fellow, Jonathan Silly, from New Hampshire, Maine. Actually, he's born in New Hampshire and he's representing Maine, stands up to defend his party. In the process of defending his party he maligns a newspaper editor in New York who rides down to Washington to defend his name and asks another fellow, named William Graves from Kentucky to hand a letter to Silly. Not a duel challenge but he's been insulted so he's not going to up to Silly himself. "Oh, Mr. Graves you're friendly with me, will you give this letter?"
Graves know that something about this doesn't feel right. It's sort of infringing on duel territory. He even says at the time, "Is this a challenge? Am I going to get in trouble?" And the fellow, James Watson Webb who rode down from New York said, "No, no, no. It's just a letter." In the end that "just a letter" unfortunately leads to bad things. Silly doesn't want to take the letter. Graves doesn't know what to do about that. It ends up being an implied insult on Graves.
CHRIS HAYES: That he won't take the letter.
JOANNE FREEMAN: Precisely.
CHRIS HAYES: Like, I don't think enough of you to accept you passing me the letter from the New York editor you insulted who rode down to Washington and cajoled me into handing you this letter because he's got a beef with you and now I'm in the middle of said beef because you're now insulting me by not taking his letter.
JOANNE FREEMAN: Precisely. And you are the second of a man who I don't want to interact with, so you're friends with that kind of person. Yeah, there's all kinds of insult bound up with it. The irony here is that these two guys have no issue with each other, right? They like each other fine. They're not angry at each other.
So you end up with this backing its way. I use it in the book particularly because of your reaction. It's a great example of the pull of the violence and how people get pulled into it and then it's hard in some cases to pull out of it. This is one of those cases where you end up with people from the, one guy's a Democrat, the other guy is a Whig. You have people on each side sort of saying what they can and can't do and pushing for the party.
CHRIS HAYES: Yeah, and there's a little bit of that, like the school yard dynamic. You see it in the book of the kids are like, "Oh a fight! Fight!” Everyone's in a circle and they're like .... You could see that. "Oh, you're gonna take that? You're gonna take that?"
JOANNE FREEMAN: Along with that is this is scary stuff.
CHRIS HAYES: Yes, that's the other thing that was so present in the book is they don't want to die.
JOANNE FREEMAN: No, they don't want to die. They actually don't want to hurt each other. They want what they want.
CHRIS HAYES: It's so sick. It's so sick, though. To me the whole thing is a testament to the tyranny of honor culture and how honor culture is just so bad.
JOANNE FREEMAN: The power of particularly the duel. There's a point at which in the House, John Quincy Adams, who goes back to the House after being president, which in of itself is amazing, but he goes back to the House and he stands up and says, "It's dueling. Dueling is the thing. Northerners are scared of dueling. They're afraid to mess with Southerners who are going to stand up and say, "Are you saying I lied?" So Northerners are silencing themselves because they are afraid of Southerners and being humiliated by either being challenged to a duel and refusing a duel or being challenged to a duel and feeling that they have to duel.
CHRIS HAYES: Okay, put a pin in that because that's an important point that I want to develop, but I want to button up what happens between Silly and Graves.
JOANNE FREEMAN: You don't want to leave that part-
CHRIS HAYES: Yeah, yeah, you left us-
JOANNE FREEMAN: I know, hanging in suspense. Well, unfortunately, despite some people trying to intervene they end up fighting a duel. They fight the duel with rifles because Northerners are more comfortable and they're more familiar with using rifles. Southerners are more comfortable with dueling pistols. Neither man is very good with a gun. They exchange shots twice and each time one or the other of them misfires. There's a third exchange of fire and it hits Silly and kills him. It become, obviously, a huge to-do in the North, right? A Congressman just killed the representative of Maine so people certainly are angry. They're also using it to smash at the Whig Party. "You just tried to assassinate a leading Democrat." So it becomes a party issue as well and it leads to a debate about whether dueling should or shouldn't be allowed.
CHRIS HAYES: What is the legal status of dueling at this point?
JOANNE FREEMAN: In different states it has a different status. Generally speaking it's illegal as is sending a challenge. There are specifics as well that are illegal. Congress can't do anything that's going to affect all the states in that way but they can do something for Washington D.C., that's where they make those sort of laws. That's all they can do and that is in the end what they do. They say, "Okay, we're going to pass a law and the law says no dueling in Washington D.C."
CHRIS HAYES: What year is this?
JOANNE FREEMAN: This is just after the Silly-Graves duel so it's probably 1839. Of course that does nothing.
CHRIS HAYES: Right, well you just cross the river.
JOANNE FREEMAN: Right, or you do what these guys did all the time, right, because you're supposed to be able to speak in Congress and be free from being responsible for those words, freedom of debate and you're not supposed to be able be charged. Obviously all these guys who were fighting are not paying attention to that.
CHRIS HAYES: You're saying like the speech and debate clause in the Constitution, which the whole idea is you can say whatever you want and because we want free exchange, but you can't because you might get shot.
JOANNE FREEMAN: Right. So each guy who gets involved in these disputes there's a point at which he says, "I will not hide behind the rules. I will face you like a man." They don't want to look cowardly so despite the fact even if there's a law passed, whatever happens these guys are pretty focused on standing up for their reputation the way they feel they need to stand up for their reputation.
CHRIS HAYES: Is the institution of a duel that comes down from European tradition? It's not like an uniquely American thing.
JOANNE FREEMAN: Oh no, no. It came to colonies with the Europeans who came to the colonies.
CHRIS HAYES: This is a well established way of settling disputes.
JOANNE FREEMAN: It is, although by the time that the book takes place it's very much seen as a Southern thing. Southerners are kind of proud of it because they're becoming a little defensive about themselves because of the slavery issue getting worse and worse. Northerners don't really… they're not as familiar with the rules of it. There's a lot of shuffling around on the part off Jonathan Silly from Maine trying to find people. He ends up talking to a lot of people from Missouri who know what to do because he has no idea what to do.
CHRIS HAYES: It's like he goes and buys, "So You've Been Invited a Duel" from the local Portland bookstore. It's like, Step One.
JOANNE FREEMAN: Yeah, he would have liked that book. It would have made him very happy.
CHRIS HAYES: Well, that point you made there is a key one which is there's a profound sectional asymmetry here that gets more and more important as the book goes on which is, the Southerners like their dueling and the Northerners are not so into dueling. That starts to be a bigger and bigger issue.
JOANNE FREEMAN: Well, the Southerners like their dueling and even bigger than that know that they can intimidate Northerners. Many of them are armed. They're more likely to engage in man on man violence in that kind of a setting than the Northerners would be. They use what you called it, which I loved, the sort of menace or shadow of violence to intimidate Northerners into silence. You have for example a committee meeting in which they're debating a contested election and someone stands up and he's a Southerner and he wants this to go a certain way for his party. He essentially tells the people in the room, "This is going to go the way I want it to go or you're going to be sorry." The person who's in the room actually goes to John Quincy Adams and says, "I don't know what to do." And Adams doesn't have specific advice for him. This guy resigns from the committee.
CHRIS HAYES: Wow.
JOANNE FREEMAN: There you go.
CHRIS HAYES: That's just straight, that's war lord-ism. That is straight mafiosi. That is. That moment is the intersection of power, politics, and violence that is the defining way that structures of repression and hierarchies of rule have been enforced throughout human civilization for the bulk of it.
JOANNE FREEMAN: Right, and the important thing about that is it's behind closed doors.
CHRIS HAYES: Right, but the reason why I think this is so striking is there a mythos about, "When we founded the country we broke with the old ways of Europe that were blood-soaked. It was all about these constant struggles and constant violence. We created the rule of law. And God, the revered Constitution where we banished all of that stuff.” And it's like bull shit. That moment, it's just mafia warlord-ism in a committee of Congress.
JOANNE FREEMAN: For sure there is this level in everything, in society, in politics of violence. There's a pretty shiny narrative of early America that goes on for quite some time in the way we understand the past and there wasn't a shiny moment.
CHRIS HAYES: What's important to me is it's distinct from slavery. I mean, it's not entirely distinct because these sectional disputes are about the preservation of slavery, but it's distinct from the treatment of slaves and it's distinct from the treatment of indigenous populations, right, which we know are blood-soaked and tyrannical and horrific. This is white man to white man, powerful white man to powerful white man, employing the tools of intimidation as a means of wresting political control.
JOANNE FREEMAN: Correct. That is exactly what it is and doing it in open view, in front of the House or sometimes the Senate, so there's an audience and the press. The press becomes a bigger deal over time because of technological advances but this humiliation with threats and intimidation, you're performing that in front of a potentially huge audience. If you're the guy who's being intimidated, boy do you have to think hard about how you respond. You can't simply sit down if someone insults you or dismiss what they said or assume that no one's going to respond. There's an incident between two Southerners in which one Southerner decides not to advance with any kind of a fight, he just-
CHRIS HAYES: Towards a duel?
JOANNE FREEMAN: Correct. He's just, "I'm done."
CHRIS HAYES: Even though he was insulted?
JOANNE FREEMAN: Even though he was insulted. And he gets attacked for that in the next campaign for office, that he's a coward, that he didn't stand up for himself. Will he stand up for us? Will he stand up for you? Politics and personal reputation are bound up in a really interesting way still in this period, even with parties.
CHRIS HAYES: It call comes back to this honor, humiliations, masculinity vortex.
JOANNE FREEMAN: Oh, no, for sure.
CHRIS HAYES: No one can escape it because it's socially foreordained.
JOANNE FREEMAN: Throw sectional honor in the mix. Take everything that you just said and then throw in the mix that these Congressmen feel that they're defending their section, their state, their constituents. If they're humiliated then their constituents are humiliated. Actually a number of Congressmen will say things when they're in trouble. "I fight for you, my constituents." A huge bully, this Henry Wise of Virginia, at one point someone in Congress says, "You should be thrown out of this place. You're constantly making trouble." And he essentially says, "Go ahead and try because my people are going to vote me right back here because they put me here to do this. I am here to defend the interests of Virginia."
CHRIS HAYES: Right, so atop all this is the sectional part which gets increasingly vicious. Describe that dynamic as we get into the 1840s, 1850s and that's intensifying.
JOANNE FREEMAN: Right. As you're getting new states and actually when you look at the fights and you look at the dividing lines it shows you very clearly the heating up of the slavery debate because the fights initially are very often about party. Then at a certain point in the 1840s increasingly they're just about section or slavery pretty much. Interestingly the gag rule, many people know about the gag rule that was passed in the House, and there was one in the Senate to stop people from talking about anti-slavery petitions. That was an attempt to shut people up and hopefully end some of the chaos on the floor by just removing from conversation these anti-slavery petitions which are also coming in in huge numbers in this period because that movement is rising in this time period, too. The gag rule doesn't work because it causes so much trouble that there's more fighting. The two most violent periods of Congress are the period when the gag rule was in play and the years right before the Civil War.
CHRIS HAYES: Tell me about the gag rule period.
JOANNE FREEMAN: The gag rule basically tables or removes these anti-slavery petitions, refuses to allow. There's no debate about anti-slavery petitions allowed. John Quincy Adams tests this constantly. He keeps trying to stand up and find one way or another to start a conversation about an anti-slavery petition and then that causes a fuss and sometimes a Southerner will stand up and howl. There's one instance in which they're standing in a circle around his chair. I think he says something like, "I see where the shoe fits. It's going to pinch more yet." Just the debate itself-
CHRIS HAYES: Meaning they're surrounding him as a show of force?
JOANNE FREEMAN: Yeah. "Shut up, you." Here's the thing though. John Quincy Adams is like, he's kind of magical in this period because he's a former president. He's elderly and he's the son of a founder and former president, so you can't slug John Quincy Adams.
CHRIS HAYES: Right, and he knows that.
JOANNE FREEMAN: He knows that and he uses it to say what he wants to say. There are people who say, there's one particular person at on point who says, "If you weren't who you are you would feel the force of more than my words." Adams writes in his diary that night, "So and so threatened to kill me today." That's why he's a good advocate, but here's an interesting part. The gag rule is meant to address the problem of slavery. The fact of the matter is Adams really cagily knows not all Northerners are very concerned about slavery but they're going to be really concerned about their right of petition and their right of representation being affected. So he focuses on those things.
"Look at how you Northerners are not being fully represented because we're being silenced here. Look at how debate is basically cutting out your petitions. The right to petition government is a fundamental right." That gets Northerners all charged up. That causes a big public fuss and in time the people who are insisting on a gag rule ultimately back down and say, "You know what, that didn't work."
CHRIS HAYES: Yet, during that time there's a lot of violence.
JOANNE FREEMAN: Right, during that time you have-
CHRIS HAYES: Because they're testing, you just moved the border of the dispute to whether you're going to obey the gag rule.
JOANNE FREEMAN: They drew a line in sand kind of right?
CHRIS HAYES: Exactly.
JOANNE FREEMAN: So now you're like…
CHRIS HAYES: What's testing it. Then the test has to be met with something on the other side.
JOANNE FREEMAN: You have people, you have firm anti-slavery advocates or even abolitionists who are deliberately trying to make… invite violence so that they can display to the nation the barbaric South. There's a fellow from Ohio named Joshua Giddings who's a big guy but he often, frequently tries to toss off things that he knows are going to upset Southerners. In the book I call him an abolitionist toreador, because he throws things out at the Southerners and then he knows they're going to charge at him with a cane or screaming or whatever. He then wisely turns essentially to the press and the public and says, "Ladies and gentlemen, the barbaric South."
CHRIS HAYES: Right.
JOANNE FREEMAN: The Southerners walk into that trap again and again and again because they all feel insulted. Now I should say Joshua Giddings is assaulted at least seven times during his congressional career, so sometimes the toreador with the flag doesn't work so well.
CHRIS HAYES: Gets it.
JOANNE FREEMAN: You have to put into the equation that the abolitionist movement and the anti-slavery movement, white and black, male and female actually, they know that if they can get Congress to display Southerners behaving that way it's going to help their cause.
CHRIS HAYES: They're also not wrong. To me, it's strange but it's craftily honest. Obviously it's the threat of violence that keeps the whole system in place. It's the threat of violence on the plantation that keeps the system in place. It's the threat of violence to some degree in the House of Congress that's being used as this tactical advantage. So show it for what it is.
JOANNE FREEMAN: It's a powerful tool of influence in a political context when it's wielded skillfully like many of the people in the book are doing.
CHRIS HAYES: When you say Giddings is assaulted seven times, what's that mean?
JOANNE FREEMAN: There's one instance when someone walks up to him and shoves him against some desks. There's one instance when someone runs at him with a cane. There's one instance, I think it's the greatest firepower incident on the floor, he's giving an aggressive anti-slavery speech, and a fellow from Louisiana stands up and cocks his gun at Giddings. People see this and one or two other people get up to stand next to him with guns. One or two other people stand up to stand next to Giddings with guns. You end up with Giddings giving the speech and a handful of men all with their guns watching this happen.
Now, in the end, the original guy form Louisiana backs down and realizes ... Even he realizes, "Okay, I kind of went too far."
CHRIS HAYES: We can't have like a "Reservoir Dogs" moment here in the House.
JOANNE FREEMAN: No. That would be bad. That's another, "You think I'm funny?" Kind of moment. That's another Pesci moment, right, where it's like, "I'm going to stand here with my gun. I'm willing to fight if you're willing to fight."
CHRIS HAYES: This gets worse. You actually have data in there. You tallied through, and what happens as we approach ... You have Bleeding Kansas. There's all these sort of famous moments in the run up to the Civil War that we learn about in American history. Of course we'll get to Sumner, but there's other stuff happening then too actually in Congress?
JOANNE FREEMAN: Right. In the end, what we now call Bleeding Kansas, which is the question of will Kansas be free or a slave state, is a big part of what shifts in the end of the 1850s. You have the Compromise of 1850, which everyone celebrates because they're like, "Yay."
CHRIS HAYES: We did it. We settled this.
JOANNE FREEMAN: "We made a compromise. This is great." Then a couple years later, you have Franklin Pierce in Congress who basically say, "You know what? Popular sovereignty. Let's try popular sovereignty." Actually, French says in his diary, "Why are you doing this?"
CHRIS HAYES: You're undoing your compromise.
JOANNE FREEMAN: Exactly. How can you do this?
CHRIS HAYES: The compromise had been basically drawing a line and saying, "Free on one side. Slave on the other, and then we'll essentially accept states in these pairs to keep the powers essentially even."
JOANNE FREEMAN: With a number of other things including the Fugitive Slave Act, so that's kind of huge. What it does, and particularly by taking it away, is it suggests to Northerners and Southerners alike that there's some kind of plot in motion. Northerners begin to think, "Wait a minute."
CHRIS HAYES: We were suckered.
JOANNE FREEMAN: "We were totally suckered. What are these guys-
CHRIS HAYES: And we have the Fugitive Slave Act, so we have to enforce the Southerner's tyranny in our cities and our lands.
JOANNE FREEMAN: They are trying to spread their slave regime throughout the Union. That is what they are trying to do, and there are all kinds of conspiracy theories that rise up with that. Southerners also feel the Northerners are trying to stamp out slavery. They also feel that the debate is coming to a head. You have each side really increasingly in the mid-1850's feeling that this Kansas-Nebraska puts it at a point where they're really feeling that things are spinning into a bad space and they don't know what to do about it. In the middle of that, you get the Republican Party.
Back away and sort of take that name off. What you get are Northerners who are more willing to fight who are elected by people who want their Congressmen to defend the North. When the Republican Party rises to power in 1855, and they say, "We shall fight the slave power," in Congress there's kind of a literal edge to that, right?
CHRIS HAYES: "You Southerners have been intimidating us with your threats and your ominous warnings and your dueling culture. We have had all these lines we won't cross. You have radicalized us in the North, and now we have a new party that will stand on equal footing with you ready to go toe to toe literally if that's what it takes."
JOANNE FREEMAN: Exactly. They stand up all the time. A Southerner will try to intimidate them, and one or another of them will stand up and say, "We are a different kind of Northerner. You can't do that anymore. We are a different kind of Northerner." Now, it isn't absolutely equal, right, because the Northerners don't really want to duel. Some of them do come to Washington with weapons actually. There's one senator who puts his gun down on his desk, right? He's like, "Thunk. That's who I am, Southerners. I'm different kind of Northerner."
CHRIS HAYES: This is what the Republican party looks like.
JOANNE FREEMAN: Exactly, but that obviously dramatically changes the dynamic of what's going on in Congress. Now, you have Northerners who are being bullied and threatened and beaten. You have Southerners who feel intimidated and attacked in a way they've never felt before. You end up getting really fierce physical combat in a couple instances. Huge melees. North against South.
CHRIS HAYES: Talk about the North-South brawls, because these are-
JOANNE FREEMAN: They're amazing.
CHRIS HAYES: They're amazing, and I didn't know about them. Again, I got the Sumner caning and I got the Burr-Hamilton duel. I got the Sumner caning. I got my American history.
JOANNE FREEMAN: You're done.
CHRIS HAYES: I was like what the ... Whoa. Jesus Christ.
JOANNE FREEMAN: Two years after Sumner, there's a huge incident.
CHRIS HAYES: Sumner happens in-
JOANNE FREEMAN: 56. This is 1858.
CHRIS HAYES: Sumner happens ... Just so the people know what Sumner is is that Senator from Massachusetts is an abolitionist.
JOANNE FREEMAN: Gives a really aggressive anti-slavery speech about Kansas, and a South Carolinian, Preston Brooks, is insulted for his region, for his state and in the course of his speech Sumner kind of slighted a kinsman of Preston Brooks, too. Preston Books tries for two days outside to get Sumner to punish him for what he said. Then, when he can't find him, goes into the Senate and really, dramatically, violently, canes him to the ground.
CHRIS HAYES: Beats him within an inch of his life.
JOANNE FREEMAN: Right. He's carried bloody off the floor of the Senate, and obviously North and South, that has a huge kind of a symbolic impact. To see literally, if you plug in everything I've been talking about with Northerners feeling intimidated that Southerners are bullying them, and then you watch a South Carolinian stride into the Senate and beat the representative to the ground ... Actually, Preston Brooks says afterwards, "I'm no longer myself. I am now the South. That's what I represent now. That's how people are treating me. What I did, I did in the name of the South."
People, of course, Southerners sent him canes. It's like, "Excellent. You're standing up for us against that dirty Northerner who was attacking slavery." Northerners I read for a while in Sumner's papers, the letters he got from people, these intensely emotional letters from people. "I haven't stopped crying since I heard the news." Kids saying, "I don't know what it means, but it's upsetting. I don't know what to do." Northerners really felt also personally attacked by the symbolism of that moment.
CHRIS HAYES: That's Sumner's caning. What happens? What's the aftermath of that?
JOANNE FREEMAN: It causes an enormous controversy. It pushes things further along, right? Now, people are really defensive, and they really feel that the other side is trying to take over, and the Northerners, for obvious reasons, think the South is just trying to beat them into submission. Things just become increasingly violent in Congress as the debate heats up, as people increasingly understand that there's some fundamental decisions being made here about the future of slavery in the United States. They step up to that right really aggressively.
The fight I referred to before in 1858 is an instance of a sectional fight in Congress. There's a fellow from Pennsylvania with the great 19th century name Galusha Grow, who's standing amidst Democrats and objects to something. Another fellow, Lawrence Kitt, from South Carolina, doesn't like the fact that there's a Republican standing amidst Democrats objecting, and he yells out, "Go to your own side of the House and object. Get out of here. You don't belong among us." Galusha Grow says, "I can stand anywhere I want. This is a free House, and I'm not going to listen to any slave driver."
Lawrence Kitt, obviously, supposedly was maybe a little tipsy, maybe not, but strides over to Grow, tries to grab him by the collar to punch him, and Grow punches him first and knocks him flat. Now, at this point, a bunch of Southerners, a rush of Southerners, sees a Southerner floored by a Northerner, and they begin rushing down to this point of conflict, which is right in front of the speaker's platform. Some of them probably want to break things up. Some of them very clearly want to get Grow. Republicans who see a swarm of Southerners coming across the floor begin jumping over desks and tables to get to that spot to defend their man, to defend Grow.
You end up with a fight, a brawl, with scores of people. At least 30. It was very hard to figure it out, because every source that I looked at has a different number, but it was a good number of guys, who were slugging each other and throwing things at each other. Who were, I mean, physically engaged in a battle and many of them are armed, thought they don't use their weapons. Still, this is an armed battle of North against South on the floor of the House of Representatives.
You have people who see that at the time and who say, "That looks like a sectional battle to us. That doesn't look like other fights.” Other fights you have like one guy slug another and they get tangled up in the chairs or ... That looked like a battle. In many ways, it was.
CHRIS HAYES: Right. It's a microcosm of the country.
JOANNE FREEMAN: Exactly. That's one of the really interesting things about Congress. When I started this project that Congress is a representative institution. Congressmen in this period are representing their people in all kinds of ways. If you know that, then what goes on in Congress isn't just something that's happening in highfalutin politics that's cut off from everything else. It's right at the center of politics in this period and really is a good way of getting at some of what's brewing in the lead up to the Civil War.
CHRIS HAYES: What's so interesting to me when I wrestle with the question of political violence in the abstract but then set in the Civil War setting is I have two impulses that are in tension with each other. One impulse is political violence is bad. It's a sign of a broken down democracy in some ways. Lack of communication, lack of institutions, all these things, and you want to avoid that. The other is slavery is worse, and the political violence of the Civil War was justified and indeed noble as horribly bloody as it was. It was one of the great liberatory acts of violence even undertaken because slavery is violence. Those two things are in tension.
In the book, you have this feeling all the time, I felt, in the book sort of oscillating between those, because there's this sort of ominousness like, "What are you guys doing?" Then it's like, "Well, no. You're headed towards the Civil War, which there was no other way out of this."
JOANNE FREEMAN: Right. I don't think that anyone in the book at the time thought, "This is inevitable." Us looking back we might say that, but at the time ... That's part of what I'm trying to get at in the book is they're looking forward in time, not back, so they don't see it as inevitable. Yeah. They're increasingly getting worried as things are getting more and more violent, and the people who want to eliminate slavery, for any number of reasons, some of them because slavery is bad, some of them because they're worried about the North and the status of the North, but for one reason or another, yeah, the slavery debate is the other side of this.
Part of what I talk about in the book is the role of the public as well. It's sort of a third leg I guess here in a stool. The third level of influence here is coming from the public, which is seeing what's happening in Congress and encouraging their congressmen to do just what they're doing. They're not isolated debating in private, they're actually doing their job. They're representing what their constituents want, and a particularly dramatic example of this in the book that when I first saw it sort of made all the hair on the back of neck stand up.
There's an instance, it's actually not that long after the caning of Sumner, where a Massachusetts congressman, he's in Massachusetts, he's going to go back to Washington, he's at the train station, and he has some constituents come up, and they give him a gift. It was a pistol, and it was inscribed with the words "Free Speech." That's a constituency of people saying, "Fight for our rights." They don't assume he's going to go to Washington and start shooting Southerners, but wow. I mean, that's a powerful message.
CHRIS HAYES: There's a lot of talk now, obviously, about political violence in the US. One thing that is useful about this book is it's a reminder of how blessedly free we are of political violence even compared say to like 1960s, 1970s. What are your takeaways? What did you learn? How did your thinking about that category, political violence, change having worked on this book?
JOANNE FREEMAN: Well, I think in part that was influenced by the fact that I finished it in the last two or three years. Right? It took me 17 years to write the book. When I started it-
CHRIS HAYES: 17 years?
JOANNE FREEMAN: Yeah. 17 years.
CHRIS HAYES: No wonder it's so goddamn good. That makes a lot of sense. It's fantastic.
JOANNE FREEMAN: It took me a long time to find the violence, to figure it out, and then to figure out how the heck to tell the story. Yeah. 17 years. When I started it, we were in a really different place. The last couple of years, suddenly some of the things I'm writing about, I'm seeing shadows of them, or sometimes almost reflections of them, happening now. Certainly one of the takeaways that I had simply because of the timing of my finishing the book was, "Wow, we're looking at ways in which Americans in times of decision ..." When people feel I think that a major decision is being made, I think people now in America feel that we're deciding what path America is going to take, just like in the late 1850s people knew, like, "This is the slavery question. We're deciding a path." At those moments, it makes sense that certain things happen, and they happened in one form in the 1850s, and they're happening again now.
Part of what I saw, I saw parties splintering. I saw conspiracy theories. I saw Americans distrusting each other. Americans distrusting national institutions in the 1850s. You could say that some version of most of those things is taking place now. I'm not saying we're marching into a Civil War, but what I am saying is it certainly makes you think about these polarized moments and how they play out. As you said, on the one side, it's kind of a relief to see that it's been worse. This isn't the worst that it's ever been. The other message from the book is really, "That's true. It has been worse, but let's look at what goes on in that book and think about the implications of it. It's not conspiracy theories aren't just stories. They have a power, and they're hard to refute. Look here's a whole chapter on how Americans began to line up and fight each other because of conspiracy theories."
The book also I think shows, and it would sure be nice if people got a little perspective, but it shows how moments like this play out and the sorts of things that it's worth thinking about. It's fascinating. There are people in Congress in the very late years in the 1850s who are saying again and again and again, "Words matter. Watch your words. The wrong words, and we're going to have a bloody fight in the House of Representatives."
There's actually an amazing anonymous document that I found from a Southern congressman. It's just signed, "A Well-Wisher" to the speaker of the House. It says, "I want to give you a note here about the state of affairs. Among Southerners, Southerners are ready to fight. One missile from your side, one the wrong kind of words from your side, one attack from your side, and there's going to be bloodshed in the House. I'm keeping my guys from throwing missiles. Will you keep your side from throwing missiles? Can we not prompt and goad each other to the point that honor is up, all of the implications are huge, a national audience is watching even more than before because the intensity of the fight? Bad things are going to happen."
CHRIS HAYES: Here's the other part of me. This gets to, in a historiographical sense, there was a school of thought that portrays the war as a great tragedy, as a fraternal misunderstanding between the white men of the North and the white men of the South who should have found a way to get along together. It's like, "That's bullshit." The horrible, inescapable fact is that the bloodshed was necessary. You know what I mean? It's like when you tell that story, I think to myself, "Yeah." My heart goes like, "Right. Everyone just cool it down." It's like, "No. Don't cool it down over slavery. Don't cool it down over slavery. You need to beat the Southerners."
JOANNE FREEMAN: Exactly. There are people at the time-
CHRIS HAYES: I'm a radical Republican here in 2018.
JOANNE FREEMAN: You are a radical Republican. Sumner's got his thumbs up.
CHRIS HAYES: Exactly.
JOANNE FREEMAN: For sure. There are people at the time saying ... The people are Joshua Giddings who are trying to make trouble.
CHRIS HAYES: I'm saying those people are right. You don't have to say that. You're a historian. You're not here to render judgment. I'm saying they were right.
JOANNE FREEMAN: They are really ... What they are doing is really rational. They think that the only way something's going to happen is if there's enough friction and tension that the public is going to respond and something will happen. Northerners truly felt that the Southern regime was in one way or another it should just stay in the South. It should not contaminate the North and visa versa.
CHRIS HAYES: That it was odious and foreign.
JOANNE FREEMAN: Yes. That it was odious that ultimately it would be great if it just sort of was stamped out. If you really believe that the other side is trying to eliminate you, no holds barred, you're in a different kind of a zone, right?
CHRIS HAYES: Literally no holds barred.
JOANNE FREEMAN: Yeah. Literally.
CHRIS HAYES: The book is called "The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to Civil War "by Joanne B. Freeman. 17 years. Worth the effort. Thank you.
JOANNE FREEMAN: Thank you so much for having me.
CHRIS HAYES: My thanks again to Joanne Freeman. The books called "The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to Civil War." You should definitely check it out. We've been getting tons of feedback recently. There's an explosion of feedback, maybe because I so thirstily ask for it at the end of every podcast. Tiffany Champion is giving me the kind of grimace smile laugh that she does, like the eye rolling like, "Dad, stop with ..." A reaction I live for, because I have been soliciting your feedback. We really do love to hear it. We've just gotten great e-mails and great tweets about where people are listening to WITHpod and what they're learning and how it led them to read books that they haven't encountered before or encounter ideas that they hadn't encountered before. It's extremely gratifying. It's exactly why we do this, why we do this podcast. We're so happy that you are enjoying it.
We love to hear from you. You can tweet us at the #WITHpod. E-mail at email@example.com. Keep them coming.
Oh, two quick corrections. In our conversation about slavery and the black belt and the ways in which slavery defines the politics of the region, both I and the authors of the book misspoke about the cause of the black soil deposits in the reason that make it the black belt. It is not a glacier. I got several e-mails from geologists and people that study this. It was actually the lining or the sort of bedding of an ancient sea. There was actually water there. And if I'm recalling this correctly, there's like plankton buildup which actually made the soil really rich. It was not glaciers. That was wrong.
Another thing. I got a great e-mail from a listener which we will post on our website about Huey Long. In my conversation with Rachel Maddow, I referred to Huey Long as an example of a demagogue, and I got a spirited, very well researched 2,000-word response about why Huey Long is not a demagogue. I don't know if I found the thing completely persuadable, but he made some good points, so if you're a Huey Long fan, Huey Long defender, think that I unfairly maligned Huey Long, who is a fascinating and complicated figure, and there's lots of stuff on the good and bad side of the ledger when it comes to Huey Long, anyway we will post, with the permission of that listener, will post his e-mail.
"Why Is This Happening?" Is presented MSNBC and NBC News, produced by the "All In" team and features music by Eddie Cooper. You can see more of our work including links to things we mentioned here by going to NBCNews.com/whyisthishappening.