The 2019 Weeden Lecture, delivered by Joanne B. Freeman, the Class of 1954 Professor of History and American Studies at Yale University, reminded Lawrentians that matters in Congress could always be worse.
Freeman’s lecture was based on her 2018 book, The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to Civil War
. A leading scholar on Alexander Hamilton and a consultant on Hamilton
the musical, Freeman has dedicated years of research to uncovering the lost history of congressional violence between 1830 and 1860, significant for its insights into the growing conflict between North and South. Outbreaks of violence in the halls of Congress often accompanied impassioned speeches on both sides of the issue of slavery.
Fomenting these clashes, according to Freeman, was reporting by partisan journalists and the rise of the telegraph, which transmitted news from Congress to the representatives’ home districts in 45 minutes time. Advances in communications technology meant almost immediate pressure from voters to defend Southern and Northern positions, and newspaper reports further stoked the flames. Then, like now, “technology fundamentally changed the nature of national politics, and the press helped to create an endless loop of sectional strife.”
Freeman was able to chronicle some 70 violent incidents in the antebellum Congress, from canings to fistfights and duels. The story went largely untold, she said, because it had been downplayed in the congressional journals. Only by digging beyond statements like “debate became unpleasantly personal” and “there was a sudden sensation in the corner” was she able to construct a true picture of the carnage. Guided by names and dates in the congressional records, she pored through letters from congressmen to their wives and aides’ personal journals to find valuable evidence.
Citing a memo Alexander Hamilton wrote to himself following the Constitutional Convention, Freeman pointed out that the founders considered the United States an “experiment,” a word they used often. Hamilton and others knew the outcome of the experiment was questionable, she said, with the result just as easily being “chaos” as a new nation. Wisely, they provided the vehicle that later enabled a divided nation to rebuild.
“The founders believed that Constitutional process would be the key to national survival,” Freeman said in conclusion. “It’s what has always saved us.”
Established in 1999 by Walter Buckley, Jr. ’56 P’96 ’99 GP’09, the Charles F. Weeden III H’65 Great Historians Lecture series honors the memory of Charles F. “Chuck” Weeden III H’65 P’77 ’79 ’87, an esteemed teacher, Housemaster and coach to four decades of Lawrentians.
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