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The Field of Blood

Violence in Congress and the Road to Civil War

Joanne B. Freeman


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ISBN10: 1250234581
ISBN13: 9781250234582

Trade Paperback

480 Pages



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Shortlisted for the Ralph Waldo Emerson Award
Finalist for the Gilder Lehrman Lincoln Prize

In The Field of Blood, Joanne B. Freeman recovers the long-lost story of physical violence on the floor of the U.S. Congress. Drawing on an extraordinary range of sources, she shows that the Capitol was rife with conflict in the decades before the Civil War. Legislative sessions were often punctuated by mortal threats, canings, flipped desks, and all-out slugfests. When debate broke down, congressmen drew pistols and waved Bowie knives. One representative even killed another in a duel. Many were beaten and bullied in an attempt to intimidate them into compliance, particularly on the issue of slavery.

These fights didn’t happen in a vacuum. Freeman’s dramatic accounts of brawls and thrashings tell a larger story of how fisticuffs and journalism, and the powerful emotions they elicited, raised tensions between North and South and led toward war. In the process, she brings the antebellum Congress to life, revealing its rough realities—the feel, sense, and sound of it—as well as its nation-shaping import. Funny, tragic, and rivetingly told, The Field of Blood offers a front-row view of congressional mayhem and sheds new light on the careers of John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay, and other luminaries, as well as introducing a host of lesser-known but no less fascinating men. The result is a fresh understanding of the workings of American democracy and the bonds of Union on the eve of their greatest peril.


Praise for The Field of Blood

"In her absorbing, scrupulously researched book The Field of Blood, Joanne B. Freeman uncovers the brawls, stabbings, pummelings and duel threats that occurred among United States congressmen during the three decades just before the Civil War . . . Men and women crowded the Congressional galleries with the expectation of seeing entertaining outbreaks, much the way fans of professional wrestling or hockey do today . . . But Freeman never loses sight of the fact that fighting in Congress was far more than a sport . . . The Field of Blood casts fresh light on the period it examines while leading us to think about our own time."—David S. Reynolds, The New York Times Book Review

"Fascinating . . . [The Field of Blood] demonstrates the historic truth of an observation by black activist H. Rap Brown in the 1960s: ‘Violence is a part of America’s culture; it is as American as cherrypie’ . . . [Joanne B.] Freeman’s book goes far toward explaining why there was a Civil War."—H.W. Brands, The Wall Street Journal

The Field of Blood is an impressive feat of research in the face of recalcitrant sources . . . Freeman is too good a historian to trot out facile parallels with the present, but there is an implicit presentism throughout her book . . . [It] is a work of substantial historical scholarship deployed on a topic of contemporary urgency.”—Andrew Delbanco, The Nation

"In her vivid and remarkable new book . . . Joanne B. Freeman puts dozens of forgotten episodes of political violence into stark context . . . Freeman's wry touch and appreciation for the absurdities of politics—and politicians—give the book a burst of energy and readability. Most vitally, the story she tells has heightened relevance in our own tumultuous era."—Randy Dotinga, Christian Science Monitor

“Compelling and enlightening . . . Freeman’s pathbreaking book should be read by anyone interested in Congress, the Civil War or American history in general.”—Roger Bishop, BookPage

"A hair-raising history . . . [and] a vivid portrait of a dysfunctional government that—minus the literal bloodshed—has been compared to today’s but was probably worse."—Kirkus Reviews

“A thought-provoking and insightful read for anybody interested in American politics in the lead up to the Civil War.”—Library Journal

“Freeman excavates a little-discussed aspect of American history . . . Brisk and accessible . . . French’s long-standing friendship with the unmemorable Franklin Pierce provides fresh insight into the political culture of the time, and the descriptions of the tragicomic Cilley-Graves duel and the horrific caning of Charles Sumner are detailed and thoughtful . . . Freeman grants followers of modern politics a look back at another fascinating, impassioned period of change in which Congress became full of ‘distrust, defensiveness, and degradation,' mimicking the constituents at home.”Publishers Weekly

Reviews from Goodreads


Read an Excerpt




In the middle of December 1833, the thirty-three-year-old French set off for the nation’s capital and a new life as...

About the author

Joanne B. Freeman

Joanne B. Freeman, a professor of history and American studies at Yale University, is a leading authority on early national politics and political culture. The author of the award-winning Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic and editor of The Essential Hamilton and Alexander Hamilton: Writings, she is a cohost of the popular history podcast BackStory.

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