oanne Freeman’s The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to Civil War is a timely reminder that American political institutions were once even more dysfunctional, American citizens even more bitterly divided, and American leaders even more clownishly belligerent than they are today. Freeman, a distinguished historian at Yale who has also written a fine study of the political culture of the early Republic, Affairs of Honor (2001), provides here the best account yet written on the intensifying climate of violence that permeated Congress in the decades preceding the Civil War. The foremost virtue of The Field of Blood is Freeman’s skillful handling of material that is as serious as the moral conflict over slavery, and yet also an amusing spectacle of middle-aged men scratching and snapping at one another like a pack of feral cats. She gives the moral stakes of this struggle their full due while taking impish delight in the wild ridiculousness of it all. Her style is light but serious, refreshingly free of the overbearing didacticism that too often creeps into this subject, and she shows an artful talent in combining the dramatic and comedic elements of her story.

Freeman wisely avoids pressing too much on the causal significance of the congressional violence she so thoroughly and vividly brings to light. The connection between the escalating violence in Congress and the violence that engulfed the whole nation is obvious but also incalculable. Congress became the center stage of the sectional conflict, the arena in which stark cultural and moral differences inevitably first collided. As Freemen puts it, congressmen performed the sectional conflict before “a watchful national audience, giving human form to the fraying of national bonds.” If this seems vague, it is because the causes of the war cannot be described with the precision of a physics equation. Good political history, like good political leadership, begins with modesty. The key point, which Freeman demonstrates, is that Congress established a pattern of political violence that framed how all sides understood the climax of disunion.

Considered logically, the Republicans had little reason to resist the departure of the slaveholding states that had become such a bullying nuisance, especially since in resisting secession, the Republicans did not immediately commit themselves to emancipation. But the battles that raged in Congress had reframed secession into a final insult against Northern manhood. Few Republicans understood secession as theoretically as Abraham Lincoln, who saw it as a fatal threat to the practice of democratic self-government. But they all understood the insult, and though uncertain about virtually everything else, they were not about to let that final insult go unanswered.

This much of Freeman’s argument is persuasive. And it’s enough to make the Field of Blood one of the best books on the origins of the Civil War in years. But one significant shortcoming is worth noting. Her laser-like focus on violence in Congress prevents her from relating it to other crucial changes in the nation’s political climate on the eve of the war. A domineering block of slaveholders, she argues, had always “strategically deployed violence to get their way” in Congress. The crucial change in the sectional conflict came when “Northerners fought back.” This claim simply echoes the insult Republicans hurled at their Democratic rivals. A slave regime, as Freeman notes, was violent by definition. But for most of the Republic’s history, Southern slaveholders were by far the most powerful economic interest represented in the national government. They did not need to resort to violence to protect their interests until their power began to diminish rapidly relative to that of the North. Southern violence against their sectional opponents increased as their power diminished. But this reaction was about as strategic as an angry bear clawing at a 10,000-volt fence when it might have passed quietly through a wide open gate. Had Southerners been just a fraction less arrogantly bellicose in making their departure from the Union, they might have achieved their independence without provoking the war that destroyed them. But like the scorpion that stung the frog, the slave regime could only be true to itself.

Freeman’s narrative, then, is too focused on the moral melodrama in Congress to capture the tragic dimensions of an impending political catastrophe that few wanted and no one could prevent. Hers is a simple story, told with exceptional wit and skill, of bullies who dominated the Republic until others summoned enough backbone to oppose them by any means necessary.

In truth, the violent dysfunction of Congress was a symptom of much broader structural changes in American society that few at the time understood. We would do well to recount the broader forces that began to corrode American democracy in the antebellum era, for many of them are more relevant today than ever.

Party Chaos

Michael Holt’s short, synthetic work, The Political Crisis of the 1850s (1978), remains a timely analysis of how and why American political institutions began to intensify underlying social conflicts that those same institutions could not resolve. Starting in the late 1840s, American society began to reorganize itself in response to a series of abrupt demographic, technological, and economic transformations. Between 1846 and 1854, nearly 3 million immigrants arrived in America, the largest proportional influx in the nation’s history, equaling 14.5% of the entire population in 1845. Such a dramatic demographic shift was bound to have a disruptive effect on the political system, as indeed it did. As Holt, a historian on the University of Virginia, explains, “apprehensive and often bigoted Protestant Americans” associated immigrants with depressed wages, squalid slums, crime, substance abuse and a religious hostility to republican institutions. Then as always, irrational hatreds and fears coexisted easily with legitimate anxieties. (Indeed, many Americans appalled by anti-immigration bigotry today have enthusiastically embraced the mid-19th-century Protestant view of the Catholic Church as a sinister hotbed of reactionary sexual predators.)

Although the famous “Know-Nothing” party that flourished briefly in 1850s supplied a political epithet that remains popular to this day, its connection to the sectional conflict, the rise of the Republican Party, and the coming of the Civil War is almost wholly forgotten, an unwelcome complication of the moral melodrama. Abraham Lincoln denounced the Know-Nothings unequivocally in private, placing them, as it were, in a basket of deplorables along with slaveholders. But in public he was far more circumspect, and for good reason. The very people he privately condemned in 1854 were instrumental in making him president in 1860. George Julian, a prominent antislavery congressman , called the Know-Nothing movement “a sort of underground railroad” for Democrats and Whigs to “make their exodus from their former political masters.”

The nativist backlash over immigration was only one of several grievances that alienated the electorate from the political parties that represented them. “Malignant distrust of politicians as self-centered and corrupt wirepullers out of touch with the people spread like an epidemic during the 1850s,” Holt writes. A series of wrenchingly abrupt cultural, economic and technological changes discredited older party issues without supplying new ones. Immense economic growth, which an ascendant class of capitalists celebrated as unalloyed progress, felt like a catastrophe to countless displaced laborers, artisan manufacturers, and small farmers.

The result was a confused combination of reckless confidence and radical despair, of boundless prosperity and unchanneled discontents. Here, too, the crisis of the 1850s echoes suggestively in the present. What an eminent historian has labeled “the Age of Capital” almost exactly coincides with the years American political historians designate as the Civil War era. A decade of unprecedented material prosperity and technological progress was also a decade of equally unprecedented political gridlock, corruption, and violence. Technological shifts that had developed slowly at the margins of American life suddenly accelerated with revolutionary momentum. Between 1848 and 1853, 17,000 miles of railroad were laid in the United States, nearly tripling the total from previous decades. The optimism this “silent revolution” inspired was almost boundless, and so too was the inchoate frustration of those who found themselves economically displaced or their communities transformed. “Popular government follows in the track of the steam engine and electric telegraph,” Lincoln’s secretary of state William Henry Seward observed. But these revolutionary technologies also destabilized existing democratic institutions.

These grievances were too new, too intensely localized and poorly understood, to supply an organizing principle for a new national party. The Know-Nothing movement was the most powerful force in the political realignment of 1853-54, but it discredited and destroyed the party system without establishing anything in its place. The relationship between the Know-Nothings and the Republicans was that of a spontaneous popular upheaval that sophisticated political actors appropriated, rechanneled, and rebranded. The political realignment also weakened the Northern wing of the Democratic party, giving Southern slaveholders decisive sway over the only surviving national political organization. In organizing a political party around opposition to the so-called “slavepower,” the Republicans were aided immeasurably by the transformation of the Democratic Party into an extension of that very interest. As a result, the party system that had effectively contained an explosive conflict over slavery now served to escalate it, “in a reciprocating process,” as the historian David Potter observed, “which the majority of Americans found themselves unable to check even though they deplored it.”

History Repeating Itself

The most significant scholarly controversies over the origins of the Civil War involve ethical perceptions, not empirical facts. What one historian praises as a noble effort to prevent war another historian condemns as a cowardly concession to slavery. The era is rich in dramatic interest because of the irresolvable nature of the dilemma Americans confronted. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion of how much justice should be sacrificed for the sake of peace, or how much violence should be accepted for the sake of justice. But excessive moralizing on this acute moral dilemma, as it presented itself in the 1850s, stems from confusion over the ambiguous nature of the antebellum Union. Americans shared a fully developed nationalism, the most robust and self-consciously celebrated national identity in the world at that time. Their identity was intensely political, not ethnic or cultural, but their government was not yet that of a nation-state. The United States was precisely what the name implied—a union of individual states that retained their authority on virtually all issues relevant to most citizens, including defining suffrage requirements, policing and punishing crimes, and education. The antebellum Union was almost an inversion of the European Union today—it inspired immense patriotic devotion but institutionally it was “as vertebrate as a Jellyfish,” as historian Allan Nevins put it. And so in a way that is very difficult to understand today, the conflict over slavery was both an internal struggle over the foundational ideals of the American Republic and a conflict between antagonistic societies in which both sides well understood that the alternative to mutual forbearance and compromise was war.

Historians who lived through the world crises of the mid-20th century naturally emphasized the military violence that loomed conspicuously over the sectional conflict, and their interpretations followed their attitudes toward the wars they experienced first-hand. Literary critic Edmund Wilson saw the Civil War as the original outbreak of the “panicky pugnacity” that Americans were always confusing with moral virtue. “Whenever we engage in a war or move in on some other country, it is always to liberate somebody,” he wrote in the preface to Patriotic Gore in 1962. Writing in the aftermath of World War II, Nevins criticized the North of the 1850s for the same combination of chauvinism and weakness that led to the rise of Hitler in the 1930s.

The challenge of managing a deadly conflict with the Soviet Union provided a still more beguiling analogy for historians. In the preface to his Pulitzer Prize-winning study, The Disruption of American Democracy (1948), the University of Pennsylvania’s Roy Nichols observed that his subject might serve as an object lesson for the architects of a new world federation in the United Nations. “The founding fathers of this new order must seek skill in counteracting divisive attitudes, so that they may not nourish the fears and frustrations which breed secession and war.” American liberals in that era were acutely aware of the difference between prudence and fanaticism in confronting an evil regime.

“The implacable purpose of the slave state to eliminate the challenge of freedom…gives the present polarization of power the quality of a crisis.” That sentence reads like Abraham Lincoln paraphrased by a bureaucrat. And indeed, it comes from National Security Council Document 68, the key document outlining the policy for militarizing the Cold War in 1950. Historians who considered this mindset dangerous in 1950 could hardly help noticing that a similar mindset had prevailed among Northern leaders a century earlier. That a liberal society must either confront its illiberal opposites or surrender its own cherished freedoms was, they argued, the dangerous illusion that frightened decent men into unnecessary wars. Harry V. Jaffa’s classic interpretation of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, Crisis of the House Divided (1959), also reflected the Cold War context. The historians Jaffa attacked with sledgehammer blows were mainstream liberals who did not want to believe that history is precisely what Lincoln said it was in those debates: “the eternal struggle between these two principles—right and wrong—throughout the world.”

Historians who came of age during and after the Civil Rights movement have reinterpreted the war under the influence of an equally misleading analogy. As the struggle for racial equality returned to the center of American politics, scholars projected backward a powerful nation-state that did not yet exist. A century after Appomattox, the federal government had asserted its authority on everything important except race. That is why the states’ rights canard had come to seem so patently disingenuous. The institutional tools to enforce the rights and privileges of national citizenship were already present. All that was missing was the will to act. White reactions to the Civil Rights movement involved an ugly amount of thuggish criminality and mob hysteria, but the capacity of the nation-state to maintain control was never in doubt, except in the fevered imaginations of a few fools and fanatics. And much as angry Southern mobs might flatter themselves as a reborn Confederacy, they were not able even to imagine separating from the nation-state they depended on as much as anyone. Historians influenced by these dramatic events have minimized the immense difference between the moral dilemma of the 1850s and that of a century later—between moral agitation that led to war and moral agitation that led to reform.

Eric Foner, the DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University and the most talented and influential Civil War historian of his generation, is an emblematic example. “In approaching the subject of Lincoln’s views and policies regarding slavery and race,” Foner writes in his study of that subject, The Fiery Trial (2010), “we should first bear in mind that the hallmark of Lincoln’s greatness was his capacity for growth.” Foner is hardly alone in emphasizing Lincoln’s supposed moral growth. Indeed he goes on to acknowledge that the theme is in danger of becoming a cliché among Lincoln scholars. This view naturally suggests itself to those who admire what Lincoln achieved without acknowledging the profound dilemma that agonized him throughout the first 18 months of his presidency—namely, when to accept the magnitude of what the war had become without wantonly foreclosing a less bloody path to peace. His views on slavery and race changed—or, as a politician would say today, “evolved”—less dramatically than almost anyone’s in this era. Virtually no one who occupied Lincoln’s position in 1860 took longer to support a policy of emancipation. To give just one of countless examples, Benjamin Butler went from a supporter of Jefferson Davis for President of the United States in 1860 to a fiery champion of freedom less than a year later. Now there’s a capacity for growth that makes Lincoln’s trajectory seem positively remedial. Lincoln’s underlying beliefs remained consistent even as he responded to revolutionary events beyond his control. And his views on race are virtually unknowable, hedged and hidden to the end of his life in masterly evasions. In truth, the hallmark of Lincoln’s greatness as president was his extraordinary discretion. He dissolved himself like an impersonal force in the task of holding a fractious coalition together, revealing nothing of his mind except what he wanted people to see. But artful discretion is not a quality we are inclined to admire in our leaders. Today, emotive sincerity has become the cardinal virtue in domestic politics, because we take for granted national institutions capable of withstanding the contest of conflicting opinions.

Historians inevitably reinterpret the past in light of the present. And the reinterpretation of the 1850s in the light the Civil Rights era has generated a wealth of fresh insights that earlier historians missed. But in retrospect, one of the most important facts of the second half of 20th century was the robust institutional strength of the nation-state itself in presiding over a period of immense social upheaval. So it is hardly surprising that historians emphasized ideology over institutions, political justice over political stability. But political polarization and institutional decay are a frightful combination. And historians today have no excuse for ignoring both sides of this ominous combination in the 1850s.

Collapse of the Establishment

A hopeful sign that academic fashions may be shifting is the book with which we began this essay, the lively and original Field of Blood. As Joanne Freeman notes, fear was the driving emotion of the sectional conflict. But political fears are most explosive when combined with elite complacency Unlike most eras of acute political crisis—the 1790s, 1890s, and 1930s, for example—Americans in the 1850s could not even agree on whether they were in a crisis. For an ascendant class of capitalists, the period was one of euphoric possibilities that no amount of political blundering could prevent. And it is sobering to note that outside the South, this economic optimism was not misplaced, as the catastrophic failure of the Republic may have even accelerated its economic growth. The generation that produced the highest proportion of military corpses also produced the highest proportion of truly immense fortunes. John Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, and J.P. Morgan to name only the most famous three, were all in their twenties during the Civil War.

Even in Washington there were two emotional climates, Virginia Clay-Clopton, the wife of an Alabama senator, recalled: one of intensifying partisan rancor and “one of general prosperity and competitive expenditure…. While a life and death struggle raged between political parties…a very reckless gaiety was everywhere apparent in social circles.” Many warring politicians thought they were playing a clever game to fool voters, blithely unaware that others were in deadly earnest. Leaders on both sides who had talked incessantly of disunion for a decade were genuinely shocked when the crisis finally came.

The economic interests aligning Northern manufacturers and merchants and Southern planters remained as firm as ever. As an asset class, slaves represented an immense amount of wealth in 1860, more than the total value invested in railroads, manufacturing, and banking combined. And the market value of slaves more than doubled during the 1850s. The slaveholders who profited from the increase had never felt richer; their wealth swelled as though they were holding a growth stock. And yet the very same decade that sent the market value of slavery soaring also sent slaveholders into a mad panic over an imminent political threat to their existence as a class. Slaveholders had never felt more powerful economically or more vulnerable politically, and there was a strange, almost schizophrenic disconnect between these two mindsets throughout the 1850s.        

The basis for the fears driving some Southerners into a frenzy of political violence was as obvious as the source of their prosperity. The section that had dominated the Republic from the beginning had become acutely conscious of itself as an increasingly embattled minority. And at the very moment white Southerners confronted their loss of status, they found themselves more bitterly assailed than ever before by a newly ascendant antislavery party in the North. “We are on the defensive,” Jefferson Davis declared in 1858. “How far will you push us?” By 1861, as David Potter observed, “the people of the slaveholding states were not united in any commitment to southern nationalism, nor to a southern republic, nor even to political separatism. But they were united by a sense of terrible danger.”

The Republicans were driven by a reciprocal fear of slave power dominion, even as the relative power of slaveholders within the government objectively diminished. The antebellum Republican Party presented itself as the party of Northern progress against Southern barbarism, but the party had the least appeal in the core centers of the North’s emerging industrial economy. The backbone of the Republican Party was in rural areas. They were farmers, small town tradesmen and lawyers—the very people who most keenly felt the decline of their public influence and their way of life. The free labor ideal the Republicans celebrated was economic independence—a society in which, as Lincoln put, “the vast majority are neither hirers nor hired.” But the society of independent farmers and craftsmen was rapidly disappearing in the 1850s. The very economic and demographic trends guaranteeing the North its ascendency also undermined the free labor ideal that Republican leaders celebrated. It was no coincidence that as industrialization transformed Northern society, Republican leaders combined a celebration of an already anachronistic social order with a shrill warning about an oligarchic threat to its existence. As the political power wielded by slaveholders objectively diminished, the subjective threat they represented grew among those distressed by the amorphous, unnamed tendencies transforming their society. More than a symbol, the Slave Power provided a convenient target as the one class of capitalist oligarchs whose wealth rested on a readily identifiable crime.

And yet as late as 1860, most Northerners opposed the Republicans and most white Southerners opposed secession. Abstract opinions on slavery do not explain these internal divisions, for virtually all Northerners disapproved of slavery in the abstract and virtually all Southerners were militantly committed to slavery as a guarantee of white supremacy. Fear was the salient quality that explains internal political divisions in both sections.

Lincoln and other Republicans sincerely feared the nationalization of slavery while most other Northerners, looking at obvious demographic trends, considered that threat fantastic. The growth of a permanent wage labor class in the North also inspired a few bold Southern intellectuals with a perverse confidence in the future. As Northern cities began to produce impoverished slums and massive wealth inequalities, proslavery writers began to insist that their system was a necessary precondition of republican freedom. The swift demise of the yeoman republican ideal was the raw nerve James Henry Hammond hit upon in the most infamous proslavery polemic of the antebellum period—his speech declaring that all societies must rest on a “mudsill” of degraded labor. “Why, you meet more beggars in one day, in any single street of the city of New York, than you would meet in a lifetime in the whole South,” he declared. Hammond saw no reason to secede from the Union for he saw no threat in Northern antislavery sentiment. That sentiment was, in his view, demonstrably on the wrong side of history. Slavery was bound to prevail eventually, even in the North. Tellingly, though many Northerners dismissed proslavery authors as cranks, Lincoln read them with horror.

“Transient and temporary causes have thus far been your preservation,” Hammond observed of the free labor ideal.

The great West has been open to your surplus population, and your hordes of semi-barbarian immigrants, who are crowding in year by year. They make a great movement, and you call it progress. Whither?

All political thought and action ultimately boils down to that one question: Whither? The life of a nation, as of individuals, is a process of persistence through constant change. And politics is the conscious effort to arrest or accelerate the tendencies of the times—to preserve or augment the good and to remove or diminish the bad. “If we could first know where we are, and whither we are tending,” Lincoln began his House Divided speech, tacitly acknowledging the question Hammond had posed a few months earlier, “we could then better judge what to do, and how to do it.” Lincoln darkly feared what Hammond confidently expected, that Americans were in imminent danger of surrendering the principle that made them free.

The rise of industrial capitalism did not require the end of slavery in the South or the end of democratic equality in the North. But it clearly did mean the abrupt end of the Jeffersonian consensus that had held the early Republic together. In the late 1850s, Republicans and slaveholders were both reacting to the same exuberant growth that had overwhelmed their Constitutional system and undermined the ideal of freedom they had once held in common. So they raged at one another in Congress, each side too afraid to concede an inch to the fears of the other, and marched grimly into the catastrophe their predecessors had avoided.

Beyond all the ideological and cultural divisions of the 1850s was the frightful confusion of a nation undergoing a drastic and uncertain transformation. And the elemental question that ruptured the American Republic then has once again begun to impinge sharply upon the political fabric of our nation. Inherited cultural and aspirational bonds have dissolved, new ones are struggling to take their place, and the old question recurs with terrible intensity: Whither?