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Congress Has Forgotten How to Fight

Congress Has Forgotten How to Fight

(Editor's Note: This piece first appeared in Law and Liberty on January 9, 2019.)

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

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

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

Cycles of Violence?

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

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

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

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

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

The Spirit of Politics

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

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

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

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

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

Blood Flows When Politics Ends

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

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

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

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

Conflict Contained

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

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

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

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

Partisan competition is not the cause of Congress’s dysfunction

Partisan competition is not the cause of Congress’s dysfunction

Real Purpose of the Senate: To Check the Actions of the House

Real Purpose of the Senate: To Check the Actions of the House