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Political violence tore America apart in the 1850s. Today, this Yale historian says we’re ‘on the edge’ | Will Bunch

Joanne Freeman's new book on political violence is a little too timely.

Joanne Freeman by Beowulf Sheehan
Joanne Freeman by Beowulf SheehanRead moreBeowulf Sheehan

This is how things are going in America right now: One week before arguably the most important and most fraught midterm election in decades, the book that best captures the zeitgeist is a tome about U.S. congressmen and senators staging rolling fistfights and brawls across the disgusting tobacco-spit-stained carpet of the Capitol, pulling knives or the occasional pistol on each other, or clobbering a colleague with a cane to within an inch of his life.

At this point I should mention that these events — as much as they may sound like potential breaking news alerts on CNN — actually occurred in the 1830s, 1840s and and 1850s. The wanton violence on Capitol Hill did eventually stop — but only after a four-year civil war that claimed the lives of more than 600,000 everyday Americans.

Still, as Yale historian Joanne Freeman tours to promote Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to Civil War, she readily admits no one could have predicted a book based on her academic research into the mid-19th Century would so often be described as "timely" — that Americans in 2018 would be asking some of the same questions our forerunners asked circa 1858: Are we coming apart at the seams? Is the American Experiment on the brink of failure?

Freeman, who came to Villanova on Monday night for a high-powered academic panel on both the history and chaotic current state of American democracy, said today's political crises haven't quite devolved to an 1861-level total breakdown but "we're on the edge of it." The roots of the problem — a lack of trust in our institutions and in each other, and poor communication between two deeply divided sides — are essentially the same now as they were then.

"Where people lose faith in the system to address their needs, where people lose faith in other Americans and begin to "Other" them – you know,  'You're not American and I am'" is how Freeman described the scenario to me after the panel. "Once that kind of breaks down, the national discourse breaks, too,. If you see the other side as the enemy and you see the stakes as this high, it kind of makes sense that those tend to be violent moments."

In researching Congress in the eventful three decades that led directly to the Civil War, Freeman surprised even herself by uncovering 70 separate acts of physical violence between lawmakers during those tense debates inside the Capitol. The incidents range from the famous — the brutal 1856 caning of Massachusetts abolitionist Sen. Charles Sumner by a pro-slavery South Carolina congressman — to the obscure, such as a literal floor fight in the House in 1841, when fisticuffs between two lawmakers turned into a wild melee involving nearly every member.

The recovery of this nearly forgotten, violent past could certainly inspire some clucking — that things can't be that bad today if they were that much out of control back in 1856. But it shouldn't. Times have certainly changed, but while a 21st Century Congress member doesn't (usually) reach for his or her switchblade anymore, the average citizen now has enough access to low-grade conspiracy theories and high-grade weaponry to take matters into his own hands.

We've just finished one of the worst weeks on modern American history — the hunting down of two random black grocery shoppers by an angry white man outside of Louisville, the Florida pro-President-Trump-fanatic who mailed potentially-deadly-but-thankfully-ineffective pipe bombs to Democratic senators, donors and Trump's media bête noire of CNN, and finally the Pittsburgh anti-Semite who entered a synagogue Saturday and murdered 11, in the worst hate crime targeting Jews in America's long history.

It was so much to process that this seemed the perfect moment to take a step back — the opportunity afforded by Monday's panel on "Histories of Democracy" that was sponsored by Villanova University's Lepage Center for History in the Public Interest — and think about how we got into this mess in the first place.

What was striking about the panel discussion was the loud echo of William Faulkner's famed dictum that "the past is never dead…it's not even past." And so Swarthmore College historian Allison Dorsey, whose work has focused on African-Americans in Georgia and South Carolina coping with 19th-Century Jim Crow laws including voting curbs like the poll tax and the literacy test, said she's closely watching the current Georgia governor's race; there, Stacey Abrams, seeking to become the state's first black woman governor, is struggling to overcome modern voter suppression. "Once again," Dorsey said, "African Americans are on the brink of where we were before."

And Villanova's Paul Rosier, a specialist in Native American history, noted that GOP lawmakers in North Dakota passed a law making it harder for tribal members to vote.

The bottom line was this: The fundamental questions that have come up again and again in American history, regarding who is an American citizen and who has the right to vote — were never fully resolved, no matter when your high school history textbook (assuming you even had one) rolled off the printing press. We're still fighting these battles — outside polling places in Georgia and on our newly (and ridiculously) militarized southern border.

For the Baby Boomers of my generation — raised in the shadow of victory in World War II and amid middle-class prosperity, who witnessed the end of segregation in the 1960s — it was too easy to lazily assume that social progress was scientific and organic, not something that ebbed and flowed — or that you had to go out there and take real risks, and fight for it.

It happened, Freeman and the other panelists (including my Inquirer colleague Jonathan Lai, who covers voting rights today) agreed, in the 1790s, when the Founders struggled with the meanings of partisanship and true democracy, and in the 1850s over slavery, and in the 1960s over civil rights and Vietnam. And now we're in the middle of it again. Today's causes can't be defined in one word, but you can see the clear fault lines around race, gender and immigration, and how we're divided yet again over who is a citizen, who gets to vote, and whose votes really count.

Just because America didn't implode in 1800 or 1863 or 1968 is no guarantee that it can't happen today. Freeman — an expert on Alexander Hamilton who advised the Broadway musical — said Hamilton warned that the one thing that could destroy the Founders' vision of democratic republic was the rise of a demagogue who could sway the public with emotion and crush the system of checks and balances. And you don't need a weatherman to know which way that wind is blowing.

Tuesday's midterm election could be the ultimate test — not so much over who wins, as the panelists noted, but whether the losing side is able to accept the results. The warning signs — lack of faith in the integrity of voting machines and voting officials, or in the news media, to name just a few — are not good.

Freeman told me after the panel that the most troubling similarity between the antebellum years and 2018 is that it's a moment "when people who've been abiding by the rules start to believe that they shouldn't abide by the rules anymore — that the stakes are too high." The result of the kind of breakdown that we saw in Congress with the flawed, ramrod confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, where it was a miracle that no one got caned.

But unlike the 1850s, the final chapters of 2010's rough and occasionally violent political history haven't been written yet. "In reality, it's on the ground," Freeman said. "It's on us." Democracy will have to be saved by the couch potatoes who were never taught while growing up that saving democracy was going to be such hard work. And yet we, the people, are the ones who will have to write this history — hopefully with a voting pen, and not on a field of blood.