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Saturday, September 8, 2018

Blood on Capitol Hill

Yale historian Joanne Freeman writes at NYT that the slavery conflict of the 1850s led to physical violence on Capitol Hill.

Some of the furor wasn’t slavery related; antebellum America was inherently violent, as was its politics, and Congress is a representative institution. The mighty oratory of the 1830s and ’40s was accompanied by an undercurrent of brute force. Threats and fistfights were part of the political game, and congressmen sometimes put such violence to legislative purpose.

More often than not, such bullies were Southerners or Southern-born Westerners. So-called fighting men promoted their interests and silenced their foes with insults, fists, canes, knives, pistols and the occasional brick, giving them a literal fighting advantage over “noncombatants,” who were usually Northerners. [Senator Charles] Sumner’s brutal caning was far from the only violent incident in Congress.

The lessons of this breakdown are severe. It shows what can happen when polarized politics erodes the process of debate and compromise at the heart of republican government. Americans lose faith in their system of government and ultimately lose faith in one another. Splintering political parties can’t contain the damage. Violence begins to seem logical, even necessary. And the press can fuel this distrust with conspiracy theories and extremist spin; the antebellum press wasn’t in the business of objectivity — and it mattered.

The destructive power of the press becomes even more marked when spread with new technologies. In the 1850s, the telegraph confronted Americans with a steady stream of virtually instant information: contradictory, confusing, overlapping and inaccurate, it scrambled and intensified the political climate. Today, social media is doing the same. At its heart, democracy is a continuing conversation between politicians and the public; it should come as no surprise that dramatic changes in the modes of conversation cause dramatic changes in democracies themselves.

At the center of this conversation is the United States Congress, the only institution in which representatives from throughout the nation come together to hash out national policy. In the 1850s, a crisis over fundamental American values and institutions — the slavery crisis — eroded the process of debate and compromise that gives Congress its purpose and power. In 2018, a crisis over different fundamentals — immigration, the rule of law, the status and safety of women and people of color — is doing much the same. If Congress’s checkered past teaches us anything on this score, it teaches this: A dysfunctional Congress can close off a vital arena for national dialogue, leaving us vulnerable in ways that we haven’t yet begun to fathom.