The caning of Charles Sumner.

The caning of Charles Sumner.

Violence and compromise tend to follow each other through United States history, starting with the violence of the Revolution and the compromise of democracy formed in its wake.

The cycle of violence and compromise reached a near-unsustainable speed in the decades before the Civil War.

In those years, members of Congress dueled and fought on the floor of the Senate. And the coverage of these incidents amplified the divisions. As Joanne B. Freeman writes in her new book The Field of Blood:

By portraying Congress as an institution of extremes — extreme rhetoric, extreme policie, extreme belligerence; a den of braggarts and brawlers; a place of sectional conflict waged by sectional champions—the press downplayed the appeal and even the possibility of compromise. Caught in the cross-fire with urgent decisions at hand, congressmen sided with their section more consistently and defiantly than ever before.

But they also reached compromises. Senators Henry Clay, Daniel Webster and John C. Calhoun, particularly, made deals that kept the nation together … until it was torn apart in bloody conflict over the nation’s founding act of violence: slavery.

Now, again, we’re in a time of harsh political rhetoric and occasional acts of political violence. Will compromise follow?

We’ll talk to historians about violence and compromise to see whether the nation could ever have one without the other.

Produced by Bianca Martin. Text by Gabe Bullard.

Guests

  • H.W. Brands Professor of history, University of Texas at Austin; author, “Heirs of the Founders: The Epic Rivalry of Henry Clay, John, Calhoun, and Daniel Webster;” @hwbrands
  • Joanne Freeman History Professor, Yale; author, "The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to Civil War;" @jbf1755

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