As clerk for the House of Representatives, Benjamin Brown French had a front-row seat to all that went on behind the scenes in Congress. Through his experience, Joanne shows the growing polarization in the decades leading up to the Civil War and charts French’s transformation from “doughface” democrat to gun-toting Republican. Music: Over and Out by Ketsa
Joanne: There are many ways to explore the polarized politics of a nation. You can stand back and look for broad patterns like electoral results, or policy debates. You can study the extreme rhetoric and accusations in the press, in newspapers, or on t.v., or you can get up close and personal with people in the midst of the fray and try to understand how they experience the divisions that tore at their world. My recently published book, The Field of Blood: Violence and Congress and the Road to Civil War, takes the latter approach exploring how Congressmen and their constituents, North, South and West, gradually grew to distrust each other to the point of violence in the decades before the Civil War. Joanne: One rather obscure historical character left behind a remarkable record of this growing polarization. The correspondence and diary of Benjamin Brown French, a clerk for the House of Representatives, offer a remarkable personal account of a nation being torn in two. A small town boy from New Hampshire, the 33 year old French arrived in Washington in 1833 to begin his career as a clerk, and at first he was awestruck by the grand architecture and sweeping symbolism of the Capitol building where he spent his workdays keeping records of Congressional proceedings. Joanne: He arrived in these grand surroundings as an extremely loyal Democrat. Someone who, at the time, would’ve been called a “doughface” Democrat, willing to appease the South on slavery to promote his party, and preserve the Union. Although he disapproved of slavery, he didn’t want it discussed. Better to leave the South to its own devices. If his views seem confusing, it’s because they were. Even French himself had trouble making sense of them. Male reader: “I am so much a free soiler as to be opposed to the addition of any more slave territory to this union, but utterly opposed to the agitation of the question of slavery if it can be avoided, and although abhorring, slavery in the abstract, defending it to the utmost of my power so far as it is tolerated, or justified, by the Constitution.” Joanne: For a time French toed this party line defending and abhorring slavery, and agonizing when Congress dissolved into outrage over the issue. For that reason, the dramatic rise in anti-slavery petitions in the 1830s profoundly alarmed him. Through the efforts of abolitionists, male and female, white and black, and the American Anti-Slavery Society, Congress was bombarded by hundreds of thousands of petitions, many of them undoubtedly processed by French. Joanne: Representatives of slave states responded by demanding gag rules intended to keep anti-slavery petitions off the floor and out of discussion. Many a Northerner supported this strategy. French did. To him, abolitionists were fanatics who threatened the Union’s survival. The final gag rule was overturned in 1844, but America’s war with Mexico in 1848 inflamed the nation once again. Joanne: The large swath of Western territory that the United States gained in the conflict meant that a series of new states would be requesting entry into the Union, and each request compelled Congress to confront the issue of slavery head on. Would the new state be a slave state, or a free state? This debate wasn’t a matter of calm policy disagreements, it was heated, and sometimes violent, with Southern congressmen using bullying, threats and violence against their Northern colleagues, to protect the institution of slavery, and promote the South’s hold on the Union. For French, this debate increasingly became alarmingly personal. Joanne: When he tried to gain the clerkship of the House in 1849, with his own party, Democrats, in power, Southerners in that party, his own party, gave the position to a Southern Whig, rather than trusting it to a Northerner. After years of loyal service to the Democratic party, and years of appeasing and pleasing Southerners, the betrayal stunned French. The South had served itself, and no one else. Southerners couldn’t be trusted. The shock of the moment spilled over into a letter to his brother. Male reader: “One thing I have learned, and I intend to make a note of it, if a Northern man will not bow, and knuckle, and prostrate himself in the dust before their high mightiness of the South, he must hope for nothing. I will see the South all damned to ever lasting perdition before I will ever crook my thumb and forefinger, or open my lips in their defense.” Joanne: Yet even now, however, even after losing all faith in the South, French remained a Democrat, though a wary one. It took one more major piece of legislation over slavery to finally push him over the edge. The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 created the territories of, you guessed it, Kansas and Nebraska. But the act also did something else that caused a frenzy. It let voters in the territories decide for themselves their states slave status when they applied for statehood. Eager, even desperate to sway the outcome their way, anti-slavery and pro-slavery settlers poured into the territories. It wasn’t long before Kansas became a hotbed of violence and corruption. Joanne: The Kansas-Nebraska debate stunned French for many reasons. The violence in Kansas was bad enough, but events in Washington were equally alarming. President Franklin Pierce, a longtime friend of French’s, seemed to be siding with Southerners on the question of slavery, and Southern bullies were even more aggressively trying to silence Northerners in Congress. For French, there could be only one conclusion. The Kansas-Nebraska Act confirmed a vast conspiracy, the Southern slave power seemed willing to use any means necessary to ensure the spread of slavery. Male reader: “It is now perfectly evident that the Kansas-Nebraska act was for the purpose of establishing more slave territory in this Union, which I am decidedly opposed to. As regards Kansas, there is a determination amongst the slavocracy that the people of that territory shall not make it free if they are ever so much disposed to do so.” Joanne: Not only was the slave power asserting its dominance over the rest of the Union, but his own party, the Democratic party was facilitating this plot. Unwillingly to put the North enthralled to the South, and distrustful of the South’s and his party’s intentions, French did something that he never thought possible. He cut all ties with the Democratic party. As he put it in a letter to his former friend, Franklin Pierce. Male reader: “I am now a free man. Untrammeled by party or personal obligations. Ready to do what may seem best for my country.” Joanne: French wasn’t alone in his feelings. Many northerners cut ties with the Democratic party. These powerful emotions fed into the rise of the Republican party. A party that declared itself dedicated to fighting slavery and the slave power. French put his powerful feelings on paper in a poem. If the South continued to push its slavery promoting agenda, then disunion might be necessary. Male reader: “Then let the Union slide, if o’er that freedom glorious for which our fathers died, slavery must be victorious, then let the Union slide. For ’tis not worth the keeping, if o’er our fathers graves. Man, shackled man, is weeping. That half his race are slaves. Let it slide, then, this great Union. Pronounce the compact dead, with the South no more communion if slavery still must spread. There’s land thank God, for freedom North of Potomac’s tide. Let the South keep slaves and breed ’em, but let the Union slide.” Joanne: The rise of the Republican party brought to Congress a new type of Northerner. Increasingly, Northerners elected congressmen who were ready and willing to stand up to the bullies of the South. These Northerners wanted their representatives to fight for their rights. Sometimes, to literally fight. And as Republicans got tougher, the South got angrier. After 1855 violence and Congress surged to new heights. Southern congressmen responded to the attacks on their standing and way of life with a vengeance, insulting and assaulting Republican congressmen with gusto, hoping to frighten or intimidate them into compliance or silence. Emotions reached a peak in 1856 in response to the notorious caning of abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts. Incensed over Sumner’s aggressive anti-slavery speech on the floor, later titled The Crime Against Kansas, South Carolina representative Preston Brooks confronted Sumner at his senate seat and brutally caned him. Joanne: Northerners responded with outrage and shock. A good many Southerners praised Brooks for defending the honor and standing of the South. The caning stoked the flames of polarization even higher, and the attack on Sumner didn’t occur in a vacuum. There were a number of violent encounters in Washington at that time that all boiled down to Congress’s inability to deal with the problem of slavery. Increasingly, congressmen themselves grew to distrust each other. There was simply no telling what the other side would do to promote its cause and defeat its foes. Joanne: By the late 1850s the vast majority of congressmen were armed, not because they wanted to gun down their opponents, but because there was simply no telling what their opponents would do. Fear, distrust, anger, betrayal, inside and outside of Congress, emotions rose to new peaks. French shared these feelings to the point that in 1860 he decided to buy a gun. Not because he wanted to shoot down Southerners, but because he was afraid that he might have to. To French, Southerners simply couldn’t be trusted. Male reader: June 10th, 1860. “I went down in the city and bought one of those little pistols that I can carry in my watch pocket, for if we are to be bullied for our principles, I think we ought to be prepared to defend ourselves. I also bought two pairs of underwear, a dollar a pair. I have one pair of them on now. They are very comfortable.” Joanne: French had come a long way in his decades in Washington, eager and willing to do all that he could to appease the South, and working to do just that for many years. Well liked by Southerners as well as by people on the other side of the political aisle, he was now prepared to shoot Southerners if he had to. And he wasn’t alone. Many a Northerner came to that same stopping point. Had you asked French, back in 1833 when he arrived in Washington, if he might ever want to shoot a Southerner over the issue of slavery, he would’ve been horrified, yet by 1860 he was prepared to kill fellow Americans if he had to. Policies, politics, political parties and their personal implications drove people of all kinds to extremes, inside and outside of Congress.
Divided America Lesson Set
According to a 2016 study by the Pew Research Center the idea that America is more polarized than it has been in recent years is supported by the data that Democrats and Republicans view each other with anger and see each other more negatively than they have in the past. Polarization and division, however, has been a theme of American history since its conception. As the episode discusses, Loyalists and Patriots represented this division over the colonies’ relationship with Great Britain. The election of Andrew Jackson pitted the “common man” of the south and west against the urban, cosmopolitan elite of the Northeast. In the years leading up to the Civil War, the caning of Senator Charles Sumner provides an example of unprecedented partisan violence and vitriol.
This lesson set considers aspects of the divisions in the 1920s and helps students grapple with the following questions: Should America pursue a policy of prohibition? Is America a Christian nation? What is the role of women in modern America? What is the role of America in the world? What role do African Americans have in shaping American culture?