About the National Archives

Welcome Remarks for "The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to Civil War"

McGowan Theater, National Archives Building, Washington, DC
October 5, 2018

Good afternoon. I’m David Ferriero, Archivist of the United States, and I’m pleased to welcome you to the William G. McGowan Theater at the National Archives to hear from Joanne Freeman about her latest book, The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to Civil War. Whether you’re here in the theater or joining us through YouTube, I’m glad you could join us.

Before we hear from our speaker, I’d like to let you know about two programs coming up here in the next couple of weeks.

On Thursday, October 11, at 7 p.m., we’ll celebrate NASA’s 60th birthday with a new documentary from Discovery: Above and Beyond: NASA’s Journey to Tomorrow. The film covers the agency’s many accomplishments in space and sheds light on the vital role NASA has played in measuring the health of our planet.

Then on Tuesday, October 16, at noon, Harlow Giles Unger will tell us about his new biography, Dr. Benjamin Rush: The Founding Father Who Healed a Wounded Nation. Rush, a leading physician in early America and a signer of the Declaration of Independence, was also among the first to call for the abolition of slavery, equal rights for women, and improved living conditions for the poor.

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Many journalists and authors are writing about the decline of civility and collegiality in today’s political life. In the decades before the Civil War, however, “fighting words” were often accompanied by actual fights. Joanne Freeman’s new book takes us into the houses of Congress, where threats and intimidation accompanied fist-fights, canings, and drawn knives and pistols.

To help tell her story, she introduces us to an eyewitness—Benjamin Brown French—a clerk in the House of Representatives whose journals were published with substantial support from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, the grant-making arm of the National Archives.

The Field of Blood has so far received laudatory reviews.

David Reynolds in the New York Times calls it an “absorbing, scrupulously researched book” that “[l]ike other good historical works . . . casts fresh light on the period it examines while leading us to think about our own time. . . . [Freeman] enriches what we already know and tells us a lot about what we don’t know.”

Writing for the Christian Science Monitor, Randy Dotinga said “Freeman's wry touch and appreciation for the absurdities of politics—and politicians—give the book a burst of energy and readability.”

And in his review for the Weekly Standard, James M. Banner, Jr., wrote “Freeman’s research is prodigious, her scholarship unimpeachable. By shifting her gaze from the conventionally cited causes of the Civil War, she has deepened our understanding of its coming.”

Now it’s time to hear the fascinating stories of this contentious, yet little-known, era of congressional history.

Today’s guest Joanne B. Freeman, is one of the nation’s leading experts on “dirty nasty politics.” She is a professor of history and American studies at Yale University and has commented on history and politics—past and present—on CNN, MSNBC, NPR, and PBS, as well as in the New York Times and the Washington Post.

Her award-winning history Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic was declared one of the year's "Best Books" by The Atlantic magazine. A co-host of the popular history podcast BackStory, Freeman appears frequently in documentaries on PBS and the History Channel. Her online course, “The American Revolution,” has been viewed by hundreds of thousands of people in homes and classrooms around the world.

Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Joanne Freeman.