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“Between 1830 and 1860, there were more than seventy violent incidents between congressmen in the House and Senate chambers or on nearby streets and dueling grounds.”

Here’s the wild thing about that statistic, which comes from Yale historian Joanne Freeman’s remarkable book The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to Civil War: It’s an undercount. There was much more violence between members of Congress even than that.

Congress used to be thick with duels, brawls, threats, and violent intimidation. That history is often forgotten today, and that forgetting has come at a cost: It lets us pretend that this moment, with all its tumult and terror, is somehow divorced from our traditions, an aberration from our past, when it’s in fact rooted in them.

That’s why I wanted to talk to Freeman right now: to remind us that American politics has long been shaped by people who used the threat or practice of national violence as a way to force the political system to accept ongoing injustice. This conversation isn’t as easy as just saying political violence is bad. It’s also about recognizing that political violence has a purpose, and weighing the conditions under which it’s right and even necessary to provoke it.

Book recommendations:

Witness to the Young Republic: A Yankee’s Journal, 1828-1870 by Benjamin Brown French

First Blows of the Civil Warby James S. Pike

The Impending Crisisby David M. Potter

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