Washington Brotherhood

This excellent book by Rachel Sheldon discusses how Washington’s social life influenced politics in the antebellum years.

Students who simply read the Congressional Globe to try to determine how policies were made are missing the most important parts. “While in the capital city, politicians from different sections of the country could hardly avoid interacting in a variety of day-to-day activities, inside and outside the halls of Congress and the various executive departments. Some met each other for religious worship. Others gathered together in local philanthropic organizations, clubs, or chapters like the Washington, D.C., Freemasons. Lavish parties, state banquets, and intimate dinners provided other opportunities for cross-sectional interaction. Men from all parts of the country boarded together at local hotels or houses or shared a street in the same neighborhood. At taverns and temperance meetings, concert halls and gambling houses, federal politicians found themselves interacting with men who hailed from states all over the Union. Through these experiences and activities, many lawmakers got to know one another on a personal level. Soon, a Southerner was more than a slaveholder; he was also a colleague. And a Northerner may have opposed slavery, but he was also a drinking buddy or an expert card player. To a large degree, then, these men came to see each other as part of a fraternity of Washington politicians.” [p. 2]

Politicians made speeches in Congress, but often those speeches weren’t directed at their fellow politicians. “Yet federal politicians did not necessarily direct their public words toward each other. Instead, congressmen frequently delivered speeches designed to please their constituents that were otherwise ignored by their colleagues. Such speechmaking was a well-accepted part of the Washington political experience, even if it had a tendency to make congressional sessions long and tedious. Federal lawmakers’ second role in Washington was to participate in actual policy making, engaging in issues of national importance and making one’s mark through bills, amendments, and backroom dealings. By the 1840s and 1850s, this second role had become increasingly separate from speechmaking, as sectional issues involving slavery often dominated the halls of Congress. As a result, in order to fully understand this second role, historians must move beyond lawmakers’ public words in congressional debate, political pamphlets, and newspaper articles and instead dig deeper into what happened behind the scenes in the unofficial setting of the Washington community.” [p. 3]

The social environment played a huge role in putting together political deals and fostering good will among politicians of different parties and sections. “Some ‘opponents’ even became close friends in the social settings of Washington daily life. Hothead Henry S. Foote of Mississippi was known for repeatedly insulting William Seward during debate. One politician’s wife caught one of these violent speeches early in January 1850 while sitting in the gallery. Foote ‘rose for just about an hour and with the most violent gestures and manner, abused and ridiculed Gov. Seward. … I expected every moment he would be called to order, and yet one could not help laughing–some of his hits were so good.’ Even so, Foote and Seward were actually remarkably friendly in private. Typically, no one mentioned these private relationships on the floor, but South Carolina senator John C. Calhoun found Foote’s relationship with Seward to be grotesque. Just before his death in 1850, Calhoun publicly criticized Foote on the floor of the Senate for his friendly association with the New York Whig. Still, Calhoun was an exception. While the South Carolinian refused to associate with any Northerners outside of Congress, most of his Southern colleagues were not so discriminating. Seward was a particular favorite among his brethren from the other section, and the New York Whig maintained close relationships with many of the fiery Southerners who publicly repudiated him.” [p. 34]

To be sure, not all was peaches and cream, as South Carolina Representative Preston Brooke’s cowardly attack of Senator Charles Sumner, beating the Massachusetts man nearly to death with a cane while Sumner was seated and unable to defend himself. However, Washington’s social system made the Washington reaction to the coward’s attack on Sumner different from that in the rest of the country. “Ultimately, as many historians have argued, the caning of Charles Sumner had a critical impact on American sectionalism. But within Washington, were politicians had witnessed the ordeal unfold firsthand, reaction was different. While some extremists from both sides of the Mason-Dixon line threatened further violence, the overwhelming response of Washington politicians was to move on from the event. Moreover, although tensions between some members from the two sections rose in the weeks following the beating, congressional relations quickly returned to normal. According to New York senator William Seward, by the middle of June ‘the anger of both parties in Congress’ had ‘cooled.’ Another Washington resident agreed, writing on June 5, ‘the Sumner affair has flamed out.’ Even Sumner’s Republican colleagues continued to pursue cordial relationships with men from the South, much to the Massachusetts senator’s dismay. As Sumner wrote angrily to a friend, ‘On my visits to Washington’ since the attack, ‘I observe that the [R]epublicans fraternize most amiably with men who sustain every enormity, even with those who were accomplices after if not before the act under which I am suffering.’ ” [pp. 123-124]

Professor Sheldon gives us an outstanding portrait of how Washington’s social scene made possible such deals as the Compromise of 1850. Washington society shaped legislation, determined policy, and made it possible for politicians to get things done in that highly political city. This book is essential reading to help us understand the full story of how politics worked in Washington. I highly recommend it.

You can also listen to a discussion Professor Sheldon had with Liz Covart at the Ben Franklin’s World podcast here.

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2 comments

  1. bob carey · · Reply

    Al,
    I have yet to read the book and I am curious as to whether Ms. Sheldon mentions the Lincoln-Stephens relationship. I often wondered how this friendship would have played out during reconstruction had Lincoln lived.

    1. She does indeed.

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