On Contingency

On Contingency

Or, The Uses of History.

A reading life is a mixture of planning and contingency. The former feeds, with steady purpose, the to-be-read piles we build faithfully around the house, marshaling hope against experience; the latter stumbles upon finds in unexpected settings, distracting us into new interests or magnetizing random thoughts into new patterns of meaning. You never know.
One of my favorite serendipitous discoveries in the recent past is Joanne B. Freeman’s The Field of Blood, a study—as its subtitle explains—of “violence in Congress and the road to Civil War.” I picked it up nearly two years ago after I met the author when we shared a taxi to the airport in Nashville, Tennessee, where we’d each appeared at the Southern Festival of Books to promote our newly published volumes. Shepherded with our suitcases into the same cab by a festival volunteer, we met in the backseat and chatted amiably on the ride. Freeman—a professor, as I learned, of history and American studies at Yale—exuded a happy alertness, a quality not always found in touring authors, or, for that matter, Ivy League faculty. I enjoyed our twenty-minute conversation and made a mental note to look for her book. 
As it turns out, The Field of Blooddespite its subject matter and its academic rigor (battalions of footnotes!), is as animated and inviting as Professor Freeman was in conversation. The story it tells is startling. Replete with characters both larger than life and smaller than a petty grudge, Freeman’s chronicle details the frequent violence—vituperative oratory, overturned furniture, canings (the caning of Senator Charles Sumner on the Senate floor in 1856 is illustrated above), fistfights—that erupted in committee rooms and in legislative sessions on the floors of the House of Representatives and the Senate between 1830 and 1860. We may bemoan the lack of comity in our political life right now, but contemporary disarray seems a pale descendant of the culture of intimidation and bullying that shaped congressional activity in the period Freeman covers. Insult, bravado, posturing, humiliation, death threats, and “honor taunting” were part of common parlance; duels were ever in the offing, and guns and Bowie knives were carried and pulled. 
Here’s Freeman’s account of an 1840 session in which a House committee was investigating President Andrew Jackson’s “pet banks” (state depositories for public funds, Freeman explains, that replaced that bugaboo of Jacksonian Democrats, the Bank of the United States):
In the days before testifying to the investigative committee, an agent for several of those banks, Reuben M. Whitney, had called [Balie Peyton, Whig congressman from Tennessee] a liar in the press. So when Whitney sneered at Peyton during his testimony, all hell broke loose. Peyton jumped to his feet and threatened lo kill Whitney; [representative Henry Wise, a Virginia Whig], who had been regaling committee members with amusing anecdotes on a couch across the room, caught the drift, rushed over, and joined in. At this point, Whitney jumped to his feet, Peyton reached for his gun, and Wise positioned himself within firing range of Whitney, his hand on his gun, his gaze fixed on Whitney’s hand in his pocket. 

Such dramatic incidents, Freeman illustrates on page after page, were not as uncommon as our generally murky historical understanding of the American nineteenth century might suppose (to say nothing of what we might see through the lenses of the “patriotic history” that the White House has recently been grinding to fit its own myopia). She writes with verve, even humor, without ever diminishing the historical import of her labor in the archives. For narrative coherence, Freeman organizes the rich findings of her research into a broad array of sources through the experience of Benjamin Brown French, a minor New Hampshire politico and newspaper editor from New Hampshire, who migrated to Washington in 1833 to take up clerkship in the House of Representatives. Over the next few decades, Freeman tells us, “first as a House clerk and then as the House Clerk, he spent his time serving congressmen, not all of them hail fellows well met.” In other words, he was a close and reliable witness to the tempers of the legislators as well as the increasingly fraught temper of the time. He also kept a diary and a regular correspondence, and Freeman quotes from both judiciously:

It was one of the things that he liked about his job; when fists flew, he had a ringside seat. He reveled in what he called the “great fight” of 1841, which began when Edward Stanly (W-NC) and Henry Wise (W-VA) exchanged insults. When Wise slugged Stanly, “nearly all the members” rushed over and began pummeling one another in a wild melee. “[T]he Speaker & I had the best chance to see all the fun,” French wrote to his half brother, “& while he stood at his desk pounding & yelling, I stood at mine ‘calm as a summer’s morning’—enjoying the sport, and keeping the minutes of the proceedings!”

That Henry Wise must have been quite a card. But he had plenty of company, as French knew. French saw the peril of the culture of violence Congress not only tolerated, but fostered, and of which the “great fight” was representative:

To French, this wasn’t just a momentary outbreak of congressional chaos. It was the state of the nation. It made the national government seem surprisingly fragile, and in so doing, it put the Union’s survival in doubt. Indeed, maybe this was the beginning of the end. Sitting at home at the end of the day, exhausted and losing hope, he confessed to his sister that he felt like “a mourner, following my Country to its grave.’’ Years from now, he imagined, when the Constitution was “a thing that was, the pen of the historian’’ would date “the commencement of its overthrow’’ to this congressional breakdown and all that it revealed. This was “an era in the history of our Country,” French thought, a period of enormous and eventful change. He was right in ways that he couldn’t even begin to fathom. 

Published in 2018, The Field of Blood was surely the product of years and years of research. I suspect that sentences that ring out like warning bells right now—”National institutions of all kind were under fire at precisely the moment when their influence most mattered”—have a relevance Freeman might not have foreseen as she wrote them. But citizens as well as presidents do well not to underestimate the backward-looking prescience of historians; what the author of The Field of Blood pins to the pages of the past echoes through our present anxiety with resounding force: the American experiment was ever a volatile, combustible one.

 . . . while it lived, the past
Was a rushed present, fretful and unsure.
                          —Richard Wilbur

In her introduction to The Field of BloodFreeman explains the utility of Benjamin Brown French’s diary in her composition of the pages to follow:
A time of unsettled, unbalanced, and unpredictable politics, the 1830s, 1840s, and 1850s were uneasy decades of national unknowing. To fully grasp the meaning of that moment, we need to understand the process of discovery of those that lived through it. We need to view events “in forward motion, as they were lived,” with their contingency intact.
That’s what thoughtful history delivers: a perspective in which the unsettled nature of the past as it unfolded is given its due, allowing us to understand the responses of historical actors to events as the improvisations they had to be. What we learn from history—from the governmental ingenuity of the Founders, say, or from the nobility of Lincoln, or from the bravery of Rosa Parks—is that what we come to think of as abiding principles were forged in pragmatism; we mistake their character and meaning if we think otherwise. The enduring traits of a nation or people are apt to be those—parochialism, racism, a confusion of the responsibility of freedom with the emotion of individual impulse—that the better angels of a historical moment or movement overcame. 
To read Freeman’s account of the toxic bluster that occupied our congressional leaders in the first half of the nineteenth century, of the “vicious cycle of sectional outrage” that threatened and ultimately destroyed the Union, is to see in deep focus the pull and power of violence in our national character, a pull and power that retain their force today. While we genuflect to high ideals, what’s most entrenched in our historical inheritance always seems to be standing up and shouting over our idealistic heads. It’s why the same themes seem to turn up whatever page of the historical record we turn.
“Truth happens to an idea,” wrote William James; a corollary is that it can stop happening. The idea of America is no exception in this regard, which is what is keeping many of us up at night. The legacy of the Founders is not to be discovered in the fixed meaning of texts composed in the crucible of their time, but in the wider context in which they set their unsettled arguments, in the contentious system of checks and balances they created to give their fledging republic a grip on the slippery circumstances it would need to govern. They enshrined contingency in institutions strong and flexible enough to absorb it, and outlast it. 
Several weeks ago, I had a conversation with my elder daughter about the uses of history. Digesting the day’s news, we were bemoaning the fact that, on the face of it, history never seems to teach us much; however strong the current of progress, it sooner or later resolves into a whirlpool of injustice, oppression, disorder. But, like strict constructionists looking for certainty in a dynamic field of meaning, we were being shortsighted in our despair, and missing the import, as Joanne Freeman wrote not long ago in The Atlanticof
an idea that historians hold near and dear: contingency—the importance of remembering that people in the past were living in their present, unaware of future outcomes. As I’ve taught time and again in college classrooms, the founding generation didn’t know if it would win the Revolution or if the new nation would survive. . . . People were living in the moment, much like us today.
In this light, history is a medium not for finding verities but for learning how others were resourceful and resilient, or confused and craven, in the face of the contingency that was their lot. So, too, is education, broadly speaking, a tool for calibrating contingency, for mapping a way in the world. If we ignore contingency, we ignore liberty, too, for what meaning can liberty have without it?
“As a historian,” Freeman writes further in that Atlantic piece, 
I know that things don’t always return to “normal” and that recovery is painfully slow and piecemeal. I know that “good” doesn’t always prevail and that past accomplishments can be undone, past injustices reborn. I know that dangers often rise unnoticed and trigger transformative change in a rush. I know the vital importance of the institutional guardrails crumbling around us, and the dangers inherent in unbridled power. And I know—deep in my gut—that I have taken things for granted that I will never take for granted again.
Institutions are what cultures evolve to guide their passage up and down the roller coaster of contingent events that we call history, and history itself is one of those institutions. As we do with all institutions, we tend to take it for granted. But how we read history—as doctrine, handed down as law, or as human drama, fraught with uncertainty, necessity, and ingenuity—determines whether its lessons are useful or stultifying. What history teaches is not fixed knowledge but the dexterity of learning.

“History as the antidote to dogma,” reads a shorthand note in Zadie Smith’s new book, Intimations. The small volume closes with a segmented essay called “Intimations: Debts and Lessons,” in which Smith details by name influences that leave her grateful. While the first twenty-five are assigned to specific individuals (my favorite is “25: Carol”, which concludes with these sentences: “The tales of adult women who still know how to play with children—these should be honored. Collected in a history book, like Vasari’s Lives of the ArtistsInstead their grandchildren remember.”), the twenty-sixth and final segment is labeled “Contingency.” It begins like this: “That I was born when I was born, where I was born—a case of relative historical luck. That I grew up in a moment of social, religious and national transition. That my school still sang the Anglican hymns, at least for a little while, so that the ancient diction of my country came to me while very young, and fruitfully mixed with the sounds of my heritage. . . .” and goes on for two pages to end like this: “That my children know the truth about me but still tolerate me, so far. That my physical and moral cowardice have never really been tested, until now.”

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