In these days of legislative gridlock, there is a tendency to look back at the good old days when lawmakers all got along because they shared a whiskey at the end of the workday and socialized on D.C. weekends rather than returning home.
Such social interactions, we are so often told, lubricate the legislative process and round off the rough edges of partisanship.
There is much truth in this, however heavy hangs the air of dreamy nostalgia over this wonderland of bipartisanship.
But there is also a deeper, less noticed — or at least less reported — aspect to the myth of congressional bonhomie, and Georgia College & State University history professor Rachel A. Shelden vividly reveals it in “Washington Brotherhood: Politics, Social Life, and the Coming of the Civil War.”
Simply put, all that bonhomie didn’t keep the country from falling apart. Shelden makes a compelling case that it left Washington ill-prepared for the demise of the union.
The period she covers runs from the late 1840s through the beginning of the Civil War. Then, as now, Capitol Hill was a community unto itself. Unlike today, however, lawmakers were pretty much trapped in Washington for the duration of the session. No jets whisked them home for long weekends.
So the capital became their home, “a tight-knit Washington community that included a vibrant social and cultural life in the mid-nineteenth century,” in Shelden’s description.
Living in close quarters with the opposition presented some challenges, but for the most part, these men (and their wives) saw themselves as the same polity — “a Northerner may have opposed slavery,” Shelden writes, “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.”
To flourish in this kind of environment, it was necessary to separate the personal from the political.
Tirades from the floor are a prime example.
Shelden does an admirable job in illustrating how what is said on the floor of the House or Senate might not always be the best guide for historians (or reporters) to figure out what is really going on. Much of the most extreme rhetoric, termed “buncombe,” was intended for consumption back home. The in-crowd knew to ignore it.
But Shelden goes a bit too far in dismissing the efficacy of official debate, and her subjects might have made the same mistake.
When Georgia Whig Robert Toombs took to the floor in December 1849 to savage the Wilmot Proviso — a proposal to ban slavery in territory acquired in the Mexican War — some congressional insiders dismissed it as a stunt, intended only to mollify the constituents back home. Toombs was known as a compromise man, not a fire eater.
But if any issue in 19th-century politics can serve as a warning about the implications of ignoring message-sending, it should be the Wilmot Proviso. The proviso itself was considered by many to be a stunt. That stunt evolved into the single greatest emblem of sectional divide in the decade leading up to the Civil War.