July 4, 2020

Great Lives Continues with American Duelists, John Adams & John Quincy Adams

The 17th season of the William B. Crawley Great Lives Lecture Series continues on Thursday, Feb. 20, with American Duelists, presented by author Joanne Freeman. This series is open to the public free of charge and no admission tickets are required. Programs begin at 7:30 p.m. in Dodd Auditorium in George Washington Hall. Each lecture concludes with an audience Q&A session with the speaker and a book-signing. The Hirschler Lecture.

Professor Freeman’s lecture is based on her acclaimed 2018 work, The Field of Blood, which recovers the long-lost story of physical violence on the floor of the U.S. Congress. Drawing on an extraordinary range of sources, she shows that the Capitol was rife with conflict in the decades before the Civil War. Legislative sessions were often punctuated by mortal threats, canings, flipped desks, and all-out slugfests. When debate broke down, congressmen drew pistols and waved Bowie knives. One representative even killed another in a duel. Many were beaten and bullied in an attempt to intimidate them into compliance, particularly on the issue of slavery.

These fights didn’t happen in a vacuum. Freeman’s dramatic accounts of brawls and thrashings tell a larger story of how fisticuffs and journalism, and the powerful emotions they elicited, raised tensions between North and South and led toward war. In the process, she brings the antebellum Congress to life, revealing its rough realities―the feel, sense, and sound of it―as well as its nation-shaping import. Funny, tragic, and rivetingly told, The Field of Blood offers a front-row view of congressional mayhem and sheds new light on the careers of John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay, and other luminaries, as well as introducing a host of lesser-known but no less fascinating men. The result is a fresh understanding of the workings of American democracy and the bonds of Union on the eve of their greatest peril.

The Great Lives series continues on Tuesday, Feb. 25 with John Adams and John Quincy Adams, presented by Nancy Isenberg and Andrew Burstein, authors of the book, The Problem with Democracy: The Presidents Adams Confront the Cult of PersonalityThe Parrish Snead Franklin Simpson, PLC Lecture.

The two presidents Adams have never been examined together, either as mutually supportive father-and-son historical actors, or as experienced men of the world with interconnected philosophies. History conveniently paints them as out-of-touch, each turned out of office by popularly cast southerners, Jefferson and Jackson; their rejection at the polls is explained in terms of their supposed resistance to a rising democratic spirit. The Problem of Democracy, Isenberg and Burstein’s first major collaboration since Madison and Jefferson (2010), elaborates on the Adamses’ constitutional thought in favor of strong institutional checks in government (as a counter to the myth of an all-knowing popular will); their critique of democracy’s tendency to “dress up” select political men as popular celebrities: in their time, Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Andrew Jackson. Their concern about a moneyed oligarchy and their unwillingness to surrender personal political independence to the conforming character of the two-party system make them unique in the nation’s political life. The themes they embraced have clear implications for our times.

The Great Lives series will continue on Thursday, Feb. 27 with Frederick Douglass, featuring author David W. Blight. Visit https://www.umw.edu/greatlives/ for more information.