I often point to 19th Century writing and speaking as proof that we are living through a low point in American politics, rhetorically. It’s true that ever since the rise of television our public discussions have grown shorter, shallower, and coarser.
But while the 19th Century may have been a high point for rhetorical beauty, our own age might outrank it for civility, as recent book, The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to Civil War, points out. Shootings, beatings, duels, and fist fights on the floor of Congress or near it were not isolated occurrences in the decades leading up to the Civil War. Members of polite society even thrilled to observe violence on the floor of the house and senate from the observation galleries, the same way they sometimes took a blanket and a picnic basket to observe the battles of the Civil War.
While we endure the threat of daily violence in most of our public spaces, we can at least be grateful that it hasn’t yet spread to spaces where our laws are debated.