Monday, January 11, 2021

The Last Time a Mob Tried to Keep Congress from Certifying an Election

In February 1861, as Congress gathered to certify the election of Abraham Lincoln, southern sympathizers in both houses tried to hold up the proceedings every way they could. Rumors swirled that the Virginia militia were on their way to blow up to the Capitol. That didn't happen, but an angry mob did gather. They probably would have stormed the building if not for the decisive actions taken by General Winfield Scott, an old man who had been given his first commission by Thomas Jefferson. Fearing trouble, Scott brought two companies of troops to Washington weeks in advance by announcing that he was going to hold a military parade to welcome the new president.

Scott stationed his troops and two canons at the building and threatened to strap the first rioter who tried to enter to the muzzle of a 12-pounder and "manure the hills of Arlington with the fragments of his body." Nobody tried to force his way in.

When Senator Louis Wigfall of Texas asked Scott if he would dare arrest a senator for treason, Scott replied, "No! I would blow him to hell!"

On the one hand, it worked, the certification proceeded without violence, and Lincoln assumed office. On the other, Scott's mailed fist approach was part of the process by which the nation descended into war.

We have seen recently that when the police deploy with the numbers and equipment they think are necessary to guarantee peace, the show of force can be seen by protesters as an act of violence in itself. So I get why various powers in Washington were reluctant to deploy massive force on January 6. In retrospect, they should have, but let's not pretend that would have been cost free.


David said...

Do you think that, if that mob had made its way into the Capitol, that wouldn't have also been a step toward war? Imagine the reaction in states that voted for Lincoln.

Truly, once Lincoln won the election, there were three possibilities: the country could have broken up; there was going to be war; or the south was going to have to back down en masse and accept Lincoln. I think the history makes it clear the last was the least likely possibility.

Sometimes conflict becomes fundamental to a situation, and finessing the optics or making a few conciliatory gestures will only postpone it. Lincoln acknowledged this in his famous letter Alexander Stephens. "You think slavery is right and ought to be extended; while we think it is wrong and ought to be restricted. That I suppose is the rub."

On the other hand, I think the incompetence of the Capitol Police leadership has created some opportunities. For real, fundamental change in the country that can lead us away from conflict, Trump and Trumpism have to be separated out from legitimate political discourse. What happened to the radical left in the seventies has to happen to them now. Above all, we need to create a split between them and the establishment wing of the Republican Party. I think there are now some real possibilities for doing that. Certainly a lot of my conservative friends seem more than verbally horrified by what happened.

Separating out Trump and Trumpism from the Republicans will in turn strengthen mainstream Democrats against their own current radical left. That will be a good thing too.

John said...


As you say, war was almost certainly coming in 1861. But one reason I think that is that people on both sides seemed to feel that it was coming, and were ready at any time to accept it and respond with violence. A belief in future violence can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In our time, I think the belief by various police forces that BLM protests were a violent threat caused some of the violence. Overreacting to a threat can increase rather than decrease the danger. That's why I am loathe to be too harsh on the DC authorities. Liberals kept saying all summer that the police shouldn't escalate situations, and they decided not to escalate the situation on the Mall with too big a show of force.

I also feel that the mob attack on the Capitol presents us with an opportunity to step back from the brink. I hope it will provide more Republicans with an excuse to repudiate Trump.

David said...

It does seem as if the Capitol Police's actions were motivated in part by overcorrection in the face of criticism over the summer's response to BLM. Apparently Bowser contributed to this in her communications with police leadership leading up to the events of Jan 6. So yeah, I agree that has to be taken into account as part of the decisions that led to last week's failure. On the other hand, I think forcing the leadership's resignations was entirely appropriate (and inevitable) and there is going to need to be a determined examination of what went wrong.

On the Civil War, sure, people became more willing to use violence and respond with more violence. But I don't think the fundamental choices I mentioned could have been avoided by less violence in the run-up to the events. Sometimes, people are in conflict over very fundamental issues. No matter how people behaved themselves, at some point the issue of whether there could be new slave states was going to come up. Of course, the anti-slavery forces could have simply given up. That would have been a way to avoid conflict. But then the United States would have gone from being an imperfect beacon of freedom to a blight on humanity.

David said...

To put it another way, if we really want to avoid violence, probably the most important thing we need to do is to weaken the hard right. In a few, given instances, avoiding violence or letting them do their thing may be useful as a tactic. But it's not a strategy or a permanent solution. For the latter, we need to weaken them, and that requires a multi-pronged strategy of real action. One of those actions will be policies to bring economic opportunity and social support to the communities from which the hard right springs. But that also won't be enough in itself. It certainly won't satisfy ideologues like Josh Hawley, Bill Barr, or the Mercers, or paranoid fanatics like QShaman or Baked Alaska. As many of their leaders as possible need to be discredited. Those who commit crimes should be arrested and punished, in very visible ways. Above all, we need to foment a split between the hard right and the legitimate right. Liberals will need to reward the legitimate right for doing its part, to the extent they can (but if giving up the minimum of the liberal agenda, like raising taxes, is the price of that, then it's too much, and all bets are off).

Shadow said...

There are a number of questions that must be asked and answered before we know the reasons why the Capitol was under protected.

1. We know little, but one thing we do know is a few Seattle and NYC police and firemen attended the Trump rally and stormed the Capitol. (So did some ex-servicemen and women. One was killed.) This should remind everyone of the recent post about right-wing extremists infiltrating German police forces. Did that happen here? Were the Capitol Police infiltrated? Were some taking selfies with their buds, the protesters, or were they trying to deescalate a situation in which they were badly outnumbered?

2. How about the Sergeants-at-Arms and the board that oversees the Capitol Police and the Capitol Police chain of command? What decisions did they make? Why? What information were they provided and what specific actions did they take as the day of the protest neared?

3. What role did Trump play in this? Because the Capitol is in DC, a request for National Guard soldiers must be approved by the Department of Defense. The DoD is Trump by proxy. Did he or anyone acting on his behalf refuse requests for troops or delay approvals? Why?

4. Why weren't federal officers from other agencies present? Were requests for manpower made? The Capitol Police say intelligence reports didn't indicate there was something to worry about. Intelligence agencies say bullshit, there were too. Why the discrepancy, and which is true. Now the ex-chief of Capitol Police says he asked for National Guard, a statement others in the know dispute. What gives?

5. I've heard all sorts of things being mentioned in the News, but so far almost all of those pieces of information are rumors. There are no names attached to the leaks. We know how wrong initial reports are in situations like this. We need to be patient, but we also should start demanding answers from those investigating?

But no way am I at this time will to say this happened because the protesters were white, and if they had been black the response would have been different. Law enforcement and Intelligence Services know very well how prone to violence some of these attending protest groups are. They also know what they brag about doing -- very violent and unpleasant stuff.

G. Verloren said...

One comparison I might make is to Canada and the October Crisis of 1970.

Trudeau was criticized by some at the time for invoking the War Measures Act, but clearly he had little other choice - the FLQ were abducting and murdering democratically elected officials, and there was no legal way at the time to obtain the limited powers Trudeau wanted to help handle the issue without also obtaining much broader powers he did not actually want. The very foundation of Canadian democracy was under direct assault, and it had to be protected forcibly, regardless of the misgivings of some concerned Canadians.

In the end, history seems to have clearly vindicated Trudeau. The FLQ went into steep decline, as public opinion turned powerfully against their cause in large part because Canadians rejected their violence and anti-democratic acts, and Trudeau went down in history as one of Canada's greatest (if not uncontentious) leaders.

Refusing to take adequate measures to protect legitimate democracy from genuine threats and attacks conducted by violent anti-democratic forces is lunacy. A line must be drawn in the sand, and held firm. To do otherwise is to risk everything.