Comment: Yes, last week’s attempted insurrection is who we are

The attack on the U.S. Capitol reminds us the anti-democratic and racist strains of our past remain with us.

By Gregory P. Downs and Kate Masur / Special To The Washington Post

It is tempting to consider Wednesday’s assault on the U.S. Capitol an exception in U.S. history, but the presence of Confederate flags and Sen. Ted Cruz’s ill-founded reliance on the 1876-77 election crisis to justify baseless challenges to the 2020 electoral results remind us that anti-democratic violence has deep roots here, especially in the period of the Civil War and Reconstruction.

Public invocations of American ideals of democracy and the peaceful transition of power serve some good purposes. Yet our country also has a long history of authoritarianism, white supremacy and political violence, one that cannot be ignored without misunderstanding the depth and endurance of the problems we face as a nation and the breadth of the solutions these problems require.

The shocking scenes at the Capitol on Wednesday remind us that there have always been Americans who have little regard for procedures established by the Constitution. When Abraham Lincoln was elected president in 1860, political leaders in South Carolina refused to accept the result, fearing that a Lincoln presidency would lead to the weakening of southern political power and ultimately to the elimination of slavery. Ten other Southern states eventually joined in rejecting the election’s outcome and declaring that they intended to form a nation of their own.

The paramount goal of the Confederate States of America was to protect and extend American slavery and to advance the morally repugnant idea that, as Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens said, “the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition.” This was of course a profoundly undemocratic project, one premised not on the ringing ideals of the Declaration of Independence but on an institution, racial slavery, that first came to English North America in 1619 and was amply sustained by the nation’s founders.

The Confederacy’s defeat ended the threat to the nation’s integrity but did not vanquish the ideas it had stood for, nor was anti-Black racism a problem limited to the South. During Reconstruction, white Republicans leaders, guided in large measure by principles long espoused by Black activists, tried to set the nation on a new course. They amended the Constitution, abolishing slavery, establishing birthright citizenship, promising federal guarantees of basic civil rights and banning racial discrimination in the right to vote. These amendments — far more than anything in the Bill of Rights — represent the promises of democracy, equality and individual dignity that so many Americans value today.

The enfranchisement of African American men had the potential to dramatically change American politics, particularly in the southern states, where most Black Americans lived. But many white Southerners responded with rage and violence to the prospect of sharing power with Black neighbors. Ex-Confederates organized the Ku Klux Klan and other groups to drive Black people from politics through murder, intimidation and fraud, seeking to destroy the power of the Republican Party.

In Louisiana after the 1872 election, both parties claimed the majority in the state legislature and separate legislatures convened, both heavily armed. In the river town of Colfax, Democrats laid siege to the courthouse and slaughtered scores of Black men as they fled the burning building. After the 1874 election, insurgents seized power over the legislature, locked out rightful Republican officeholders, and tried to rule by force until the U.S. Army expelled them; after 1876 there were again dual legislatures in Louisiana. And the pattern repeated itself in other southern states. In 1898, a white mob in Wilmington, N.C., overthrew the elected city government and ran a campaign of terror through Black neighborhoods, one of a number of coups in U.S. history.

Former United States Rep. Robert Smalls estimated in 1895 that 43,000 African Americans had died at the hands of white Southerners in the years since the war. The abuse white Americans inflicted on Black Americans in this period included not just murder but the plunder of land and livelihood, as well as lasting psychological trauma.

Rampant political violence shaped the contested 1876 election, which Cruz and his allies brought so prominently to public consciousness in recent days. In that election, held during the 100th anniversary of American independence, Democratic intimidation prevented Black voters from casting ballots in many southern states, and Republican-led governments in Florida, Louisiana and South Carolina accordingly declared Republican Rutherford B. Hayes the rightful victor over Democrat Samuel Tilden. In those states, each party submitted to Congress its own results of the presidential election. The election itself was so close that those ballots would determine the winner of the White House. To resolve the crisis, Congress created an electoral commission that chose Hayes as the winner.

In short, 1877 was little like 2021. Today, grave threats to voting access do remain. But in the recent presidential election, registered voters went to heroic efforts to cast their ballots, officials tallied those votes in accordance with state law, the states’ results survived dozens of challenges in state and federal courts, the states’ electors certified the results and governors forwarded them to Congress.

Where the Civil War Era does connect to our present moment is in the enduring importance of authoritarian thought and action in American life, often infused with and exacerbated by racism. In the 1870s, Wwhite Americans created a national political crisis by refusing to accept Black political power and rejecting election outcomes they didn’t like. Their will to power ended in the destruction of democracy altogether in the 1890s, with southern state constitutions that deliberately disfranchised immense swaths of their Black populations.

It took 70 years, a fierce grass-roots movement and countless more Black lives lost before democratic rights would be restored in the South. Even then the legacies of this tawdry past endured in the bodies of lynched Black southerners, in the land stolen from them through fraud and violence, in educations denied to Black children and in the loss of opportunities in the so-called land of opportunity.

Among President-elect Joe Biden’s first words when he addressed the nation Wednesday were: “The scenes of chaos at the Capitol do not reflect the true America. This is not who we are.”

But this is not quite true, and Biden seemed to recognize that fact on Thursday, when, in appointing an attorney general, he reminded Americans that the Department of Justice was created in 1870 “to enforce the Civil Rights Amendments that grew out of the Civil War: the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments. To stand up to the Klan. To take on domestic terrorism.”

It is reasonable that elected officials are concerned with building consensus and elevating this nation’s best ideals, but we cannot achieve those ideals without confronting the more shameful aspects of our shared history. As this week’s events so glaringly reminded us, the anti-democratic and racist strains of our past remain very much with us. These traditions too are part of our nation’s fabric, and we must address them if we are to prevent them from shaping our future, as they have shaped our past.

Gregory P. Downs is a professor of history at UC Davis and author of the forthcoming” The Second American Revolution: the Civil War-Era Struggle over Cuba and the Rebirth of the American Republic.” Kate Masur is associate professor of history at Northwestern University and author of “Until Justice Be Done: America’s First Civil Rights Movement, from the Revolution to Reconstruction,” forthcoming from Norton, and “An Example for All the Land: Emancipation and the Struggle over Equality in Washington, D.C.”

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