Seen a few of those today. Also satisfaction watching trumpers get pepper spayed. Almost staring to like cops...jk
Given the unprecedented events today and my contributions about the history of American elections on the forum over the last year, I've been asked by the mods here at r/AskHistorians to write a little bit about how today's events might be viewed in the context of American history. This is an unusual thread for unusual times, and I would ask for the understanding of those who might be inclined to immediately respond as if it were a normal Reddit political thread. It isn't.
It's a real doozy, though, ain't it; I don't think any of us would have ever expected to see our fellow citizens nowadays storming Congress, disrupting the electoral process and carrying off rostrums. But it's happened, and what I'll say to start is something simple: on the Federal level, this is indeed unprecedented. Oh, you can certainly talk about the Civil War as an entirely different level of sedition, and varying attempts to suppress the franchise have been a constant theme from the beginnings of the Republic. But this is the first time that the United States has not negotiated the transfer of power peacefully during a Presidential transition, and it's worth reviewing how it dodged the bullets in the past.
After the Election of 1800, Jefferson himself feared that the lame duck Federalist Congress would attempt to use the accidental deadlock in the Electoral College between him and Aaron Burr as justification to place one of their own as Acting President for the remainder of 1801 until the convening of the new Democratic Republican-controlled House in December. There is evidence that he and others working on his behalf - namely the Democratic-Republican Governors of Virginia and Pennsylvania - would have called out the militia to storm Washington to prevent this. Fortunately, thanks to Federalist James Bayard of Delaware, this did not come to pass as Jefferson won the runoff, and the first peaceful transition of power in the United States resulted.
In 1876, the successful efforts by Republicans to shift 20 electoral votes from Democratic nominee Samuel Tilden to Republican nominee Rutherford Hayes during recounts in South Carolina, Florida, and Louisiana produced threats of violence as well. George McClellan actively attempted to gain support in raising a militia to install Tilden, and in response to perceived threats of violence by him and others, then-President Grant reactivated Civil War forts surrounding Washington. Fortunately, for reasons we are still unsure of, Tilden was lukewarm about the prospect, spent the first month writing legal briefs on the illegitimacy of the Hayes recount rather than politicking, and with numerous Southern Democrats already having reached a deal with Hayes' operatives to remove Federal troops from the South if he were to be elected, ultimately decided that he probably could not win even in the Democratic-controlled House and chose not to contest the election. Again, a peaceful transition of power resulted.
This has not, however, been the case for large parts of American history on the state level.
In 1838, a gubernatorial election in Pennsylvania led to what has been called the "Buckshot War." A gubernatorial election had ousted the incumbent Whig/Anti-Masonist by a slim margin of 5000 votes, both Democrats and Whigs claimed voter fraud (which both likely committed), and because of the resulting fights over who had won the state House elections in the districts that were disputed never resolved, two separate bodies claiming be the lawful Pennsylvania House of Representatives - one controlled by Whigs, the other Democrats - were formed. This produced an interesting scene at the State House when, "...before they began their separate deliberations, both groups attempted to occupy the physical building in which the official Pennsylvania House of Representatives was to meet, with some pushing and shoving as their two different speakers simultaneously took to the podium."
Since both the state House and Senate were required to vote to declare the lawful winner, and the Senate was controlled by their party, Whigs had a path to retaining their governor if they managed to hold on to the House. This led to a declaration by the Whig Secretary of State of Pennsylvania, Thomas Burrowes, that even for the times was remarkable: not only would he disallow the Democratic returns that were in dispute, but that members of his party should behave "as if we had not been defeated" since "an honest count would put (their candidate) ahead by 10,000 votes." One historian has described this as "a coup d'etat."
This was made worse by the incumbent governor calling out the state militia, ostensibly to keep the peace but in reality to attempt to shut Democrats out. Fortunately, state militia commander General Robert Patterson told the Governor directly that he would protect lives and property but under no terms would intervene in the conflict, "“If ordered to clear the Capitol and install in the chair either or both of the Speakers, (I) would not do it.” Likewise, “if ordered to fire upon those [the Whigs] chose to call rebels, (I) would not do it [either].” (His orders for his troops to arm themselves with buckshot gave the dispute its name.) Frustrated, the Governor sent the militia home, requested federal troops, and received the following response from President Van Buren: "To interfere in [this] commotion,” which “grows out of a political contest,” would have “dangerous consequences to our republican institutions."
Ultimately, the conflict ended with three Whigs defecting and providing the Democratic side of the house a quorum to certify the election of the disputed Democrats and the Democratic governor, but the potential for bloodshed was very much real; in fact, while plotting with Burrowes for Whig control of both houses so he might gain election to the US Senate (this was in the days of legislatures electing Senators), Thaddeus Stevens was the subject of an assassination plot that resulted in both men escaping from a basement window in bare possession of their lives.
I don't have time currently to detail it all, but this was a pattern that repeated elsewhere many times during the 19th century. Bashford against Barstow in Wisconsin in 1856 nearly got another militia battle, Bleeding Kansas and the bloody Lecompton pro-slave legislature in 1857 onwards outright previewed the Civil War, and Kentucky in 1899 had the Democratic candidate for governor outright assassinated in the midst of counting ballots. Add in local disputes and the list gets longer; democracy has had very rough edges at times.
But I would urge you to take heart. Even in chaos, today's United States is still not 1872 Louisiana, where something like 100 African Americans were brutally murdered at Colfax following a dispute over a gubernatorial election. Nor is it 1876 South Carolina, where perhaps 150 were killed in pre-election violence where both Democrats and Republicans attempted to rig the election by shooting at each other.
Maybe it won't end up doing so at the Capitol, but Congress will convene, the election will be concluded, and the will of the people recognized. We will learn and grow from it, move on, and create a more perfect union.
Hang in there, folks.
Edit: A couple typos, and yes, as many have pointed Wilmington is one of those local events I was referring to that was equally as ugly as some of the ones I've mentioned on the state level. See below for more!
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