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This Rhymes – Parallels between Lincoln and the Insurrection at the US Capitol on January 6, 2021
Guest Blog Post by Dr. Jeff Meyers
My name is Dr. Jeff Meyers and I am the history and political science professor from the University of Alaska’s Kachemak Bay Campus in Homer. I once thought of becoming a professor because history is fun, enjoyable, and halfway thought those who always argued “those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it” were hyperbolic. However, as things have progressed it appears that it is more likely than ever that history may not be repeating, but it is rhyming.
Build up to Lincoln and first inauguration Parallels:
Parallels to Lincoln’s first election and today are there. By 1861, seven states had seceded from the union. The walk-up to Lincoln’s inauguration was worrisome and some aspects we would find familiar today. Southerners agreed that Lincoln had won, but like today there was a rejection of the democratic process. We see pushback, and even some calls for civil war or a “national divorce,” but in 1860 to many in the south, Lincoln’s election meant they needed to leave the union, which was a rejection of democracy. These events rhyme.
Counting of Electoral Votes:
On 13 February 1861, to disrupt the counting of the states’ certified electoral votes, a mob showed up and the capitol police did not let them in as they did not have credentials. Instead they hurled insults at the head of the security detail (Winfield Scott) calling him a “free state pimp,” an “old dotard,” and a “traitor to the state of his birth,” etc. Scott was from Virginia. Observers of the scene said it was a “cauldron of inflammable material” and the mob had “revolution” on their minds. Why? There had been discontent since November and rumors had circulated that the count of the electoral college votes on this day could be a way for the south to reclaim the votes through parliamentary maneuver of sleight of hand. Thus, throwing it back to the states and the outcome could have been changed. This rhymes with today.
Lincoln Faced a Threat To His Life
Later that month, Lincoln faced a threat to his life traveling to his inauguration in DC by train. A forefather of the secret service, Allan Pinkerton, and operatives uncovered a plot originating in Baltimore to assassinate him. They went undercover impersonating co-conspirators and found out all information of the plot. It was stopped, but it was also clear it was well-funded, and we don’t know exactly if the confederate government was behind it. There are interesting trails but not conclusive. And even though he did not want to, Lincoln made a dash through Baltimore in the middle of the night to arrive at his inauguration weeks after the mob at the capitol. As in 1861, there was a feeling of the country pulling apart, but back then it was regional. Today it is families, fathers and daughters, aunts and uncles, communities, urban/rural, and many others who are living in different information spheres. We are not getting the same set of facts so to speak. There are two competing ideas about what America should stand for. This rhymes.
Conspiracy Theories and White Supremacy:
Even conspiracies were awash in the 1850’s and 1860’s. Southern politicians were railing against the election of Lincoln saying he was going to end slavery; however, he ran on the platform of not letting slavery expand into new territories and states, while not touching it where it existed. Political leaders were implicitly and explicitly lying to get their constituents to get them wound up. Why were they doing this? Was it white supremacy? That is certainly one reason. But it was also fear of losing power. They had dominated federal power due to the 3/5 law and fear of losing it was enough for them to do whatever necessary. Power for the sake of power. They even came up with ideas of the threats of violence (a key ingredient of terrorism), arguing, “if Lincoln is elected there will be violence and secession.” Much like today when pundits argued not to impeach Trump because violence would ensue. The main idea was telling the north, “you did this and we did not.” Taking no responsibility for their actions. This rhymes.
There are more parallels, but at his inauguration on 4 March, which took place on the East Portico where many of the right-wing mob stormed the capitol, Abraham Lincoln made one of his most famous speeches of his career arguing for unity. It should also be mentioned the inauguration had 30,000 people and was actually the largest crowd for an inauguration in history, including many African-Americans who were legally banned from the grounds unless on “menial” duty. At the time, the United States was the only democracy in the world, and part of his speech argued:
“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
To conclude, in December 1862, Lincoln addressed Congress a month before issuing the Emancipation Proclamation. Although he is talking about slavery, the parallels and beat of history can be heard into today:
“Fellow-citizens, we cannot escape history. We of this Congress and this administration, will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance, or insignificance, can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation. We say we are for the Union. The world will not forget that we say this…We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth. Other means may succeed; this could not fail. The way is plain, peaceful, generous, just – a way which, if followed, the world will forever applaud, and God must forever bless.”