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After the recent attack on the Capitol, will history repeat itself?

The world watched stunned as a crush of humanity invaded the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, breaking down doors and smashing windows to gain entrance to the nation’s seat of government. As has already been well-documented in the wake of the attack, Capitol and Washington, D.C., police battled insurrectionists for more than three hours to eject hundreds of rioters from the building and restore order. Hundreds on both sides were seriously injured, and one, Capitol police officer Brian Sicknick, died from his wounds the next day.

Reactions to the attack varied dramatically around the world. In real time, the public had witnessed the foundering of American democracy, an outright assault on the institution itself. And as many watched, they likely thought to themselves, “This has never happened before.”

Or has it?

Fergus Bordewich (David Altshul)

Americas Civil War discussed this question with Fergus M. Bordewich, a leading expert on 19th-century politics and the author of Congress at War: How Republican Reformers Fought the Civil War, Defied Lincoln, Ended Slavery, and Remade America. First published by Knopf in February 2020, Bordewich’s book was released in paperback by Anchor on January 5, only one day before the Capitol insurrection.

What Bordewich had to say stands as a reminder that history is not and should never be confined to the rearview mirror.

Based on your knowledge of Congress throughout the 1850s and ’60s, do you see any parallels with the political unrest thats defined the last several years?

FB: We’re undeniably in a deeply polarized political climate. And I do think that, in terms of intensity, it’s as polarized as it was just before the Civil War. Of course, the divide in the 1860s was extreme; it ultimately led to the secession of 11 states and the defection of roughly 25 percent of the Army’s officer class, as well as nearly every Southern politician in Washington.

Today, the issues that divide left and right obviously are different (immigration, Covid policy, foreign relations, etc.), and we definitely haven’t hit the point reached in the 1860s. We periodically hear rumblings of secession, but I don’t think we have the geographic concentrations of ideology needed for that to occur—certainly like the South had 160 years ago.

Do you think the rancor in the halls of Congress is redolent of the Civil War era?

FB: To an extent. By 1860, members of Congress were unable to negotiate on the matter of slavery, and that caused a failure of the nation’s legislature. Likewise, the gridlock that we’re currently witnessing in Congress is due to the inability of the left and right to cooperate.

The caning of Senator Charles Sumner. (Library of Congress)

Any differences?

FB: The difference is in the scale of what happened. The events of 160 years ago played out on a wholly different level: Again, you had the secession of 11 states and a war that took roughly 700,000 lives (over two percent of the entire U.S. population)—that’s incredible by any standard.

It’s true that you hear radicals talking today about secession and “a new civil war,” but I think that’s unlikely. Those willing to lay down their lives for such a cause are minuscule in number, despite what some may infer from the January 6 attack on the Capitol.

In addition to widespread frustration with Congress, the January 6 attack was in response to what many believe was a “stolen” presidential election. Does this fall within the historical context of the pre–Civil War period?

FB: Well, in 1860, Lincoln was elected by a plurality, not by a majority. That meant he had more votes than any of the three other candidate, but he didn’t win an absolute majority. Southerners, nonetheless, didn’t respond by attempting to overthrow the results of the election in the way that today’s reactionaries have tried to do over the last couple of months. The South accepted the fact that Lincoln had won the election and responded by leaving the Union.

Now, it should be noted that when they did leave, they essentially started a government that was a carbon copy of the Union democratic system—with one crucial distinction. When it came to slavery, the South was a totalitarian state. There was no freedom of speech, press, or association in this case.

Didn’t authorities in Washington fear a Rebel incursion on the capital after the South split from the Union—chiefly in March and April 1861?

FB: There was a very real fear in the spring of ’61 that Rebels coming from Maryland or Virginia would mount an attack with an eye to taking the Capitol building, and even the District of Columbia. And I think that these were reasonable fears when you think about the fact that there were only a few hundred trained soldiers in D.C. in early April, and only a few thousand later in the month.

There was also a lot of guerrilla activity in Maryland after the Baltimore Riot of April 19, 1861. Bands of militia burned the railroad bridges and cut the telegraph lines; and, of course, you had the riot, where a mob attacked the 6th Massachusetts Volunteer Militia as they passed through the city on their way to Washington.

But today, too, we are in the midst of a political crisis, and it’s still unfolding. What happened on January 6 was not the end of it; it was merely the point of the spear, so to speak.

Do you expect things to get worse as they did during the late 1850s and as the Civil War began?

FB: It’s possible. I don’t necessarily like to make hard-and-fast predictions because they usually turn out to be wrong, but I do believe things could get worse because there are significant elements of the political culture that have lost confidence in American institutions just as the South had 160 years ago.

And I’m also sure you have some segments of the population who don’t believe that our current situation is anything to be concerned about.

You point out in your book that there were a number of leaders who made that mistake on the eve of the Civil War.

FB: When you read what Americans were writing in letters and diaries, it sounds just like people criticizing our leaders today. One New Yorker, for instance, wrote that President [James] Buchanan was part of “the dirty catalogue of treasonable mischief-makers” because of his oblivious attitude toward the nation’s deepening crisis. In another letter, a person asked (quite seriously) if Buchanan, in doing nothing about the dire national predicament was, himself, a traitor.

Even President-elect Lincoln downplayed the emergency, publicly asserting that the crisis was artificial and that Americans shouldn’t worry. This is particularly striking because that position doesn’t exactly comport with our notions of Lincoln.

You give some extraordinary examples of the contempt that some had for the American system in 1861—specifically Texas Senator Louis Wigfall’s comments about the nation’s flag.

FB: Wigfall didn’t mince words. After South Carolinians fired on the Fort Sumter resupply ship Star of the West in January ’61, he declared on the floor of the Senate: “I rejoiced at this insult to the flag of your country. It ought to be fired at, and it should be torn down and trampled upon.” He actually said this while he was a sitting senator.

Outlandish statements from political leaders and attacks on the flag—does that sound similar to what we’re encountering today?

FB: It does. On the one hand, you have politicians and entire sects within parties floating outrageous conspiracy theories, claiming, for instance, that the school shooting at Sandy Hook was staged. You have lawmakers threatening fellow legislators, and rioters burning flags across the country.

No matter what side of the aisle they’re on, these individuals are detached from reality and, as such, have rejected our democratic institutions. And yes, I think this is reminiscent of Civil War America. In my book, I highlight some shocking examples of the hysteria that gripped the South in this period. During and after the presidential election, people all over the South were well advised to keep quiet on anything that might reflect support for the North or opposition to slavery.

Northern-born school teachers were driven out of Southern states; mail was opened in search of “subversive literature”; a Virginian was almost lynched in Alabama after he tried to pass a Massachusetts bank note; a daguerreotypist was beaten because one of his samples was a picture of Lincoln.

So far, weve focused on the national stage. Is history repeating at the state level?

FB: Yes, I think so. The first example that comes to mind is the armed protests in the Michigan statehouse back in April 2020 [during anti-lockdown demonstrations]. But I think these pockets of state-level extremism are more reminiscent of Reconstruction-era activity in the South—namely by groups like the Ku Klux Klan. I’m not saying that the similarity here is in white supremacy, but rather in the organized resistance to government control.

Do you think well reach this magnitude of resistance in the future?

FB: It’s difficult to say, and you have to weigh that question carefully. Of all the people at the Capitol on January 6, how many of them really wanted to go into the building and do physical harm to people and property? How many really wanted to overthrow the government and reverse the election results by force of violence? Undoubtedly, some of them wanted to do precisely those things, but I find it difficult to fathom that the majority of those in attendance were there for those reasons.

And what of those who were there for those reasonsare we seeing treason equal to that of the Rebels during the Civil War?

FB: Right now, I think they more closely resemble defectors than they do traitors. They attacked our political institutions, and they turned their backs on our democratic system in doing so. But I’m reluctant to call them traitors, at least not in the technical sense. Unlike the South in 1861, they haven’t taken up arms and levied war against the United States. Whether that will happen, only time will tell.

Note: An interview with Fergus M. Bordewich about Congress at War focusing on how the Radical Republicans in Congress pressured President Abraham Lincoln to fight the war more aggressively and emancipate enslaved people appeared in the May 2020 issue of America’s Civil War.