- - Wednesday, July 28, 2021


A contested election splits the population into opposing camps. After weeks of tension and incendiary rhetoric, a force of hundreds of armed men descend upon their enemies’ stronghold and they go on a rampage, destroying property and horrifying much of the nation. But the mob’s defenders describe their actions as a “glorious triumph of the law and order party.”

This could pass as the story of the Jan. 6 riot by a pro-Trump mob attempting to overturn the 2020 election at the U.S. Capitol.

But the events described actually took place 165 years ago, when a pro-slavery force armed with rifles and cannons sacked Lawrence, Kansas, in a conflict over the political legitimacy of the territory’s two — yes, two — governments, one in favor of establishing a free state, the other hell-bent on imposing slavery. (The pro-slavery legislature was established through outright fraud committed by Missourians who crossed the border to illegally vote).

In this episode of History As It Happens, the hyper-polarized and violent 1850s are compared to our current times. As was the case in the final years before the Civil War, Americans today are living in alternative realities while assuming their political opponents are motivated by the worst of intentions. Both sides agree the stakes are huge: the survival of our democracy.

But the most trenchant similarity between the two eras may be the seemingly unbreakable cycle of polarization. We are not headed for another civil war fought by armies, and no single issue dominates our lives as did slavery in the antebellum United States. But Americans are divided nonetheless.

“We are not experiencing exactly the same thing as Americans in the 1850s,” said historian Paul Quigley, the director of the Center for Civil War Studies at Virginia Tech. “The key concept would be political polarization. The issues are very different… today there isn’t the central issue of slavery… and one of the ways we can compare the two [eras] is political violence and whether violence is an appropriate way to carry on politics.”

In the aftermath of the Jan. 6 riot, former President Donald Trump and Republican leaders are downplaying the mob violence at the U.S. Capitol and shunning the select committee created by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to investigate how and why hundreds of pro-Trump rioters breached the defenses.

This is part of a larger effort by Mr. Trump and his supporters to undermine public confidence in the election system by painting the mob as patriotic Americans who had legitimate concerns about the validity of President Biden’s victory. And it is consistent with Mr. Trump’s place as the only U.S. president not to accept the peaceful transfer of power. On the contrary, he was impeached after the end of his term for allegedly inciting the attack on a separate branch of government.

“Violence has a long history in American politics. The American Revolution was itself a form of political violence, but people have tended to see violence that they support as being in a different category than violence perpetrated by others,” Mr. Quigley said.

During the 1850s, major violent incidents were interpreted differently by the opposing sides in the sectional crisis over slavery, namely Rep. Preston Brooks’ caning of Sen. Charles Sumner and the sack of Lawrence in 1856, and John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859. Moreover, there were dozens of other violent incidents involving feuding lawmakers within the halls of Congress. 

Not all congressional Republicans are complicit in the alternative narrative about Jan. 6, however. Reps. Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Adam Kinzinger of Illinois continue to publicly condemn their party’s leaders and rank and file for downplaying the attempt to overturn the election results. As members of the select House committee, they have been ostracized by fellow Republicans.

Ms. Cheney has called the Jan. 6 attack the worst on the Capitol since the war of 1812. But the aforementioned Kansas crisis may be the more apt comparison because it saw regular citizens, not a foreign army, violently contest the legitimacy of an elected government.

For more of Mr. Quigley’s observations about the similarities and differences between the 1850s and today, listen to this episode of History As It Happens. Mr. Quigley is writing a book about Brooks’ infamous attack on Sumner on the Senate floor in 1856.

For historical perspective on the importance of independent investigations after tragic events, listen to this earlier episode featuring an interview with the chief spokesman of the 9/11 Commission, Alvin Felzenberg.

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