Frederick Hoxie is Professor Emeritus of History, Law, and American Indian Studies, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
As we assess the significance of the January 6 Capitol assault and prepare for Donald Trump’s impeachment trial, many commentators have compared recent events to Reconstruction, the post-Civil War period when political divisions between North and South were resolved through northern acquiescence to white supremacy, disfranchisement and segregation. But for an even better historical comparison, we should look to the beginning of the Civil War era rather than its end.
In a brief speech on Washington’s birthday, 1861, then President-elect Abraham Lincoln identified the enemy facing the nation. Secession represented an assault on our founding traditions, Lincoln argued. He called on the public not to abolish slavery, but to stand with him in support of the Union. The war came, of course, but Lincoln’s actions that day tied his cause to a defense of the constitution and the Union. His is an example President Biden and all Americans should now follow.
The political climate on election day, 1860, was toxic. For most of the previous decade, growing Northern discomfort with slavery had set off increasingly hysterical responses from slaveowners and their allies. Most southern states barred public discussion of slavery’s evils, fugitive slave laws brought southern vigilantes into communities across the North, the recent settlement of Kansas Territory had been marred by fighting between pro and anti-slavery forces, and John Brown’s raid the previous year had set everyone on edge.
Lincoln and his allies hoped that there could be a middle ground in the slavery dispute: the institution would be tolerated, but bound to its present limits. With Lincoln constitutionally elected and poised to take office, his opponents pulled out all the stops. They resorted to wild untruths: accusing him of being an abolitionist like John Brown, predicting that his rule would be undemocratic, and framing their call for secession as a new American Revolution.
Southerners believed that their region would prosper as an independent nation. Cotton, produced by slave labor, was America’s most valuable export. They were proud of their “peculiar institution.” Their leaders defended it at every turn and spoke out, knowing that the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and leading public intellectuals of the day agreed with them. The Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision dismissed the idea that African-Americans could ever be citizens and political theorists from John C. Calhoun to James Henry Hammond defended enslavement as an American virtue.
On the night of February 21, 1861, amidst rising fear and escalating lies about his views on slavery, the President-elect arrived in Philadelphia on his way to his inauguration and received news like that Mike Pence would get in the Senate chamber 160 years later: a dangerous group was near at hand and his life was in danger. Lincoln was told the plotters might strike in the next few days.
The following morning, Lincoln spoke at Constitution Hall, the building where both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution had been signed. The site, he noted, was “the place where were collected together the wisdom, the patriotism, the devotion to principle, from which sprang the institutions under which we live. … All the political sentiments I entertain have been drawn … from the sentiments which originated and were given to the world from this hall.” Tasked with defending the tradition that had begun in the place where he stood, he declared: “I would rather be assassinated on this spot than to surrender it.”
Today we face a similarly uncertain future. For the moment, the January 6th extremists lack the economic and intellectual support of the kind the secessionists enjoyed in 1860. But their causes—white supremacy, anti-Semitism, and xenophobia—resonate with thousands of followers and with allies around the globe. And their assault on our democracy came closer to success than we thought possible. We underestimate them at our peril.
Lincoln’s message—to President Biden as well as the American public—is clear. The threat we face is not about election fraud or the rise of socialism: it is a threat to “the institutions under which we live” and must therefore be confronted directly and forcefully.
Lincoln’s speech in Philadelphia calls to us: Prosecute the insurrectionists and those who conspired with them. Reject compromise with those who would deny the constitution. Understand the threads that bind us to the Declaration and the Constitution, and hold them close.