American democracy is under attack.
Situated at the far end of the National Mall, the United States Capitol Building is and has long been a hallowed symbol of America’s democratic ideals and institutions and a beacon of hope in the face of adversity and national crisis. Jan. 6, 2021, this formerly unassailable emblem of national unity acquired an indelible stain. The sitting President of the United States, Donald Trump, incited his most loyal sycophants to attack, nay invade, that treasured governmental structure with the deplorable intention of unceremoniously eviscerating the nation’s constitutional processes and violently undermining the will of the American people. To be sure, however, this was not just a loosely-organized siege of the Capitol Building by a small group of discontent extremists, as terrible as that would be on its own; it was a direct and unified assault on the very bedrock of the nation’s democratic ideals, and every single politician and public figure who participated in, abetted or fomented the ire of this insurrectionist mob is complicit in the disastrous and deadly consequences of their actions.
When the debris has been cleared and the turmoil has settled, the American people must not forget these forceful, disturbing and deliberate derelictions of duty by self-serving members of the highest legislative body in the land on behalf of a conceited conman and his bumbling, corrupt cronies. In the words of distinguished general James Mattis, Donald Trump’s former Secretary of Defense, Trump’s “use of the Presidency to destroy trust in our election and to poison our respect for fellow citizens has been enabled by pseudo political leaders whose names will live in infamy as profiles in cowardice.” Perhaps these lawmakers did condemn the destruction that occurred at the Capitol after seeing the effects of their actions firsthand, but many of these delayed objections were interspersed with the same irresponsible fanning of the disproven and conspiratorial flames that contributed to the seditious display that occurred in the halls of Congress while duly-elected lawmakers were forced to hide — fearing for their lives. Although an immediate condemnation of their actions by the larger Republican Party and the members of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives is necessary, such an action is incredibly unlikely. Nevertheless, the American people must not forget who these malicious and misguided politicos are or what they allowed to happen in the revered halls of our great Capitol in order to promote their own political careers. As the Senate was evacuating the chamber, fleeing from the oncoming mob of terroristic vandals, Republican senator and frequent Trump critic Mitt Romney of Utah shouted out over the din at his GOP colleagues who had provoked this treasonous behavior: “This is what you’ve gotten, guys.” We must not ignore the truth in Senator Romney’s words; this was the inevitable outcome of contesting the lawful election results, and while many of these Republicans may not have foreseen violence, they, nevertheless, share much of the responsibility.
“Nevertheless, the American people must not forget who these malicious and misguided politicos are or what they allowed to happen in the revered halls of our great Capitol in order to promote their own political careers.”
Throughout our nation’s long and often tumultuous history, the Capitol and other symbols of American democracy have previously come under attack. None of these previous transgressions, however, have approached the level of shamefulness displayed during the events of Jan. 6. During the War of 1812, an outnumbered yet rancorous force of British regulars tore through the streets of Washington, D.C. with the singular intention of wreaking havoc and destroying as many structures as possible before inevitably being driven from the city. Fortunately, when English architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe designed and constructed the Capitol Building, he used a flame-resistant, iron infrastructure; although fire incinerated the upper layers of the building, the iron undergirding did not crumble. A tangible representation of the democratic process that occurs within its walls, the Capitol and the values it represents, while burned, did not fall. Instead, a powerful thunderstorm descended upon the city and quelled the ravaging flames. In the wake of this most recent act of blatant insurrection, we are in need of another storm to suppress this dangerous political behavior. Now, though, our storm is not one from nature but one of words as loud as thunder, actions as visible as lightning, and condemnation as engulfing as torrential rain.
Forty short years later, the nation’s Capitol was once again marred by vitriolic disdain for the Union, albeit this violence came from within and had a distressingly racist overtone. May 22, 1856, in response to a speech, confrontational in its egalitarianism, that was delivered by the staunchly abolitionist senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, Congressman Preston Brooks of South Carolina entered the Senate chamber and mercilessly caned Senator Sumner to within an inch of his life. Five years after that, eleven Southern states seceded from the Union, catalyzing the US Civil War and tearing the nation apart. At one point, the army of Confederate general Robert E. Lee came within twenty-five miles of Washington before being rebuffed by the United States army. Although no sizable hostile force entered the city during this war or its preceding events, the Capitol was nonetheless tainted by the virulent and racist hatred of the Southerners, who deserted their Constitution in order to protect the institution of slavery. Blood was spilled on the Senate floor; the nation was shorn in two, but the Capitol Building continued to stand proud as a symbol of America’s democratic values, as it always had. These Southern lawmakers, with the notable exception of Senator Andrew Johnson from Tennessee, were all derelict in their duty to the Constitution, yet America’s democracy prevailed. Once again, we must fight, using all legal means, to preserve our democracy in the wake of actions committed by complacent lawmakers beholden to a foul ideology, and we must again prevail.
While there are no longer Civil Wars and politicians being caned on the Senate floor over racial issues, the police response to the terrorism of Jan. 6, when compared to the predominantly peaceful Black Lives Matter protests, highlighted the glaring and continuous discrepancy between the treatment of black and white people in America. Whereas the Black Lives Matter protests in Washington, D.C. were met by a sizable force of well-armed officers, the anticipated and publicized mob of Trump supporters was presumed to be nonviolent and were, therefore, met with open gates, selfies, and general pleasantness until they began literally ransacking the Capitol Building. This differentiation in response is, of course, not representative of the beliefs of all police officers, but it is consistent and obvious enough to be a serious problem and indicative of continual systemic inequality within the United States.
“Whereas the Black Lives Matter protests in Washington, D.C. were met by a sizable force of well-armed officers, the anticipated and publicized mob of Trump supporters was presumed to be nonviolent and were, therefore, met with open gates, selfies, and general pleasantness.”
Indeed, even in the present day, politicians are still invoking the worst racial injustices in American history in a positive manner. When propagating the spurious claims of election fraud that riled the insurrection and spurred the angry crowd into action, Senator Ted Cruz from Texas, just moments before the building was breached, called for the creation of “an electoral commission to examine claims of voter fraud, five house members, five senators, five Supreme Court Justices,” citing the 1876 Hayes-Tilden election as precedent. This so-called bipartisan and objective commission that was created for the 1876 election, in the opinion of most historians, subverted the will of the people and installed Rutherford B. Hayes as president, an action that ended Reconstruction and subjected Black people to generations of suffering under Jim Crow. As Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said in opposition to Cruz’s recent proposal, “If you’re looking for historical guidance, this is not the one [election] to pick;” instead, it would give “credibility to a dark chapter of history.” A Constitutional scholar and Ivy League graduate, Senator Cruz was certainly not ignorant of the racist legacy of the election of 1876, and the same can be said of the vast majority of others who fell in with Senator Cruz. This goes to show that, while our Capitol is still a monolithic representation of our ideal values, venomous, racist ideologies are still present in this great nation.
At this very moment, the Capitol is hurting; windows were broken in the house of American freedom, offices were ransacked; people were shot and killed. However, just as Senator Sumner overcame his injuries and returned to the Senate floor three years later to continue advocating for the beliefs that he was repeatedly told were radical and untenable, the actions of January 6 will not permanently cripple the progress of our nation. As indicated by Congress’ return to session and the official certification of Joe Biden as president-elect and Kamala Harris as vice president-elect, our institutions are stronger and more versatile than the mob. We the People will not be overcome by the scurrilous and baseless actions of a corrupt and highly visible few. As Joe Biden asserted, the siege on the Capitol “bordered on sedition” and illuminated the uncomfortable reality that “democracy is fragile and to preserve it, requires…leaders who are devoted, not to the pursuit of power or their personal interests….but [to] the common good.” Those Congress people who aided and abetted Donald Trump in his effort to undermine democracy proved, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that their allegiances are not to the common good. Despite this precarious situation, however, “There’s never been anything we [Americans] can’t do, when we do it together.” We must heed these wise words and work together now to build a better and brighter America than the one that was shamefully broadcast to the world Jan. 6, 2021.
Correction: a previous version of this article stated that Sumner was a New York Senator, but it now correctly notes that he was a Senator from Massachusetts.
Zachary Clary ’21 is a history major and English minor. He is also the Submissions Editor for the James Blair Historical Review and a member of the Phi Alpha Theta International Honor Society in History. Xavier Storey ’22 is a government major and public health minor. He is the Editorial Assistant for the James Blair Historical Review and a member of William and Mary Young Democrats. Email Zachary at firstname.lastname@example.org and email Xavier at email@example.com.