Power  /  Antecedent

This Is Who We Are

The rioters at the Capitol are part of an unbroken American tradition. Sweet talk about our “better angels” did not defeat them before and will not now.

“Let me be very clear,” Joe Biden assured us on TV yesterday afternoon. “The scenes of chaos at the Capitol do not reflect a true America, do not represent who we are.”

This is how we expect politicians from both major parties to talk when vicious, hateful rhetoric incites mass violence. In March 1861, after seven slave states had already left the Union, Abraham Lincoln, the only president revered today by both elite Democrats and Republicans, tried to soothe the rebels who were arming for war. “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies,” he told them in his first inaugural address. “Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection.” At the end he famously appealed to the “better angels of our nature.”

The mob of Trumpers that smashed its way into the Capitol yesterday should serve as a rebuke to such willful innocence. The rioters inflamed by the endless lies and racist conspiracy theories spouted from the White House are just the latest in an unbroken tradition that is as truly American as the people of all races who have struggled for a tolerant, egalitarian, and democratic nation. One cannot honor the latter without coming to grips with the people they fought against.

In 1857, President James Buchanan endorsed a state constitution to protect slavery in Kansas that a minority of white settlers there had drafted after several years of bloody conflict. In 1863, the governor of New York, Horatio Seymour, addressed as “my friends” a crowd of white boys and men who had been protesting the Civil War draft by burning down buildings and lynching Black people on the streets of Manhattan. While bemoaning the violence, the city’s leading Democratic paper asked rhetorically, “Does any man wonder that poor men refuse to be forced into a war . . . perverted almost into partisanship.”

During Reconstruction, Seymour and other leading politicians from his party looked the other way or actively abetted the Ku Klux Klan as it went about terrorizing Black voters and battling the Union troops dispatched to protect them. The revived KKK of the 1920s, which was a scourge to Catholics and Jews as well as African Americans, took over the Republican Party in several Northern states and counties. And Democrats, at their 1924 convention, narrowly defeated a resolution to condemn the violent group whose membership then numbered close to 4 million.


January 6th

In the riot's immediate aftermath, politicians on both sides of the aisle expressed shock and disbelief, condemning rioters' actions as "not who we are." Historians quickly countered by highlighting historical continuities.