We’ve seen this movie before:
A newly elected president is on his way to Washington to be inaugurated. The results of the election have been certified by electors in all the states, and are waiting in two boxes to be read aloud by the sitting vice president — a mere formality. But word has gotten out to thousands of Americans who vehemently oppose the new president and they are determined their candidate should be the one going to the White House. So on they come, storming toward the Capitol to take it over and reverse the outcome of the election. Many of them are armed — and they are a determined, angry mob.
This was one hundred and sixty years ago. That president was Abraham Lincoln, the man Republicans point to when they speak of being “the party of Lincoln.”
The Capitol survived that time, thanks to a vice president who protected the electoral college boxes despite knowing he would be announcing his own loss. (More than a few people were concerned he might be tempted to destroy them, or be set upon by someone who would make off with the boxes.) That vice president was Kentucky Democrat John C. Breckinridge; he was expelled from the Senate after siding with the Confederacy, which he later served as Secretary of War.
The Capitol was only lightly defended. The mob might easily have succeeded in taking it over, and lives would definitely have been lost. But there was another man who had opposed the newly-elected president and lamented the outcome of the election — but didn’t want to see the Capitol, or his country, destroyed. He was General Winfield Scott, also known as Old Fuss & Feathers (he was picky about military etiquette) and as the Grand Old Man of the Army. He was old, too obese to get on his horse, and a native of the soon-to-be secessionist state of Virginia; but a patriot. Fortunately he also happened to have his own militia, so he dispatched it to protect the seat of democracy.
Thus, 160 years ago, democracy survived a close encounter. Full disclosure: absolutely none of this came from a store of knowledge in my aging brain. Most of it comes from historian Ted Widmer’s excellent book Lincoln on the Verge. It was published about six months before history repeated itself in Washington.
We’re living through another painful repetition, with more than a few lessons to be learned:
“Hospitals unable to keep pace with the volume of new patients. Political leaders taking to their beds. The morgues overflowing. This isn’t Milan, London or New York during the 2020 coronavirus crisis. It was Paris in 1832 during the great cholera pandemic.” Thus wrote Time Magazine’s Maurice Samuels in the May 15, 2020 issue. (This was before we had a president working to address the problem.) Others have pointed to earlier pandemics, their similarity to the covid-19 crisis and the ways they were or were not well handled. I’m old enough to have watched a cousin and several friends be stricken with polio; they would suffer the effects throughout their lives. I also remember the immense national relief when the Salk vaccine was developed. It was a painless little drop on a sugar cube; but to the consternation of government and public health officials, many Americans still feared the vaccine more than the disease. That virus was eventually eradicated in the U.S., but remains endemic in several parts of the world — perhaps as a reminder that we cannot close ourselves off and expect to be covid-free forever.
Another authoritarian leader may one day reach the White House; another virus will surely be roaming the globe. Here’s to lessons of history being learned and remembered.