These security measures follow last week’s violent insurrection
against the Capitol. Even as the political fallout from the events
of January 6 continues — including Wednesday’s historic vote by the House of Representatives to impeach Trump for a second time — the sight of thousands of National Guard troops
stationed inside the Capitol and across Washington DC points to the continued danger of violence facing the capital.
However, America has been here before. The country has faced insurrectionary threats twice following contested presidential elections — from 1860 to 1861, prior to the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln, and from 1876 to 1877, in the lead-up to the inauguration of Rutherford B. Hayes. In each instance, these threats prompted increased military presence on the day of the incoming Presidents’ swearing-in.
These two inaugurations also bookend key chapters in the divisive era
of the Civil War and Reconstruction. Just as Lincoln had tried to avert war, Hayes hoped
to avoid further conflict with the South and protect the civil rights of African Americans. Though neither administration achieved their stated goals, the newly-elected Presidents’ commitments to protecting democracy were worthy aspirations for their time — and our own. Similarly, Biden’s inauguration will not only fulfill a constitutional obligation, but it will also reinforce Americans’ resolve that threats of violence will not stop the democratic process from continuing.
In what may be a foreshadowing of what’s to come for Biden, both Lincoln and Hayes faced extremely challenging times as President. But regardless of the challenges that lay ahead, to kowtow to those who would undo the results of an election poses an even greater risk to America. The inauguration of a new President — much like the American experiment in democracy itself — must go on.
Let’s take a closer at those two historical inaugurations held despite the threat of violence.
President Lincoln entered office after seven Southern states had seceded in the wake of the 1860 election. Violent threats of all kinds prevailed
. One scheme called for abducting
Lincoln to achieve more favorable terms to the South, and, failing that, to assassinate him.
More troubling, while Lincoln was traveling from Springfield, Illinois, to Washington DC for his inauguration, detectives learned of an armed mob in Baltimore consisting of “Plug Uglies
” — a nativist street gang — who planned to attack the train carrying the President-elect. Out of a concern for safety, Lincoln agreed to bypass a stop in Baltimore.
On the day of Lincoln’s inauguration, Lieutenant General Winfield Scott ordered
the DC militia — the antecedent to today’s National Guard — to guard
the parade route from the Willard Hotel, where Lincoln was staying, to the Capitol. Special sapper units proceeded first to clear the route of threats, while cavalry accompanied Lincoln and Buchanan as they rode
in an open-air barouche. Snipers watched from rooftops to prevent
anyone from approaching too closely.
Lincoln then delivered his inaugural address on the east side of the Capitol. Marked by reconciliation and calls for unity, Lincoln’s speech aimed to keep together the remaining union and prevent civil war from developing as long as possible. He concluded
: “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection.”
In the end, passions did break the fragile union, but they did not prevent the inauguration of a new President or a free and fair election four years later. A month after Lincoln’s inauguration, soldiers arrived to defend the Capitol from the threat of armed invasion and quartered
at the Capitol. The Civil War lasted until 1865, resulting
in the death of more than 600,000 Americans.
Yet the words of Lincoln’s first inaugural address — as well as his second
— echo unto this day.
Rutherford B. Hayes
In 1876, the nation once again endured
an extremely close and divisive presidential election between Republican Rutherford B. Hayes of Ohio and Democrat Samuel Tilden of New York. The Republican platform called
for the protection of the rights of all citizens, including African Americans in the South, while Tilden ran
as a reform candidate largely silent on race relations. Both sides declared victory, but disputed results in Louisiana, Florida, South Carolina and Oregon left Tilden’s count short by one electoral vote.
Threats of violence soon surfaced. In late November 1876, rumors circulated that an ex-Confederate officer threatened to seize the capital with 1,000 men. In response, President Ulysses S. Grant deployed
seven companies of troops to Washington DC. Two days later, the USS Wyoming appeared in the Potomac River to protect the Anacostia Bridge into Maryland and the Long Bridge into Virginia, while a company of Marines guarded an access point further upriver. Fortunately, the threat never materialized.
In December, the states submitted their electoral results to Congress. With no certified winner, in January, Congress established
an electoral commission to determine the results. By a strict party vote of eight to seven, the commission selected
Hayes in each disputed vote (the Electoral Count Act of 1887
codified new procedures to prevent future deadlocks). At a meeting at the Wormley Hotel, Southern Democrats agreed
to a compromise, accepting the results of the commission in exchange for the withdrawal of federal troops from the South.
Nevertheless, some Democrats in the House threatened to filibuster the counting of the electoral votes, dragging out the process for several more days. Finally, during the early morning hours of March 2, Democratic Speaker of the House Samuel Randall read a telegram
from Tilden expressing his willingness to let the count be completed. By 4 a.m., Congress had finished counting the votes and Hayes was declared
the winner, ending America’s longest election. Not content to wait until Inauguration Day, Hayes was sworn
in privately in the Red Room of the White House on March 3.
Two days later, in a first, President-elect Hayes began
the tradition of going to the White House to ride with the outgoing President to the Capitol, accompanied
by the Washington Light Guard and a battery of light artillery. In his inaugural address, Hayes stressed themes of unity and reached out to disaffected voters in the Southern states. He asked
to “forever wipe out in our political affairs the color line and the distinction between North and South.”
Yet a month into his presidency, Hayes abided by the terms of the compromise and withdrew
the remaining federal troops from the Southern states, leaving the forces of White supremacy to reestablish local control. The result? By the time of Hayes’s death in 1893, widespread disenfranchisement and a legalized system of segregation established
the Jim Crow system across the South.
Indeed, the similarities of these long-ago inaugurations to our present moment are striking. But this history also reminds us that threats of violence during times of political transition have not stopped — and should not stop — the inauguration of a new President with a new vision for America, regardless of what comes next.