As I so often say, and as many with better minds than mine have long said before me, if we fail to learn the lessons of history, then we are destined to repeat our mistakes. In an article in The Guardian, Steve Philips writes about the lessons we need to have learned from the post-Civil War era and what our future holds if we fail to heed those lessons …
If America fails to punish its insurrectionists, it could see a wave of domestic terror
We must not repeat the mistakes of the years after the 1860s war for white supremacy that we call the civil war
The last time the United States failed to properly punish insurrectionists, they went on to form the Ku Klux Klan, unleash a reign of murderous domestic terrorism, and re-establish formal white supremacy in much of the country for more than 100 years. As the House select committee investigating the January 6 Capitol attack begins televised hearings this week, the lessons from the post-civil war period offer an ominous warning for this moment and where we go from here.
It is often difficult to sustain the requisite sense of urgency about past events, however dramatic and shocking they may have been at the time. Memories fade, new challenges arise and the temptation to put it all behind us and move on is strong. On top of all that, Republicans quickly and disingenuously called for “unity”, mere days after failing to block the peaceful transfer of power. If we want to preserve our fragile democracy, however, Congress and the president must learn from history and not make the same mistakes their predecessors did in the years after the 1860s war for white supremacy that we call the civil war.
In 1860, many people believed that America should be a white nation where Black people could be bought and sold and held in slavery. The civil war began when many of the people who held that view refused to accept the results of that year’s presidential election. They first plotted to assassinate president-elect Abraham Lincoln (five years later, they would succeed). Then they seceded from the Union, and shortly thereafter started shooting and killing people who disagreed with them. By the end of the war, 2% of the entire country’s population had been killed, the equivalent of 7 million people being killed based on today’s US population.
Despite the rampant treason and extraordinary carnage of the war, the country’s political leaders had little appetite for punishing their white counterparts who had done their level best to destroy the United States of America. After Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth successfully assassinated Lincoln in 1865, Andrew Johnson ascended to the highest office in the land. Johnson, a southerner who “openly espoused white supremacy”, “handed out pardons indiscriminately” to Confederate leaders and removed from the south the federal troops protecting newly freed African Americans.
The historian Lerone Bennett Jr captured the tragedy of the moment in his book Black Power USA: The Human Side of Reconstruction, 1867-1877, writing: “Most Confederate leaders expected imprisonment, confiscation, perhaps even banishment. Expecting the worst, they were willing to give up many things in order to keep some. If there was ever a moment for imposing a lasting solution to the American racial problem, this was it. But the North dawdled and the moment passed. When the Confederates realized that the North was divided and unsure, hope returned. And with hope came a revival of the spirit of rebellion … this was one of the greatest political blunders in American history.”
With that revival of white supremacist hope came ropes and robes and widespread domestic terrorism. Mere months after the ostensible end of the civil war in April 1865, half a dozen southern young white Confederate war veterans gathered in Pulaski, Tennessee, in December 1865 to discuss what to do with their lives, and they decided to form a new organization called the Ku Klux Klan. The first Grand Wizard of the KKK, Nathan Bedford Forrest, was a Confederate general who had been pardoned by Johnson. In less than one year, Forrest would go on to orchestrate “336 cases of murder or assault with intent to kill on freedmen across the state [of Georgia] from January 1 through November 15 of 1868”.
The effectiveness of the domestic terrorism in crushing the country’s nascent multiracial democracy was unsurprising and undeniable. In Columbia county, Georgia, 1,222 votes had been cast for the anti-slavery party in April 1868, and after the reign of terror that year, the party received just one vote in November .
Lest we think this was all a long time ago, the House committee hearings are about to remind us all that we had an insurrection just last year. Not only did a violent mob attack the country’s elected leaders and attempt to block the peaceful transfer of power, but even after the assault was repelled, 147 Republicans – the majority of the Republican members in Congress – refused to accept the votes of the American people and attempted to overthrow the elected government of the United States of America.
And far from being chastened, the enemies of democracy in the Republican party have only become emboldened, like their Confederate counterparts of the last century. Just as happened in the years after the civil war when the prospect of large-scale Black voting threatened white power and privilege, the defenders of white nationalism have engaged in a legislative orgy of passing pro-white public policies – from trying to erase evidence of racism and white supremacy from public school instruction to laws making it increasingly difficult for people of color to cast ballots. As journalist Ron Brownstein has warned, “The two-pronged fight captures how aggressively Republicans are moving to entrench their current advantages in red states, even as many areas grow significantly more racially and culturally diverse. Voting laws are intended to reconfigure the composition of today’s electorate; the teaching bans aim to shape the attitudes of tomorrow’s.”
All of this is happening because the insurrectionists have not and believe they will not be punished. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Democrats control Congress and the White House, and they can take strong and decisive action to ensure appropriate consequences for people who seek to undermine democracy. The House of Representatives impeached Donald Trump in 2021 for incitement of insurrection, and Congress can still invoke the 14th amendment’s provision banning from office any person who has “engaged in insurrection”. All those who aided and abetted Trump’s insurrection should face the full force of the laws that are designed to protect the multiracial democracy that the majority of Americans want. The fate of democracy in America is quite literally at stake.