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‘Alarmingly Similar.’ What the Chaos Around Lincoln’s First Inauguration Can Tell Us About Today, According to Historians

7 minute read

If the tense beginning of 2021 has you worried history is repeating itself, you’re not alone.

Experts on political history say an apt parallel to the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol can be found 160 years ago, when seven southern states seceded from the United States between December 1860 and February 1861.

The walk-up to Lincoln’s first inauguration was also dramatic, and some aspects of what was going on in the country back then will sound familiar to Americans today. In fact, a month after Lincoln took the oath of office on Mar. 4, 1861, shots fired at the Union’s Fort Sumter marked the beginning of the Civil War, America’s deadliest war.

“I think 1860-1861 is probably the best analogue for [2021],” says Robert Lieberman, a political scientist and author of Four Threats: The Recurring Crises of American Democracy. The 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol is “the closest we’ve come to 1861, the one instance of a real failure of what you would call a smooth peaceful transfer of power.” The big difference Lieberman finds between then and now is that the 2021 insurrection came “from inside the government,” referring to the members of Congress and President Trump who riled up the insurrectionists.

“This is an insurrection incited by the President of the United States,” Lieberman says. “That’s completely without precedent. That’s what’s so jaw-dropping to me.”

Unlike in 2020, politicians weren’t peddling false charges of election fraud and there was no disagreement about the outcome of the 1860 presidential election. However, “it leads to greatest failure of American democracy in history,” as Lieberman puts it.

Southern Democrats in 1860 “all agreed Lincoln had won. But the similarity might be, in both cases, there’s a rejection of the democratic process,” Rachel Shelden, Director of Penn State University’s George and Ann Richards Civil War Era Center, says. “[Today,] we’re seeing pushback against that idea that a majority voted for Joe Biden, and in 1860 although these folks did say yes Lincoln won the election, that, to them, meant that they needed to leave the Union, which was in and of itself, a rejection of democracy. They’re both rejections of the democratic process, just in different ways.”

Historian Ted Widmer has pointed out for the New York Times, a mob did attempt to break into the U.S. Capitol on Feb. 13, 1861, to disrupt the counting of the states’ certified electoral votes. U.S. Capitol security did not let them in because they did not have the proper credentials. Instead, they stood outside hurled insults at the head of the Capitol’s security detail General Winfield Scott, saying such things as “Free state pimp!” “Old dotard!” and “Traitor to the state of his birth!” Observers of the scene back then described the crowd as “a caldron of inflammable material” with “revolution” on their minds.

Later that month, Lincoln faced a threat to his life en route to his inauguration. When he was traveling by train to Washington D.C., a forefather of the U.S. Secret Service Allan Pinkerton and some of his operatives uncovered a plot, that had originated in Baltimore, to assassinate the incoming President.

“Pinkerton went into Baltimore with a team of agents and they impersonated Lincoln haters and got all of the information about the plot, then told Lincoln and his entourage,” Widmer, author of a book about the plot Lincoln on the Verge: Thirteen Days to Washington explains to TIME. “It was very well-funded…We don’t entirely know if the new Confederate government was behind it; there are interesting trails but they’re not conclusive.”

In the middle of the night on the last night of Lincoln’s trip, detectives escorted him to a secure transfer station so he could continue to journey to D.C., and he arrived safely, enabling a peaceful swearing-in on March 4, 1861. Looking back on that close call in 1861, less than a week after the mob attack on the U.S. Capitol, Widmer says “It does feel alarmingly similar [to Jan. 6, 2021].”

“As in 1861, you do have a feeling of a country pulling apart, back then it was really a region pulling away from the rest of the country and seven states had seceded before Lincoln even got to Washington,” he says. “Now it’s almost family by family, within every state in the country, there are people who are alienated from one version of America or the other. But it does feel similar in that there are two competing ideas about what America should stand for.”

Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address is one of the most famous speeches for politicians calling for unity. Among the most famous lines: “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

Shelden argues one similarity between the aftermath of the 1860 presidential election and the 2020 presidential election is, “political leaders were implicitly (and in some cases explicitly) rejecting the legitimacy of a party for reasons related to white supremacy.”

“That’s a real similarity to today,” she says. “People in Congress are whipping up conspiracy theories, and that definitely existed in 1860 and the 1850s more generally.” The slave states thought that Lincoln was out to eliminate slavery, the basis of their livelihood in their states, but, in fact, he ran for President in 1860 on a platform of eliminating it in the federal territories, not in the places where slavery already existed.

In addition to fear of losing control over slavery, southerners back then feared losing political control. They dominated federal politics for about the first half of the 19th century, and losing the presidency in 1860 threatened that dominance.

“The South controlled everything in Washington for a long time,” says Widmer, pointing out that therefore it’s ironic that part of the Lost Cause narrative reframes them as victims of big government after the Civil War. “They were just mad they lost control of what they had always controlled.”

Shelden says that the argument that FOX News presenter Brian Kilmeade and various GOP lawmakers made that Democrats shouldn’t pursue impeachment because of threats of mass violence “sounds a lot like what was going on in 1860” when the southern states repeatedly urged compromise or threatened to leave.

“There had been increasing expansion of slavery westward, and northerners repeatedly compromised with white southerners on that issue, and it was to no avail,” Shelden says. “The biggest lesson is that compromise is not always effective. It doesn’t necessarily prevent this kind of rejection of democracy.”

Then, as now, America was at a crossroads, but back then, Shelden argues there was less confidence that America would survive the conflict because of the country’s young age. The Jan. 6 insurrection attempt, she argues, showed many Americans how much they take their democracy for granted.

“What’s really important about the 19th century to understand is that people who lived in the 19th century, including the time of the Civil War, had a real sense of the fragility of democracy,” she says. “No democracy had survived in the world before, and so the U.S. was meant to be, to these folks, a beacon of hope. Lincoln famously called the U.S. ‘the last best hope of Earth’ in his second [annual] message to Congress. [Americans] were much more worried about democracy dying in the 19th century than we might be today. Today, I’m not sure we have that sense. We have an implicit trust that democracy will survive.”

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Write to Olivia B. Waxman at olivia.waxman@time.com