On January 6, 2021, a flood of white supremacists “stormed” the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C. Inside the building, a joint session of the United States Congress was convened to attend the constitutional duty of certifying the tally of the recent U.S. presidential election. The results of the election were submitted to Congress by the Electoral College, itself a constitutionally sanctioned body that endured withering criticism for certifying the election results tallied by the fifty independent states in the 2020 presidential election.
About an hour before “breaching” the Capitol ground’s outer perimeter, a mob attended a rally on the Ellipse near the White House. The rally was headlined by the incumbent President, Donald Trump. At the rally, Trump amplified yet again the meritless claims that the presidential election of 2020 had been “stolen” from him and his supporters. More than sixty lawsuits challenging the integrity of the results filed by the incumbent President’s legal teams and allies all failed. A number of these lawsuits were decided by circuit court judges who Trump himself appointed.
Instead of respecting the constitutionally sanctioned process underway, Trump encouraged the mob to march to the Capitol. There, they were to “take back” the nation from its duly elected legislators. The nation must be “retaken” by strength, he argued. This phrase—and the ideology that sustains it—was amplified by the growing number of people who communicated their displeasure with the election of 2020 on right-wing social media platforms. In their rage, the mob loudly articulated its goals: “hang Mike Pence,” the sitting Vice President of the United States; arrest “turtleface” Mitch McConnell, the sitting U.S. Senate Majority Leader; arrest Nancy Pelosi, the sitting Speaker of the House.
Having feloniously smashed windows and doors to enter the Capitol, the mob paraded about inside its hallowed halls, carrying Confederate flags, chanting “Stop the Steal,” and targeting U.S. legislators who scurried to evacuate as the mob broke into their offices. As Congress reconvened—mere hours after the mob’s removal from the Capitol grounds—the results of the incumbent president’s earlier tirade could not have been clearer: the mob injured more than 100 U.S. Capitol police officers and other law enforcement officials before the United States Capitol Police, reinforced by myriad local, state, and federal law agencies, ended the riot. One woman, Ashli Babbitt, lost her life, struck down by a Capitol Police officer’s bullet as she led a group that attempted to break into the House wing of the Capitol building. One Capitol police officer, Brian Sicknick, paid the ultimate sacrifice in the line of duty. Three others died of various incidents as well as injuries sustained during the riot. All were supporters of Trump.
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As we acknowledge Black History month in 2021, we should also acknowledge that the gathered mob’s white supremacist rage tapped into a deeply engrained politics of racial hatred that, like the history of slavery, lays at the core of U.S. history. The nation’s deep-seated politics of racial hatred are and have been sustained by a culture of political compromise in momentous historical eras where bold action has been required instead. This month, the United States Senate convened to try former President Trump for inspiring the attack on the U.S. Capitol, animating fears of changing racial demographics and racial hatred. The Senate faced a crucial decision in a momentous era. That august body acquitted Trump by way of a bipartisan vote, 57-43, that belies the majority will it assumes. In its vote to acquit, a compromise that reflected party over nation, the Senate failed its responsibility to hold the former president to account.
Reactionary by nature, the politics of racial hatred target efforts to bring about a more equitable and just America. But they are also a direct response to a Black radical protest tradition that departs sharply from mainstream American political thought. This Black radical protest tradition espouses, as the historian Manisha Sinha argues in the William & Mary Quarterly, a “powerful counternarrative to the history of revolutionary republicanism” in the U.S.
Shaped by Black Americans in the years leading up to and after the American Revolution, the Black radical protest tradition countered white Americans’ early republican characterizations of the new nation as a beacon of liberty and independence, understood as freedom from subjection to an imperial power or an enslaver. Instead of a land of freedom and independence, Black Americans’ counternarrative highlighted the problem of persistent protections for slavery (understood as the unjust ownership of one’s person and one’s labor by an enslaver) as the central legacy of U.S. republicanism.
Slavery, an historical human condition, was central to the development of race relations throughout the eighteenth century British colonies of which the United States was borne. U.S. republicanism itself was grounded in a politics of compromise informed by the politics of racial hatred, borne of the significant demographic shifts caused by the Revolutionary War. That this history was closely tied to the development of labor economies and race relations in the colonies-turned-new-states to the south of the Chesapeake is now well known. What is new in the public square of ideas, perhaps, is the history of the centrality of slave labor and transatlantic slave trading to economies and societies north of the Chesapeake. For instance, Rhode Island’s colonial and early republican economies, as the historian Leonardo Marques writes in the Journal of the Early Republic, were also tightly tied to slavery in the broader Atlantic world.
Eighteenth century slave traders based in the colonies financed a significant proportion of transatlantic slave trading ventures. Early abolitionists, such as Moses Brown, thus yielded to slave traders, including his brothers. In the 1780s, Rhode Island prohibited locally based slave traders from further financing slave trading ventures, but the economic and political power gained from slave trading capital ensured that a second generation of transatlantic slave traders, including James D’Wolf, would seek protections for slavery well into the nineteenth century. During the first half of that century, a new frontier for slavery opened in the west in North America: the Cotton Kingdom. Mill owners throughout New England sent agents south, often by way of Charleston, South Carolina, to secure slave-labor-produced cotton fibers and markets for “negro cloth” and other products manufactured locally.
Slavery shaped racial relations throughout the early United States in a wide range of ways. These varying social and political contexts shaped the discussions held by the fifty-five white male delegates to the Philadelphia convention of 1787. The corporate authorship of the U.S. Constitution in 1787, for example, required a number of compromises that, in the end, laid the legal foundation for slavery’s perpetuation in the new nation. Critics of these compromises were numerous, but also operated from the minority. As a result, to stand against slavery required the adoption of complex political positions.
In June 1804, William Ely, a state representative in Massachusetts, proposed an amendment to the Constitution to apportion representatives in the federal Congress according to the population of a state’s respective free population (and not its enslaved population also). Massachusetts had by then outlawed slavery, yet as the historian Kevin Vrevich observes, Ely’s amendment was not designed to protest slavery. Nor did Ely propose the amendment to correct a compromise the delegates to the Philadelphia convention reached in 1787 to count sixty percent of a state’s enslaved population toward the apportionment of its delegation to the federal Congress.
That agreement, known most popularly as the three-fifths compromise, translated into Southern states’ disproportionate political power in the federal Congress by virtue of the higher number of delegates. Enslaved people’s political fortunes were determined without their ability to vote for or against the policies that set the terms of their lives. Ely acted instead to mobilize the commonwealth’s Federalists to the belief that the concentration of political power into the hands of a conspiratorial “Slave Power” in Congress went against the commonwealth’s interests (though incidentally, many merchants and shipbuilders in Massachusetts did hold close interests in southern slavery).
The specter of a “Slave Power” politics that Ely raised to curry political favor in Massachusetts would only gain strength throughout the nineteenth century. Thus, “doughface” politicians—defined by the historian Matthew Mason (and others) as northern politicians who voted for compromise during slavery debates in legislative houses—often insisted that they hated slavery, but prioritized other political issues. From 1819 to 1821, for example, successive U.S. Congresses debated slavery’s future, prompted to the subject when the territorial government of Missouri filed its statehood application in 1817. That application included provisions to protect slavery in the prospective new state of Missouri. In response, a faction of U.S. Congressmen argued that the admission of a new slave state would further contribute to the political power that the “Slave Power” wielded in federal politics, and that a new slave state’s delegation would further strengthen the proslavery voting bloc in Congress.
Seeking compromise, U.S. Representative James Tallmadge, Jr., of New York, proposed an amendment that would authorize the Missouri territory to draft a state constitution. The Tallmadge amendment prohibited further transportation of enslaved people into the new state of Missouri, and proposed a gradual emancipation bill that would compel enslavers to free enslaved people at age 25. As these debates took shape, politicians in the northern district of Massachusetts (Maine) saw an opportunity. In concert with antislavery legislators in Massachusetts proper, they proposed that the northern district cede from Massachusetts and apply to the U.S. Congress for statehood as a “free” state. In the session that began in December 1819, the U.S. Senate passed a bill that permitted Maine’s admission to the union as a free state, and that permitted Missouri’s admission to the union as a slave state. To this bill, U.S. Senator Jesse B. Thomas of Illinois added an amendment that banned slavery to the north of latitude 36 degrees and 30 minutes. In March 1820, the U.S. House passed the measure.
During the Missouri crisis, U.S. Representative Henry Clay, of Kentucky, engineered the necessary support in the House for the compromise bill. For his efforts, Clay became known as the “Great Compromiser.” Clay’s political acumen would feature a generation later, during another federal political crisis. In December 1849, the territorial government of California submitted to Congress an application for admission to the Union. The application included a provision that prohibited slavery in the new state. Congress was already embroiled in debate regarding slavery’s expansion in the western territories, prompted by the flood of U.S. citizens into the territories. In his first annual message to Congress after the 1848 election, newly elected president Zachary Taylor endorsed California statehood, advised that further discussion of slavery in the territories be decided in federal courts, and opposed signing any compromise bill that might come to his desk. Taylor died sixteen months later.
His successor, Millard Fillmore, endorsed Clay’s efforts to engineer another compromise in Congress. The omnibus bill that Clay proposed featured several crucial measures. Adopted by Congress, the bill admitted California to the Union as a free state; abolished slavery in Washington, D.C.; organized the territory ceded to the U.S. by Texas as the New Mexico and Utah territories, with no prescription for slavery in either territory; implicitly endorsed the principle of popular sovereignty in those territories (which only fanned the frenzy to establish more slave states); and passed a strengthened federal Fugitive Slave act that antagonized another generation of Black Americans who sought freedom.
The U.S. Civil War (1861-1865) erupted after a decade of failed compromise attempts in the 1850s. Southern firebrands who vociferously defended slavery—and sought to maintain it in perpetuity—cited the Compromise of 1850 as precedent. They also balked at the rise of a new political party, the Republican Party (distinctly different from today’s), that drew together a coalition of disparate political interest groups and platforms, and that constructed as a central plank a resistance to the expansion of slavery into territories where it had not yet been established. That party nominated as its presidential candidate in 1860 an astute politician named Abraham Lincoln. Soon after Lincoln was elected, South Carolina seceded from the Union in protest of political compromises that its delegation believed no longer served the state’s interest in protecting slavery. In early 1861, ten more states followed South Carolina’s lead, and together, formed the Confederate States of America. As the historian Aaron R. Hall noted in the Journal of Southern History, that new nation re-envisioned the U.S. Constitution to encode explicit protections for slavery in its own constitution.
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The January 6 mob violated the core principles of protest enshrined in the very Constitution they claimed animated their “protest.” As I have commented in The Scholarly Kitchen, the mob did not storm the Capitol. It did not breach the building. To say either is to imbue the mob’s actions with the connotations of protest, of action for a valiant cause. To do that is to validate the very rhetoric that animated the mob, which believed it was disrupting an “illegal” (read: legitimate) process of confirming the votes that the states submitted to Congress by way of the Electoral College.
Set into historical context, the lessons of January 6, 2021, are all too clear. Political compromises from 1787 to 1850 did not save the nation from Civil War. Postbellum political compromises did even less to quell the nation’s sordid racial history. The truth, as scholars of many stripes know all too well, is that what we observed on January 6 was a resurgence of the politics of hatred, borne of the nation’s original sin—slavery. The mob’s actions serve as a poignant warning that, as yet, we have much with which to reckon.
To criticize political compromise is not to reject wholesale the value of meaningful agreement. History’s objective lessons demonstrate, however, that meaningless compromise—compromise with the goal of maintaining a morally corrupt present—accomplishes little more than kicking the proverbial can down the road. With these lessons in mind, we should demand that the ringleaders of the January 6 mob be held to account to the fullest extent of the law.
This month, the U.S. Senate tried the former president according to Senate rules, triggered by the U.S. House’s vote to impeach. Senators who voted to convict in good conscience attended to far more than the extraordinary business of a second impeachment trial for a President who left office. Such Senators registered a voice of reconciliation for the wounds reopened by the Capitol insurrection, amplified yet again the nation’s longstanding politics of racial hatred.