The Capitol Breach: Have We Been Here Before?

The Capitol Breach: Have We Been Here Before?

Graham Edmonson

As I am sure everybody knows at this point, on Wednesday, Jan. 6 the Capitol Building in Washington D.C. was stormed by a group of enraged Trump supporters. As Congress held a joint session to debate over the election integrity of three states: Arizona, Georgia, and Pennsylvania, pro-Trump rioters breached security barricades and entered the Capitol. Though there was no legal way for Trump to overturn the election, Trump was effectively treating this meeting as his ‘last stand’ for the 2020 presidency. Before Congress met however, Pence released a letter stating that he had no power to overturn the election and that he would make no attempt to do so. Trump urged his supporters to march down Pennsylvania Avenue, saying that he would be with them when in reality he returned to the White House. Once the protesters arrived at the Capitol they broke windows, fought with police, climbed scaffolding, and entered the building. Congress was forced to recess and multiple members, including Pence, were evacuated from the building. One man identified as Richard Barnett was photographed leaving a threatening message on Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s desk while sitting in her chair. There were five deaths resulting from the riots, one of which was a police officer. Many people, some of which are Congress members, are calling this an attempt at a coup. Wednesday night, Congress reconvened and Pence officially declared Joe Biden the election victor. 

These events prompt a plethora of questions concerning the immediate future of our nation. First, we must look at the past. Has anything like this ever happened before? How did the nation move forward after that? 

There has been no event in US history that has unfolded exactly like the events on Jan. 6. There have been highly contested elections and there has been violence at the Capitol, but Jan 6. was the first time that a president has directed violence on the Capitol in an attempt to maintain control. One situation which is comparable to the nation’s current events is the election of 1876. The 1876 electoral race between Democrat Samuel Tilden and Republican Rutherford B. Hayes ended with Tilden winning the popular vote. However, Tilden still required one electoral vote to officially win. The election results from three states were in dispute. These three states added up to 19 electoral votes, which would be enough to swing the election for Hayes. Like Jan 6., Congress held a bipartisan session to resolve this issue. Congress granted all three states to Hayes, who subsequently won the election. 

Several important details make the 1876 election quite different from this year’s election. First, the election in 1876 was a close race while in the 2020 election Biden was clearly victorious with 306 electoral votes to Trump’s 232. Also, neither of the candidates in the 1876 election had previously been president. Congress, in 1876, therefore, was able to meet uninterrupted by violence incited by a president who wanted to maintain power. 

In the past there have been several events where the Capitol has come under attack for political reasons. The most notable of these was on August 24, 1814, when the British invaded Washington and set both the White House and the Capitol building on fire during the War of 1812. This, however, was directed by a foreign nation during a time of war. Other politically motivated attacks on the Capitol include bombings by a German born Harvard professor in 1915, the Weather Underground Bombing in 1971, and a bombing by a left extremist group in 1983. In 1954, four Puerto Rican nationalists opened fire on the House floor, injuring five members of Congress. These incidents, however, were smaller groups intent on getting attention, they were not attempting to overthrow an election.

As nothing quite like Trump’s 2021 ‘coup’ attempt has ever happened in the history of America, questions about our nation’s immediate future arise as well. Many Americans are doubtlessly wondering how our nation is going to move forward from these tragic events. It is clear that there is a great divide in our country between Democrats and Republicans. In order to prevent further conflict it is important that two things happen. First, the Republican Party must admit that the storm in the capital was an attack on democracy and that Trump incited the rioters. Politics today is filled with cover-ups and scapegoats. Some right-leaning media personalities, such as those on Fox News, have claimed that the attack was actually incited by  the left extremist group Antifa. In order for our country to move forward without becoming further divided, the Republicans must be honest about these events and refrain from placing blame on other groups. The second thing that must happen is that the parties must work together. The middle of a worldwide pandemic is not the time to promote party-specific principles. The only way to save the American people who are dying from coronavirus is to have a united and therefore, effective government.