February 16, 2021
by Marie-Jeanne Rossignol, Vice-President of the Institut des Amériques, professor in North American studies at the University of Paris. She is a specialist in anti-slavery in the United States before the Civil War.
After the January 6, 2021 assault on the U.S. Capitol by Donald Trump's supporters was over, Vice-President Mike Pence, visibly shaken, spoke briefly condemning the attack before continuing the election certification of the new president, Joe Biden. To describe the assailants, he then used the term mob which has historical significance for American democracy. Used in the 17th century, this English term is an abbreviation of the Latin mobile vulgus or "fickle crowd".
Mobs play a non-negligeable role in the history of US democracy, which hasn't been calm and quiet, far from it. In France, we remain under the influence of Alexis de Tocqueville's writings, and his liberal and optimistic vision of this democracy since its inception. Tocqueville, in Democracy in America (1835), depicts an early 19th century US as benefitting from a tranquil political system which he uses as a model for Europe: a universal Republican masculin suffrage insures a certain equality, a real progress compared to the British and French tax-based monarchist suffrage; the Protestant religion subdivided into competing churches, but very active, provides the social glue vital to national peace and the civic involvement of citizens within associations.
And yet, this so-called equalitarian and tranquil nation is in fact, during the 1820s and 1830s that Tocqueville is getting his inspiration from, victim of mobs who do not hesitate to invade the White House (more or less peacefully), but also physically assault elected officials and political opponents, if not ordinary citizens if they do not conform to majority norms, not to mention free African Americans in the North. So the mobs often act with impunity, which seems to be the case for the January 6, 2021 riot since the assailants even left between two National Guard lines - though legal proceedings have now been initiated. We can also remember the mob of armed citizens that protested within Michigan's Capitol building itself on April 30, penetrating right into the Senate of this institution (an episode mentioned in this article of the COVIDAM blog).
Very visible in public space starting in the 1830s, crowds of citizens acting violently and circumventing legal procedures, substituting anger and vengence for the law, provoke the beginning of political responses, such as Lincoln's first grand address in 1838. Today, Donald Trump's second impeachment, an unparalleled event, definitely shows Congress' determination to sanction a crisis of democracy, though its roots run deep.
Democracy in America is a political science text which tries to set general rules, and not stick closely to the reality in the US, except in the last chapter of the first part where Tocqueville looks at the racial relationships in the United States. As demonstrated in that chapter, Tocqueville knows full well that in the United States equality is partially a facade. But beyond racial issues, does American democracy, with its very specific mechanisms, really guarantee social and political peace in the 1830s?
Ironically, religion which Tocqueville sees as a social glue has, since the 1812 war, incited such enthusiasm in the US leading to social reform campaigns in the 1820s that enflamed the whole nation: the Evangelicals want to change an American society they consider corrupt. Reformation associations (organized in denominations at the national level) take on topics that profoundly divide the country, such as slavery, for which they propose solutions, sometimes radical (deportation of Blacks to Africa): the support of some for this solution repulses others, setting off other solutions just as explosive (immediate emancipation). Conflicts will cuminate in the 1830s, under the influence of the social reform movements, but also of the populism encouraged by a new president, Andrew Jackson.
Indeed, the on-going expansion of masculin suffrage since 1800, so seductive to European observers, ends up in 1828 (three years before Tocqueville's trip to America) with the election of the first president from the new Democratic party, Andrew Jackson, a brutal and unscrupulous man who declares his support for the common man. Donald Trump visited Jackson's plantation in Tennessee in March 2017, shortly after his election, and stated at the time that Jackson was a source of inspiration for him.
As a matter of fact, Jackson gave free rein to the crowd: during the party that followed his taking office, over 20 000 people, mostly drunk, rushed into the White House where they broke the porcelain and the glassware, but also the doors and the windows. Political conflicts took a violent turn in the 1820s, even before Jackson's election. Against slavery, the governor of Illinois, Edward Coles, clashed with the pro-slavery supporters who destroyed the State Capitol buildings and specifically his farm. As David Grimsted explains in American Mobbing, the racial issue and slavery become the main setting for mob attacks in 1828 with riots being organized against Blacks in Cincinnati in 1829, then against Blacks and abolitionists in New York in 1834. But other nationalist mobs also lash out at Catholics (strong anti-Irish feelings), which for example resulted in the setting on fire of a convent near Boston in 1834. Lastly, a hostile crowd went after the abolitionist Elijah P. Lovejoy between 1836 and 1837: his printing press is destroyed several times and he is finally killed (see illustration above).
That is when the young Lincoln gives his address in 1838 condemning the mobs and calling for the rule of law in the political life of the nation, in accordance with the founding principles of the Constitution. Getting together in violent groups to deal with issues in their own way, he said, is not acceptable, no matter what the impassioned reason. We must return to the courts and the institutions the role that is theirs.
So clearly Lincoln, a historical figure of the Republican party to which Donald Trump has claimed his affiliation since the beginning of the 2020 presidential campaign, would have rejected the events of January 6 where a president, so-called Republican, drove his followers to attack the seat of American representative democracy.
One only needs to remember that, in 1838, Lincoln predicted that the future of the United States could only be built on a solid rock of its basis: "respect for the Constitution and its laws".
Marie-Jeanne Rossignol is Vice-President of the Institut des Hautes Études de l’Amérique latine, Professor in North-American studies at the University of Paris (UMR LARCA). A specialist in anti-slavery in the beginning of the United States, she manages with Claire Parfait the collection "Slavery Narratives ("Récits d'esclaves") at PURH. In 2018, she edited Undoing Slavery. American Abolitionism in Transnational Perspective 1775-1865 (Presses de l’ENS) with Michaël Roy and Claire Parfait.