HistoryAmerican Insurrection

Was the assault on the Capitol really ‘unprecedented’? Historians weigh in

Photograph by MEL D. COLE
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Some experts say that the chaos in Congress is underpinned by a ‘hostility to democracy’ with roots in Reconstruction-era politics.


“An unprecedented assault” is how President-elect Joe Biden described the invasion of the U.S. Capitol by Trump supporters on Wednesday. CNN called it “an unprecedented attack,” ABC News “an unprecedented storming.”

The horde of rioters breaking into the U.S. Capitol and wreaking havoc in its somber halls as Congress was preparing to certify the results of the presidential election certainly shocked people in the United States and around the world.

But was this incident unprecedented? Not necessarily, historians say.

More than 300 historians and constitutional scholars—including Ron Chernow, Taylor Branch, and Stacy Schiff—have signed a letter calling for Donald Trump's impeachment, stating that the outgoing president "has violated his oath of office to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States."

“This mob action was unprecedented in its specifics,” says Eric Foner, a historian at Columbia University, who has written extensively on the Civil War and its long aftermath. “In other ways, it is not unprecedented at all. It represents something deeply rooted in the American experience, which is actually hostility to democracy”—a hostility that he and other historians link to the country’s fraught history of racial suppression.

The historic echoes accompanying this week’s events are uncomfortably loud. The electoral procedure that Congress was following as crowds breached the barricades stems from a compromise reached over the contentious presidential election of 1877—a compromise that made Rutherford B. Hayes president, ended Reconstruction, and ushered in...

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