Demonstration and dishonor

Aware that mischief was in the works, as known to every newspaper reader and TV viewer, what steps were taken to defend the honor of Congress in pursuit of its constitutional duties?

SUPPORTERS OF US President Donald Trump protest in front of the Capitol Building in Washington, DC, on January 6. (photo credit: STEPHANIE KEITH/REUTERS)
SUPPORTERS OF US President Donald Trump protest in front of the Capitol Building in Washington, DC, on January 6.
On January 6, 2021, a few thousand demonstrators marched as a mob to the US Capitol and stood on the broad stone stairways and porches that surround the building, waving flags and taking pictures of each other. People were there with baby carriages and children. Some even brought their dogs. Others, taking advantage of the weak external security and building protection by the police, smashed windows and entered the Capitol. Almost unhindered in their entry and protest, they planned to disrupt the Joint Session of Congress called to certify the results of the Electoral College, awarding the US presidency to Democrat Joe Biden.
The representatives and senators in the chamber were hurriedly told by the few Capitol security officials on the scene to get down on the floor and then were quickly escorted out of the chamber to a “secure” location. No one can doubt that the scene of demonstrators climbing over Capitol walls, breaking windows, forcing entry into the building that houses the Congress, trespassing into congressional offices, and even sitting in the speaker’s chair is an infamy and disgrace to the most important institution symbolizing America’s representative democracy.
One hundred sixty years ago, the United States was faced with a very similar, but much more dangerous situation, when another joint session of Congress sought to certify the election results of the 1861 Electoral College. Similar to today, a splinter group (Southern secessionists) disagreed violently with the national election results and sought to derail the joint session to void the selection of a president they deemed as unacceptable.
 Although Abraham Lincoln had won the election of 1860 with the majority of popular votes and a majority in the Electoral College, Southern politicians and sympathizers were insistent that Congress not be allowed to meet in person and certify him as the new president. Remember, Washington, DC is actually located in the “South” – between Virginia and Maryland, two former slaveholding states.
However, one man of honor, of overarching commitment to the Constitution and the protection of the government, took charge. Rumors of armed bands infiltrating Washington, of plots to assassinate Lincoln, and of a take-over of the halls of Congress were prevalent before the joint session of Congress was to meet on January 13, 1861.
General Winfield Scott, head of the small US Army, and hero of the War of 1812 and the Mexican War, was stationed in Washington and took personal responsibility for the orderly changeover of the nation’s chief executive. He met with then-vice president Breckinridge, assuring him that order would be maintained and the certifying joint session should proceed.
Scott brought in army troops to reinforce the 240 Marines already in the Capitol and prepared them to use force if necessary. He even mounted cannons along key streets in the city as a symbolic show of force and resolved to quickly subdue any threat to the joint session.
After hearing Vermont representative Lucius Chittenden’s concern about threats to disrupt the electoral vote, Scott reassured Chittenden that he had “suppressed that infamy” and that the announcement of the election of the president and vice president would proceed. Scott stated his resolve that although “a few drunken rowdies may risk and lose their lives,” no “revolution” would occur.
SCOTT REASSURED the elected officials that they had nothing to fear: “Any man who… by force or unparliamentary disorder [attempts] to obstruct or interfere with the lawful count of the electoral vote for president and vice president of the United States [will] be lashed to the muzzle of a twelve-pound cannon and fired out of a window of the Capitol... It is my duty to suppress insurrection – my duty!”
The description of Scott’s preparations and planning demonstrates both his resolve and his foresight. From within the chamber, except for the few guards at the door, no soldiers were visible. Scott had already placed armed sharpshooters in niches along the walls overlooking the chamber. And sitting next to Chittenden in the gallery was a colonel of an elite military platoon, observing the proceedings – but out of uniform.
When asked why he wasn’t with his regiment in case trouble arose, he smilingly replied: “We are Minute Men you know; that is, we enter a room as private citizens and come out of it a minute afterwards a regiment armed with loaded repeating rifles. Such a thing might happen here today if the necessity arises. My men are within easy call and their rifles are not far away. Some men get excited on election day and require control.”
Soon thereafter, US senator Stephen Douglas successfully proposed dispensing with reading aloud from various state certificates, so the electoral votes could be expeditiously certified. Finally, the vice president rose from his seat and declared Abraham Lincoln as the president of the United States.
Immediately, the secessionists in the gallery focused their anger at Scott. Chittenden reported that, “Curses for Old Scott broke out everywhere on the floor and in the gallery, as the previously quiet spectators seemed in a moment to turn into madmen.”
The mob demanded the “old traitor” remove his soldiers from the Capitol so they could go about their business. Of course, Scott refused to stand down and relegated the protesters to shouting insults, afraid to confront a determined and intimidating military presence.
Winfield Scott understood in 1861 that the continuing operation of the United States Congress in executing its constitutional responsibilities was critical to the image, confidence, continuity and form of the American government. Any threat to that continuity would be met immediately with force, and failure to protect the Congress and the Capitol would be considered a dishonor to the republic and its citizens. How far we have fallen from those sentiments today.
For the last few weeks, almost everyone knew that disgruntled citizens and an extremely angry president denied the election results, hoping to interfere with the vote of the Electoral College and its congressional certification. It was known citizens were gathering in DC and that the president himself would address them at a mass rally.
Aware that mischief was in the works, as known to every newspaper reader and TV viewer, what steps were taken to defend the honor of Congress in pursuit of its constitutional duties? Were Federal police forces contacted to be on hand? Were arrangements made for the National Guard to take station inside or outside the building? Was riot control equipment ready to be utilized in protecting the outside of the building or its entrances in order to take action in case demonstrators entered? Were Federal forces prepared and ready to protect and defend the Capitol?
Or, were congressional officials imitating the cowardly municipal officials in Minneapolis, Seattle, Portland and New York, where they were afraid to confront out-of-control rioters, thieves, and arsonists – shrinking from the enforcement of civil order and sacrificing whole sections of their cities to ransacking and destruction? What loss of nerve seized the officials of Congress responsible for preserving the honor, dignity and safety of the Congress and its officials? In contrast to General Scott, the events on January 6 demonstrate a total lack of diligence, intelligence, foresight and preparedness.
And what of the Capitol security officials and the elected representatives? Many took individual precautions, telling staff to stay home or dress incognito. However, when the mob mounted the steps and several entered the building, no man or woman who had sworn an oath to defend and protect the Constitution stood up and said, “This is the Congress of the United States and no group of demonstrators will interrupt these proceedings. I will stand here until officers eject the offenders! And we in Congress will continue the people’s business!”
Of course, self-interest is the enemy of honor, and honor is not a word that resonates in today’s PC climate. Yet, honor is still the notion that energizes citizens and can give meaning to life. When Winston Churchill stated publicly that the honor of Britain was at stake and he expected his government to stay and fight against Hitler to the end – whatever the risk – he inspired a nation. Churchill risked his life many times during the war, facing danger again and again as part of his responsibility as a national leader.
The US Capitol is the Holy Ground of the American government. The events of this month reveal that nothing is sacred anymore, that even Holy Ground isn’t worth the fight or sacrifice. To flee its sanctuaries at the first whiff of trouble shows citizens and the world that ideals, honor, and commitment are empty words in the face of even a hint of potential danger.
We have no trouble sending young men and women out to war where they take an oath of honor to defend their country – an oath that can put them in danger and even cost them their lives. But what of each of us? What do we owe to a country and its institutions? What of the elected representatives, whom we consider the “best of citizens?” Are they an inspiration? Or are they simply echoes of today’s hollow mantra – self-interest: first, last, and always?
(Quotes from: The Peace that Almost Was by Mark Tooley)
The writer is former editor and manager of US News & World Report’s book division and editor/author of 25 books.