We’ve endured many attacks on our democracy and rights. Concerns we lost our way are sadly not new.
The Civil War, split the nation so violently 620,000 souls were lost, pitting brother against brother, destroying families.
On July 4, 1861 Lincoln’s famous address to Congress:
Our popular government has often been called an experiment. Two points in it our people have already settled – the successful establishing and the successful administering of it. One still remains – its successful maintenance against a formidable internal attempt to overthrow it. It is now for them to demonstrate to the world that those who can fairly carry an election can also suppress a rebellion; that ballots are the rightful and peaceful successors of bullets; and that when ballots have been fairly and constitutionally decided, there can be no successful appeal back to bullets; that there can no be no successful appeal except to ballots themselves, at succeeding elections. Such will be a great lesson of peace; teaching men that what they cannot take by an election neither can they take by a war; teaching all the folly of being the beginners of a war.
He went on to state in his Lyceum address,
“At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.”
According to Christian McWhirter, Lincoln Historian at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and museum,
“President Lincoln was concerned that America’s young democratic institutions were fragile and that legal means was the only way to appropriately address disagreements. Mob violence damages the rule of law, the constitution and ultimately democracy itself.”
Over a hundred and fifty years ago Lincoln’s words are just as applicable today. And our democracy just as fragile.
McCarthism was a campaign in the 1950’s championed by Senator Joseph McCarthy as a way to expose anyone suspected of being or believing in Communism. It fed off of the “red scare” from the 1940’s and officially began in February 1950 when he gave a speech in Ohio waving a piece of paper claiming to have proof of 205 known members of the communist party who were working and shaping policy in the state department.
No such list existed.
His unfounded accusations led to four years of the worst attacks on individual freedoms when thousands were brought before government panels and questioned about their “subversive activities.” Just asked to appear was enough to keep the subject from ever working again. But he could never have accomplished such pervasive and widespread destruction without the backing and complicity of powerful people in and out of Congress. His staunchest supporter, senator Pat McCarran made sure the McCarran Internal Security Act was passed over President Truman’s veto who said it made a “mockery of the bill of rights” because it required all “subversives” in the U.S. submit to government oversight.
It wasn’t until McCarthy’s lies extended to the military that he had finally gone too far. In nationally broadcasted hearings his intimidation, evasiveness and ruthless attacks on those willing to die for our country was more than the public could stomach. When a young Army lawyer uttered the words, “Have you no decency, sir?” The nation finally woke up and stopped one of the most shameful moments in American history.
J Edgar Hoover, at the age of 24, became the head of the Federal Bureau of Investigations new general intelligence division. Its goal was to monitor and disrupt the work of “domestic radicals” with the intent to punish, arrest or deport anyone who’s political views Hoover believed to be dangerous. He famously even targeted Felix Frankfurter who ultimately became a Supreme Court Justice, claiming he was “the most dangerous man in the United States” for his belief in judicial restraint. He served as the first Director of the FBI from 1935 until he died in 1972. But it wasn’t until after his death that secretive, wide spread abuses of his power were brought to light. He had routinely violated the very laws he was charged with enforcing, harassed political dissidents, compiled lists of potentially disloyal citizens, tried to suspend the writ of habeas corpus- a detainee’s right to demand a hearing to see if their detention is lawful-, amassed massive files to blackmail high level politicians including multiple sitting presidents, openly attacked civil rights leaders and even sent a blackmail letter to Martin Luther King Jr., urging him to commit suicide! His abuse of power was legendary.
President Richard Nixon and his top officials often used their power to “get” those they perceived as hostile to them by tapping their phones and requesting IRS audits.
John Ehrlichman, domestic policy chief to President Nixon, was quoted as saying in a Harpers magazine article,
“The war on drugs was really just a political ploy to attack Blacks and hippies, both of whom Nixon considered his enemies. We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or Black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and Blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
When a failed attempt to break into the Democratic National Committee Headquarters was shown to be funded by the White House and subsequently covered up by Nixon when he was heard on tape ordering the CIA to block the FBI’s investigation, one reporter wrote,
“Reading the transcripts is an emetic experience, one comes away feeling unclean. They showed Nixon contemptuous of the United States, its institutions, and it people.”
But his war atrocities are rarely cited. He lied to Congress and the American people when he ordered the bombings of Cambodia from March 1969 to August 1973 in the hopes of claiming victory in an undeclared war he knew he couldn’t win. They were stopped by a U.S. Federal judge who called them unconstitutional and Congress refusing to fund them. Tapes later documented Nixon’s belief he couldn’t win the 1972 election if he was seen as losing the war. Some historians saw this conversation as evidence he sacrificed American lives in order to win a second term.
The U.S. dropped 2.7 million tons of bombs on Cambodia, exceeding the total dropped on Japan in the Second World War by one million tons. An estimated 500,000 people were killed. Laos had even more bombs dropped on it, earning it the title of the most heavily bombed country in history.
January 6, 2021, the US Capitol is attacked.
Sadly, those corrupted by power, willing to lie, steal, cheat and destroy to keep it are not new. It’s only through the courage and steadfastness of honorable men and women unwilling to cross the line, standing arm in arm, voting under any circumstance, and willing to pay the ultimate price that keeps us from falling into the abyss and ending this magnificent testament to democracy.
Now it’s our turn.