Supporters of this violent insurrection also took to social media to proclaim it was the beginning of a “Second American Revolution.” One rioter explained, “We’re walking down the same exact path as the Founding Fathers.” Another told MSNBC reporter Vaughn Hillyard, “If you don’t hear our voices tonight, you’ll see our muskets tomorrow.”
But while the insurrectionists attacking the hallowed halls of American democracy did share some parallels with the revolutionaries who birthed the United States, there were also crucial differences. In many ways, they are battling against the very things that the American revolutionaries sought.
The American Revolution was not the product of a consensus among colonists concerning high-minded ideals as it is so often portrayed. Instead, to a significant degree, it was the byproduct of a variety of misperceptions, each flourishing among a minority of colonists. During the American Revolution, a small number of highly mobilized people embraced violent direct action on the basis of false beliefs.
The first misperception flourished in the slaveholding South, where many believed that the British government would end slavery. In 1772, the British judiciary found that an enslaved man named James Somerset, who had traveled briefly to England, could not be enslaved in that land for arcane legal reasons. Although the Somerset case was a fairly narrow legal decision, many colonists believed that it prohibited slavery in Britain. News of the case spread rapidly through the colonies and led many American enslavers to conclude that Britons hoped to end American slavery. It was one reason that Virginians were among the most eager proponents of American independence.
Another misconception circulated across the colonies. In the 1760s, colonists believed that British officials were plotting against them, trying to mislead King George and his allies about the state of affairs in the colonies. Massachusetts Patriots accused governors Francis Bernard and Thomas Hutchinson of spreading false news about them to mislead the British government. New Jerseyans and Marylanders held similar beliefs about their own governors. Hoping that the removal of these officials would hasten reconciliation, they chased them out of the colonies.
Colonists also suspected that Parliament and the ministers who led it were scheming to “enslave” them. Historians have debated how literally we should take this rhetoric. Were the American Patriots insisting that the British government wanted to condemn them to lives of perpetual servitude as chattel slavery, or were they merely stretching a point about the deprivation of liberty?
For many Patriots, the fear of slavery was literal. One pamphleteer wrote, “You will become slaves indeed, in no respect different from the sooty Africans, whose persons and properties are subject to the disposal of their tyrannical masters.”
The text of the Declaration of Independence also demonstrates the overactive imaginations of the revolutionaries. After the stirring prologue, the Declaration’s authors listed 27 grievances. Among the claims: that King George “has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.” This Declaration asserted that the King had “excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages.” The Declaration even claimed that King George “has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant.” The action that occasioned this complaint? A meeting had been moved from Boston to Cambridge, Mass., on the “unusual, uncomfortable” campus of Harvard College.
Many of the claims in the Declaration were blatantly false, with some tending toward outlandishness or even ridiculousness. British leaders did not aim to incite violence against the colonists any more than they hoped to enslave them. They did not incite indigenous people against the colonists — until, of course, they allied with some Native Americans during the Revolutionary war.
In short, the American revolutionaries did not simply rise in rebellion because their tea was more expensive. They decided to revolt against the greatest military power of their age in large part because they had encountered rumors, conspiracy theories and other misinformation leading them to believe that Britain’s leaders were conspiring against them.
In this sense, the insurrectionists who stormed the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday embody some of the ugliest, most unhinged aspects of the American revolutionaries. If theirs is a second American Revolution, it, too, is one founded on unnecessary violence, minority rule and false information. The ubiquity of QAnon symbolism among the attackers, on flags and clothing, suggests that this bizarre conspiracy theory propelled the rioters. Moreover, President Trump incited the attack with a lengthy regurgitation of widely debunked narratives of electoral fraud, which he called an “egregious assault on our democracy.”
As in the revolutionary era, false news and conspiratorial thinking helped to propel this violent mob — even after order was restored Wednesday, conservative media started propagating the false conspiracy that left-wing protesters had infiltrated the Trump rioters and precipitated the violence.
Yet, despite these parallels, Wednesday’s violence departs from the model of the American Revolution. The American Revolution was, after all, ultimately an effort to dethrone one man from sovereignty over what would become the United States. Those who fought at the U.S. Capitol seem to be interested most of all in installing Trump in power at the expense of the people’s sovereignty. The insurrection aimed to disrupt a democratic ritual that ultimately originated in the American Revolution’s rejection of monarchical rule.
The U.S. Capitol is richly symbolic of the American Revolution. Its rotunda contains a massive mural called the “Apotheosis of Washington” in which the first U.S. president ascends to the heavens to become a god. As the Capitol insurrectionists aim to seize the legacy of the American Revolution, we should take care not to apotheosize and idolize the revolution. It was an imperfect, violent and at times irrational event.
But Americans also can’t forget its promise of majoritarian democracy — one that represented a massive achievement, and that Trump’s backers are assaulting today.