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The secessionist roots of the Jan. 6 insurrection

Southern secessionists in 1860 had similar arguments to those of the pro-Trump rioters who stormed the Capitol.

A supporter of President Donald Trump holds a Confederate flag outside the Senate chamber after breaching the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., Jan. 6, 2021. (SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)
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In an interview ahead of the House Jan. 6 Select Committee hearings, Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), stressed the “extraordinary and unprecedented” nature of the 2021 assault on the U.S. Capitol. “You really have to go back to the Civil War to understand anything like it, but of course, there, you know, the Confederates never denied that Abraham Lincoln had actually won the election. They just wanted to secede from the Union.” Raskin is partially right — Southern secessionists emphasized the sway Lincoln’s antislavery Republican Party had over the Northern electorate as proof that the North was irredeemably radical and that disunion was a necessity.

But the story of Southern secession provides illuminating evidence that the Jan. 6 insurgency was, indeed, precedented, rooted in long-standing efforts to preempt, delegitimize and suppress Black voting.

Aware that roughly 90 percent of Black voters supported Joe Biden in 2020, former president Donald Trump tried, through his “Stop the Steal” movement, to invalidate and suppress votes in African American population centers; he maintained, in effect, that “Black people ha[d] no right to vote him out of office,” as Eugene Robinson succinctly put it. More than 150 years ago, Southern secessionists laid the groundwork for such arguments by maintaining that Blacks had no right to vote Lincoln into office.

Secessionists rallied White Southerners to their banner by warning that Republican rule would bring about a dystopia of racial equality, race war, race mixing, race competition — and Black voting. After the Republicans imposed emancipation, Southern Whites would be “degraded to a position of equality with free negroes,” forced to “stand side by side with them at the polls,” as Alabama secessionist Stephen F. Hale put it, in a frequently sounded alarm.

Moreover, secessionists argued that Lincoln’s election was constitutionally invalid because some Northern Black people had been permitted to exercise their franchise, voting for the Republican ticket in defiance of the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision (1857) that African Americans could not be U.S. citizens.

The most influential expression of this view was a speech by Georgia secessionist Thomas R.R. Cobb on Nov. 12, 1860, delivered just a few days after Lincoln won the electoral college on the strength of Northern votes. Cobb claimed that Lincoln’s election violated the “spirit of the Constitution.” “This Union was formed by white men,” he noted, “for the protection and happiness of their race.” The Founders did give each state the power to declare who should vote, but they assumed that only citizens — Whites — would exercise that power. “Yet to elect Abraham Lincoln, the right of suffrage was extended to free negroes in Vermont, Massachusetts, Ohio, New York and other Northern States, although the Supreme Court has declared them not to be citizens of this nation,” Cobb frothed. Alluding to the resistance and flight by enslaved people, Cobb intoned, “Our slaves are first stolen from our midst on underground Railroads, and then voted at Northern ballot-boxes to select rulers for you and me.”

This argument resonated widely across the South during the tumultuous secession winter and spring of 1860-1861, during which Deep South and then Upper South states left the Union and formed the Confederacy. Secessionists repeatedly claimed that there was massive voter fraud in Ohio where “fourteen thousand negroes” supposedly cast illicit ballots for Lincoln, augmented by additional “half breeds, mulattoes and all other branches of the negro race.” A Georgia paper put it even more succinctly a few weeks after the presidential contest: “It is stated upon good authority that negro votes in the State of Ohio carried the State for Lincoln.” The author demanded in the same breath that no one should be allowed to take a seat in Congress who was “elected by free negroes.”

The argument that Black votes had swung the presidential electoral results was false. African Americans made up less than 2 percent of the population in the free states in 1860 and their voting was sharply limited. Only in five states — Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont — could Black men vote without significant restrictions.

The hostility to Black suffrage was widespread. Northern Whites were the source of the rumor that 14,000 African American ballots were cast illegally for the Republicans. Absent any actual evidence, the rumor spread, appearing in articles by Northern and Southern Democrats alike that claimed that Ohio had fallen “under Negro rule.”

Northern Democrats used the story to discredit Republican candidates and warn against further enfranchisement of Black people. Southern secessionists went further still and argued that Black voting delegitimized the Union itself. To them, the prospect of Black participation, should the Republicans free and enfranchise the majorities of enslaved people in many Southern plantation districts, was an existential threat. “We are often asked if it is really true that 15,000 negroes voted for Lincoln in Ohio,” secessionist editors in South Carolina asked rhetorically, rounding the number of voters up for effect. “We have the plainest evidence in the world that they did,” they insisted, citing Northern Democratic press accounts. And so, they concluded: “It is time that the latent spark of manliness and pride in the Anglo-Saxon blood of the South should be kindled, so that it may wrap the Union in ruins.”

Of course, secessionists did not feel obliged to provide proof of the alleged illegality or corrupting effects of Black votes. It was enough to assert, as a meeting of voters in Jasper County, Ga., did in December 1860, that Lincoln’s ascendance had been “procured in part by a violation of the Elective franchise, in permitting negro suffrage.” This “contravention of the constitutional rights of Georgia and the South,” they resolved, was “just and sufficient” grounds for secession. A correspondent to the Charleston Courier, in the seedbed of disunion, pushed a similar argument. If Lincoln had been “elected by fraud, corruption and free negro votes,” the writer suggested, “no power on earth ought to be able to secure his inauguration, and the people have a right to say he is not their President.”

Broadly condemning the North for “progressive fanaticism,” secessionists in Washington County, Ga., insisted that Lincoln’s election was tantamount to “negro rule,” as they could see “no difference between the submission to a negro ruler and one elected by negro suffrage.”

The election deniers of 2020 need not be aware of this rather obscure history to be shaped by it. It is no coincidence that Confederate flags were conspicuous in the Jan. 6 mob or that the rioters were 95 percent White. Trump’s message to his followers on Jan. 6 — that “you’re the real people, you’re the people that built this nation” — echoes Thomas R.R. Cobb’s message that Union was “formed by white men … for the protection and happiness of their race.” The shared premise of these noxious claims is that White people’s citizenship, and their votes, count for more than Black people’s. Unless this centuries-old “big lie” is rebutted, Jan. 6 will serve as the precedent for future attacks on legitimate elections.

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