The Assault on the Capitol and Our Founding Ideals
By David Harmer
Written January 6, 2021
This is the story of two insurrections—one thwarted, one ignited.
From Newburgh, New York, the Continental Army continued to monitor British-occupied New York City, but disaffection was smoldering. Eight long years after the Revolutionary War began, those who had borne its battles had gone months without pay, and their promised pensions hadn’t been funded. News of the treaty ending the war heightened fears that Congress would discharge the soldiers without compensation. Multiple letters circulated urging mutiny, even a coup.
On March 15, 1783, the angry officers assembled. To their astonishment, General Washington entered the room and asked to speak. He reminded them that he had shared their sufferings:
As I was among the first who embarked in the cause of our common country; as I have never left your side one moment, but when called from you on public duty; as I have been the constant companion and witness of your distresses, and not among the last to feel and acknowledge your merits; as I have ever considered my own military reputation as inseparably connected with that of the army . . . it can scarcely be supposed, at this late stage of the war, that I am indifferent to its interests.
Acknowledging their grievances, he asked how they should be redressed. By “turning our arms against” the country “unless Congress can be compelled into instant compliance”? The notion “has something so shocking in it, that humanity revolts at the idea.” Vouching for the good faith of Congress, Washington urged patience: “Like all other large bodies, where there is a variety of different interests to reconcile, their determinations are slow.” He would support lawful, peaceful efforts to secure promised compensation:
In the attainment of compleat justice for all your toils and dangers, and in the gratification of every wish, so far as may be done consistently with the great duty I owe my country, and those powers we are bound to respect, you may freely command my services to the utmost extent of my abilities.
But to employ force, or even to foment discord, would betray the principles for which they’d fought:
Let me entreat you, gentlemen, on your part, not to take any measures, which, viewed in the calm light of reason, will lessen the dignity, and sully the glory you have hitherto maintained. . . . And let me conjure you, in the name of our common country, as you value your own sacred honor, as you respect the rights of humanity, and as you regard the military and national character of America, to express your utmost horror and detestation of the man, who wishes, under any specious pretenses, to overturn the liberties of our country; and who wickedly attempts to open the flood-gates of civil discord, and deluge our rising empire in blood.
Washington then attempted to read a letter—but couldn’t. Reaching into his pocket, he said:
Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in the service of my country.
Officers who’d been on the verge of insurrection were reduced to tears. The threat dissolved. Wrote Jefferson: “The moderation and virtue of a single character . . . prevented this revolution from being closed, as most others have been, by a subversion of that liberty it was intended to establish.”
On January 6, 2021, speaking to a rally on the National Mall, the current president said:
Democrats attempted the most brazen and outrageous election theft. . . . We’re leading Pennsylvania, Michigan, Georgia by hundreds of thousands of votes, and then late in the evening or early in the morning, boom, these explosions of bullshit . . . .
We’re going to have to fight much harder . . . . After this, we’re going to walk down and I’ll be there with you. . . . We’re going to walk down to the Capitol . . . . You’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength . . . .
We have come to demand that Congress do the right thing . . . .
Somebody says, “Well, we have to obey the Constitution.” And you are, because you’re protecting our country . . . .
Because they want to steal the election. The radical left knows exactly what they’re doing. They’re ruthless and it’s time that somebody did something about it . . . .
The Republicans have to get tougher. . . . They want to play so straight, they want to play so, “Sir, yes, the United States, the Constitution doesn’t allow me to send them back to the States.” Well, I say, “Yes, it does because the Constitution says you have to protect our country and you have to protect our Constitution and you can’t vote on fraud,” and fraud breaks up everything, doesn’t it? When you catch somebody in a fraud, you’re allowed to go by very different rules. . . .
And we fight. We fight like hell and if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore. . . .
We’re going to the Capitol and . . . we’re going to try and give them the kind of pride and boldness that they need to take back our country.
Thus inspired, an armed mob broke through the doors of the Capitol; overpowered Capitol Police, injuring one so severely that he died the next day; broke windows; trashed offices; stormed the House and Senate chambers; sent our elected representatives into hiding; and prevented them from timely certifying the results of the presidential election. Even more appalling than the damage inflicted on the symbol and seat of Congress was the damage inflicted on our tradition of peacefully transferring power. Justifying the melee he’d incited, the president tweeted:
These are the things and events that happen when a sacred landslide election victory is so unceremoniously & viciously stripped away from great patriots . . . . Remember this day forever!
From a commander in chief who suppressed insurrection to one who foments it, we’ve fallen far. Those who invaded the Capitol and assaulted its occupants may be deluded extremists who don’t represent most Americans. But the president who urged them on retains considerable support from acolytes who excuse his sedition. Apprehension is justified.
Our republic remains resilient—but not indestructible. To preserve our freedoms and forestall tyranny, what should be done?
Understanding our Constitution is necessary, but not sufficient. Also required are certain qualities of character. Federalist No. 55 explains:
As there is a degree of depravity in mankind which requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust, so there are other qualities in human nature which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence. Republican government presupposes the existence of these qualities in a higher degree than any other form. Were the pictures which have been drawn by the political jealousy of some among us faithful likenesses of the human character, the inference would be, that there is not sufficient virtue among men for self-government.
Those qualities include civility, humility, obedience to law, and self-control. As President Reagan asked, “If no one among us is capable of governing himself, then who among us has the capacity to govern someone else?”
Their destructive behavior over the past year demonstrates that partisans of the left and right alike need reminding that what the First Amendment protects is the right of the people peaceably to assemble. Rioting represents the law of the jungle: Might makes right. Far from advancing freedom, that undermines it.
In his farewell address, President Washington warned against what happened last Wednesday:
The very idea of the power and the right of the people to establish government presupposes the duty of every individual to obey the established government.
All obstructions to the execution of the laws . . . are destructive of this fundamental principle, and of fatal tendency. They serve to organize faction, to give it an artificial and extraordinary force; to put, in the place of the delegated will of the nation the will of a party, often a small but artful and enterprising minority of the community; and, according to the alternate triumphs of different parties, to make the public administration the mirror of the ill-concerted and incongruous projects of faction.
The founders bequeathed us a republic. Can we keep it?
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