Joe Biden takes office today under some of the most difficult circumstances that any incoming president has faced.
Not as difficult as Abraham Lincoln, who took the oath of office in 1861 with the Union breaking apart and again in 1865 with a bloody Civil War to restore it underway, but still difficult enough.
Instead, Biden faces crises on multiple fronts — a pandemic that has claimed more lives than most of our wars and a shocking lack of faith in our democracy itself, best exemplified (more like worst exemplified) by the recent deadly storming of the U.S. Capitol by a riotous mob incited by none other than the outgoing president of the United States.
The pandemic will eventually be conquered by science (although it would help if ordinary citizens heeded some of that scientific advice); the restoration of faith in American institutions will be a more difficult undertaking. Most inaugural addresses are quickly forgotten; Biden’s may be, as well. Still, the world looks to him today to see what healing words he can offer.
Four years ago, we urged Donald Trump to look to Thomas Jefferson for guidance. Jefferson, like Trump four years ago and Biden today, took office following an especially contentious election that led some to think that civil war would soon upend the young republic. The election of 1800 saw something that had never happened before — an incumbent president (John Adams) was defeated. A petulant Adams left Washington and refused to attend Jefferson’s inauguration — just as Trump won’t be attending Biden’s — but he did nothing to disrupt our first peaceful transfer of power from one party to another. Today we regard both Adams and Jefferson as seminal figures in American history but we forget that at the time they were both hugely polarizing. Some of Jefferson’s supporters saw Adams as a closet monarchist; some of Adams’ supporters saw Jefferson as an infidel in league with French revolutionaries. In response, the newly inaugurated president struck a conciliatory tone that has been quoted for centuries since: “Every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.”
Trump did not heed our advice, choosing instead only to stoke division. Biden has said he was propelled into the presidential race by Trump’s shockingly lackadaisical response to the white nationalist march-turned-riot in Charlottesville in 2017, a direct precursor to the events of Jan. 6. The question today is whether the words of Charlottesville’s best-known resident still apply.
Biden begins his presidency on a faulty assumption. In the aftermath of the seditious storming of the Capitol by domestic terrorists, Biden declared “this is not who we are.” Actually, it is who we are. Not most of us, of course. But it’s undeniable that there are among us a frighteningly high number of people who have lost faith in the American experiment of representative government. Not all live in the dark fringes of the internet; some hold public office. Among those who stormed the Capitol was a West Virginia state legislator. In Virginia, state Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, has extolled these terrorists as “patriots” and talked blithely of “revolution.” She posted on Facebook: “I’m telling you when you back people in Virginia and across the United States of America into a corner, you will end up with a revolution. And I believe that’s what you’re stating to see.” And what corner is that, exactly? Parties have lost elections since the very first one; the nature of an election is that somebody wins and somebody loses. Or is this simply a code word for the demographic changes remaking America, although we’ve had demographic changes of various sorts from the second year of Jamestown, when immigrants from Poland and other eastern European countries joined the English settlers?
Jefferson was certainly right when he said that “every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle.” Democracy allows — indeed, requires — a vigorous multiparty system to contest ideas and elections. However, when Jefferson said that “we have called by different names brethren of the same principle,” he was referring to a commitment to democracy (or what passed for democracy in those days when only white men could vote). It is unclear today whether we all really do share the same principles; certainly the rioters who stormed the Capitol do not. Chase, who appeared at a Richmond rally last summer where some were giving Nazi salutes, may not either.
The reality is that we’ve often had among us people whose commitment to democracy depended on whether they were the ones in charge. In 1874 — more than a decade after the close of the Civil War — some 5,000 white supremacists tried to overthrow the Reconstruction government of Louisiana and did manage to hold the statehouse for three days before federal troops arrived. A monument commending those insurrectionists stood in New Orleans until 2017. In 1898, another white mob of 2,000 white supremacists successfully overthrew the bi-racial government of Wilmington, North Carolina. There are other examples of those whose commitment to the rule of law are less dramatic but no less relevant. In 1863, riots against the Union’s Civil War draft turned deadly in New York and resulted in perhaps 120 dead. The governor of New York, Horatio Seymour, called the rioters “my friends.” Democrats rewarded Seymour by making him their candidate for president in 1868 (where he thankfully lost to Ulysses Grant). For yet a different example, consider that in 1965, just two decades after the end of World War II, some 5,730 Virginians — 1.2% — voted for an actual Nazi for governor in the form of George Lincoln Rockwell.
We don’t know the words Biden should employ, or what words would do any good to quell these anti-democratic spirits that now rage in some fevered quarters. It’s notable, though, what else Jefferson said that day in 1801. After declaring “we are all Republicans, we are all Federalists” — the modern equivalent would be “we are all Democrats, we are all Republicans” — he went on to say: “If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this Union or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.” Jefferson’s magnanimity was rewarded by history — at least until 1861.