Power over Principle: The day when Americans lost faith in America
Just before sunrise on a November day in 1861, Massachusetts abolitionist Julia Ward Howe woke up in the Willard Hotel in Washington DC. She got out of bed, found a pen, and began to write about the struggle in which the country was engaged: could any nation “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” survive, or would such a nation inevitably descend into hierarchies and minority rule?
Howe had faith in America. “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord,” she wrote in the gray dawn. “He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored; He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword; His truth is marching on.”
She thought of the young soldiers she had seen the day before, huddled around fires in the raw winter weather, ringing the city to protect it from the soldiers of the Confederacy who were fighting to create a nation that rejected the idea that all men were created equal: “I have seen Him in the watch-fires of a hundred circling camps; They have builded Him an altar in the evening dews and damps; I can read His righteous sentence by the dim and flaring lamps, His day is marching on.”
Howe’s Battle Hymn of the Republic became inspiration for the soldiers protecting the United States government. And in a four-year war that took hundreds of thousands of lives, they prevailed. Despite the threats to Washington DC, and the terrible toll the war took, they made sure the Confederate flag never flew in the U.S. Capitol.
That changed a year ago on January 6.
On that day in 2021, insurrectionists determined to overturn an election and undermine our democracy carried that flag into the seat of our government. Worse, they did so with the encouragement of former president Trump and members of his party.
The House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol tweeted out a brief timeline of what happened:
At 8:17 in the morning, Trump lied that states wanted to correct their electoral votes and pressured Vice President Mike Pence to send the electoral votes back to the states. If Pence would cooperate, he tweeted, “WE WIN. Do it Mike, this is a time for extreme courage!”
Starting at 12:00 noon, Trump spoke for an hour to supporters at the Ellipse, telling them, “If you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country any more.” He urged them to march to the Capitol.
Between 12:52 and 1:49, pipe bombs were found near the Capitol grounds at Republican National Committee and Democratic National Committee headquarters. (We learned that Vice President–elect Kamala Harris, then a senator from California, was in the DNC at the time.)
At 1:00, Congress met in joint session to count the certified electoral ballots, confirming Biden as president. Pence began to count the ballots. He refused to reject the ballots Trump wanted thrown out, writing in a letter before the joint session, “My oath to support and defend the Constitution constrains me from claiming unilateral authority to determine which electoral votes should be counted and which should not.”
From 1:00 to 1:13, the mob began to charge the Capitol.
Between 1:30 and 1:59, Trump supporters continued to move from the Ellipse to the Capitol, overwhelming the Capitol Police, who were ordered to pull back and request support.
Between 2:12 and 2:30, the mob broke into the Capitol building, one man carrying the Confederate battle flag. Both the House and the Senate adjourned, and members began to evacuate their chambers.
From 2:24 to 3:13, with the rioters inside the Capitol, Trump tweeted that “Mike Pence didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done…. USA demands the truth!” and then “Please support our Capitol Police and Law Enforcement…. Stay peaceful!” (One of Trump’s aides revealed that the former president did not want to tweet the words “stay peaceful” and was “very reluctant to put out anything when it was unfolding.”)
At 4:17, shortly after Biden had publicly called on Trump to end the siege, Trump issued a video insisting that the election was fraudulent but nonetheless telling the mob to “go home. We love you, you’re very special.”
At 5:20, the first of the National Guard troops arrived at the Capitol. Law enforcement began to push the insurrectionists out of the building and secure it.
At 8:06, the building was secured. Pence reopened the Senate, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi reopened the House.
When the counting of the ballots resumed, 147 Republicans maintained their objections to at least one certified state ballot.
Early on the morning of January 7, Congress confirmed that Joe Biden had been elected president with 306 electoral votes to Trump’s 232. It was not a particularly close election: Biden’s victory in the popular vote was more than 7 million.
For almost a year, President Joe Biden has tried to weaken Republican insurrectionists by ignoring Trump and working to create a bipartisan majority devoted to ending the coronavirus pandemic and rebuilding the economy. But Republican leaders have refused to abandon the Big Lie and have prolonged the pandemic by undercutting attempts to get Americans vaccinated.
Although he continued to pledge that he would always work with Republicans who believe in “the rule of law and not the rule of a single man,” Biden called out former president Trump and his loyalists for the insurrection on its first year anniversary.
“Those who stormed this Capitol and those who instigated and incited and those who called on them to do so” acted “not in service of America, but rather in service of one man” who “has created and spread a web of lies about the 2020 election… because he values power over principle, because he sees his own interests as more important than his country’s interests and America’s interests, and because his bruised ego matters more to him than our democracy or our Constitution. He can’t accept he lost, even though that’s what 93 United States senators, his own Attorney General, his own Vice President, governors and state officials in every battleground state have all said: He lost.”
Biden urged Americans not to succumb to autocracy, but to come together to defend our democracy, “to keep the promise of America alive,” and to protect what we stand for: “the right to vote, the right to govern ourselves, the right to determine our own destiny.” “This is not a land of kings or dictators or autocrats,” he said. “We’re a nation of laws; of order, not chaos; of peace, not violence. Here in America, the people rule through the ballot, and their will prevails.”
“I will stand in this breach,” Biden vowed. “I will defend this nation. And I will allow no one to place a dagger at the throat of our democracy.” He urged Americans to defend the principles of equality and the rule of law. “Together, we’re one nation, under God, indivisible;… today, tomorrow, and forever, at our best, we are the United States of America.”