As a history professor, I have the profound honor and responsibility of teaching American history to a young generation of students.
As the decades roll on, history always changes, but the 15-week semester stays the same. What to leave in? What to leave out? This fall semester, I felt obligated to include the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on our nation’s Capitol. Fort Lewis College students had plenty to say.
I use an American history textbook titled, “The Enduring Vision: A History of the American People.” In the recent U.S. history class, from 1877 to the present, we cover Reconstruction, World War I, the Roaring ’20s, the Great Depression, World War II, the baby boom, other wars including Vietnam, and the presidents themselves from Dwight D. Eisenhower (“I Like Ike”) to John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and The Reagan Revolution. George Bush is there, as well as President Bill Clinton, President Barack Obama and now President Donald Trump.
We discuss communism, feminism, environmentalism and the pendulum swings in American culture from liberalism to conservatism and back. But though I’ve taught American history for 40 years, never before have I had to discuss foul-mouthed vigilantes storming the nation’s Capitol, violating the sacred precepts of American democracy and leaving death, destruction and wounded police officers in their wake.
One of America’s greatest gifts to the world has been our model of presidential elections and our peaceful transfer of power from one political party to another. Democracy and the triumph of open, free elections lie at the heart of the Founding Fathers’ dream for our great nation. For 200 years, it worked. Then came Jan. 6, 2021.
The last week of classes, I lectured from The Washington Post’s three-part immersive series, “The Attack: Before, During and After.” I also showed footage from the cellphones and cameras of rioters, police, reporters and television cameras masterfully mixed for chronological sequence by The New York Times, with excellent computer graphics on the Capitol itself, where and when the attack took place and vulnerable access points into the building. Students sat silently as we watched “Inside the Jan. 6 Capitol Riot: An Exclusive Video Investigation – The New York Times” on the newspaper’s website.
The mob’s riot – an insurrection, an attempted political coup, whatever terminology historians will finally settle on to describe that day’s despicable events – is not yet in the history books, but it will be.
“I think it’s essential that we begin to understand Jan. 6 historically, and the first anniversary is a great moment to do so,” says my FLC colleague, American historian Paul Kuenker. “Thinking historically about the events of the present can be difficult, particularly when the event took place in such a politically charged atmosphere. Still, we can’t leave the storytelling to politicians and pundits.”
What happened a year ago this month? According to The New York Times, thousands of Trump supporters arrived in Washington, D.C., “to protest an election they thought was stolen.” As President Trump rallied his supporters, they heard “his words as a call to action,” and they stormed the Capitol on the day Congress and the U.S. Senate met to certify the 2020 election results.
Outnumbered, the Capitol Police were forced to retreat. Their first line of defense had been lightweight aluminum bicycle racks. Both the FBI and Homeland Security staff members had not taken the million violent messages stretched across the internet seriously.
At 2:13 p.m., the Capitol was breached. The lives of congressmen and senators were in serious danger. Defending democracy, Capitol Police Officer Eugene Goodman acted as a decoy and drew the mob away, luring them into position closer to a thin line of his fellow officers and providing a few precious minutes for Vice President Mike Pence and others to be led to safety.
The rule of law had collapsed. The National Guard would not arrive for four hours. President Trump, watching the chaos on large-screen television, refused frantic calls and text messages from members of his own Republican Party. Trump would not act for 187 minutes.
We’ve had rebellions before in American history. Shay’s Rebellion from August 1786 to February 1787 was a debt crisis and opposition to high taxes in Massachusetts. From 1791 to 1794, Pennsylvanian distillers and farmers enacted the Whiskey Rebellion, which forced President George Washington to send in federal troops. But the last time the U.S. Capitol had been invaded was by the British during the War of 1812 – and never before by self-styled militias.
Never before had Americans stormed the seat of their own democracy and left such a wake of destruction with shattered glass, damaged corridors, broken doors and injured and dying citizens. Film cameras caught rioters carrying baseball bats, pepper spray, hammers and shields; wearing defensive combat gear and gas masks; and communicating via headsets and handheld radios.
Alerts had been raised. A sophisticated post-Sept. 11, 2001, national network called Homeland Security Fusion Centers, 80 of them, had caught a tidal wave of social media warnings about violence expected on Jan. 6, but there was no preparation for such an onslaught, even when it became clear that the real target would be, according to The Washington Post, “Congress itself.” The Post said, “The Jan. 6 siege of the U.S. Capitol was neither a spontaneous act nor an isolated event.”
As an historian, how do I begin to teach such a dramatic security failure, one of the worst in the nation’s history? For years, I’ve taught about Dec. 7, 1941, and the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor. President Franklin D. Roosevelt called it “a day which will live in infamy.” In Honolulu, I’ve taken the tour boat out to look down on the skeletal remains of the USS Arizona, and like thousands of Americans, I’ve paid my respects at the USS Arizona Memorial and read the names of American soldiers and sailors who died that day, their names forever etched in white marble. True patriots, they came to the aid of their country and gave, what President Abraham Lincoln called, “the last full measure of devotion.”
So how do I begin to explain to students that Ivanka Trump, midway through the violence on Jan. 6, tweeted at 3:15 p.m. and called the rioters “American patriots”? What is the narrative motif here?
“The Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol was an event of tremendous significance,” Kuenker says. “What that significance is perhaps remains to be seen, and historical interpretation of the insurrection, as with all history, will be debated. But failure to consider those Jan. 6 moments as historically significant may do as much or more damage to democracy as the attack itself.”
Twenty minutes into the classroom showing of The New York Times video synopsis of that tumultuous day, I turned it off. It is difficult to watch. There were a few moments of silence in class and then I went to the white board. I wrote “January 6, 2021” on the board and told each student that I would point to them and that I wanted them to say in a word or two their feelings having watched history live, having seen an event unparalleled in our nation’s history. They talked. I wrote. Here are their words:
Bigotry; terrifying; revolution; organized chaos; vile; anarchy; unbelievable; ignorance;
Intense; infuriating; anxious; arrogance; embarrassing; atrocity; mislead; disrespectful;
Crazy; stressful; instigation; entitlement; disgust; unethical; conspiracy; dangerous; preventable.
We had a lively discussion and then, numbed, ended class in preparation for final exams.
To the credit of so many Americans – police, National Guard, Cabinet members, elected officials, staff members in the Department of Justice – our democracy is still intact. Stretched to the limit, the bonds of our republic held together. Congress reconvened. Agents from the FBI and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives completed their sweep of the Capitol by 6:14 p.m. By 8 p.m. Vice President Pence and senators returned to the Senate chamber. Pence gaveled the Senate to order at 8:06 p.m. In a joint session hours later, at 3:24 a.m., Congress voted to confirm the 2020 election of President Joe Biden.
Pence had scheduled Senate Chaplain Barry Black to end the session in prayer. He did so. Lawmakers bowed their heads as the chaplain spoke, “We deplore the desecration of the United States Capitol building, the shedding of innocent blood, the loss of life and quagmire of dysfunction that threaten our democracy.”
He added, “These tragedies have reminded us that words matter and that the power of life and death is in the tongue.”
Police were tortured, beaten, and 140 officers injured. More than 700 people have been arrested. Some are already serving lengthy prison terms. Congressional subpoenas have been issued. An investigation continues.
As I teach recent American history this spring, I will again try to place the events of Jan. 6, 2021, into historical perspective. I will share with students Chaplain Black’s speech, and I’ll talk about the Founding Fathers and the slender threads of democracy.
Andrew Gulliford is an award-winning author and editor and a professor of history at Fort Lewis College. He can be reached at email@example.com.