We don’t expect drama in a joint session of Congress to count electoral ballots. The Vice President reads a script, the votes are announced, and beyond the occasional faithless elector, the person who won states adding up to 270 votes becomes president.
But with so much at stake and so many unable to accept the outcome, tensions were high. Violence was expected. Members of Congress were urged to invalidate votes.
In the end, the right person took office, but half the country seceded before he could do so. That was the state of the Union on July 4th, 1861. Given the events of the last year, it’s interesting to think about how Lincoln responded.
It was in doubt whether the District of Columbia was defensible at all. Across the river in Virginia, the Confederacy had deployed much of its considerable army. On the other side, Maryland’s loyalty was divided. It was into this tenuous terrain that Lincoln called an extraordinary session of Congress, on the anniversary of our Declaration of Independence, where he gave this speech.
It was unusual compared to Lincoln’s better-known oratory. Long and lawyerly for a man better known for brevity and folksy wit. But still, he was an attorney, and unlike the modern era, his audience was the assembled members rather than the public.
He used the occasion to build a legal case against secession, and it’s worth reading in full. By this point, the fighting hadn’t begun in earnest, so he may have viewed this as a last-ditch effort to avoid worse bloodshed.
But the part I have been thinking about is this section near the end:
Our popular Government has often been called an experiment. Two points in it our people have already settled — the successful establishing and the successful administering of it. One still remains — its successful maintenance against a formidable internal attempt to overthrow it. It is now for them to demonstrate to the world that those who can fairly carry an election can also suppress a rebellion; that ballots are the rightful and peaceful successors of bullets, and that when ballots have fairly and constitutionally decided there can be no successful appeal back to bullets; that there can be no successful appeal except to ballots themselves at succeeding elections. Such will be a great lesson of peace, teaching men that what they can not take by an election neither can they take it by a war; teaching all the folly of being the beginners of a war.
Even after the fall of Ft. Sumter and four additional states to secession, Lincoln is making a case for restoring democratic norms but also rejecting that we should allow violence to overturn elections. That should be our response to rising illiberalism in the US — more democracy and a commitment to fight for it.