On January 6th, 2021, an armed force of Trumpists stormed the United States Capitol Building. Congress was interrupted in the middle of an American ritual that had been completed every four years since 1789: Counting the electoral votes. This has never been interrupted before.
The counting of the electoral votes has been marked by both small and large controversies over the course of American history. Lesser controversies included technical irregularities with Vermont’s electoral votes in 1796 and Georgia’s electoral votes in 1800. Both sets of votes were counted without lasting controversy.
Even in 1861, at the dawn of a civil war, there was no interruption to the count. This was a civil war triggered by the election of Abraham Lincoln, who would later become the first president assassinated. There were some concerns that there would be violence interrupting the count, but these concerns did not materialize.
Electoral votes have been challenged and thrown out before
In 1872, Congress threw out electoral votes from two states (Louisiana and Arkansas) on the basis of election fraud, and three electoral votes cast for a dead candidate (Horace Greeley). This did not provoke much controversy, as the outcome of the election was completely unaffected by these disqualifications. (President Grant was re-elected by a large majority.)
In 1876, there were disputes over which slate of electors had legitimately won more votes in Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina, as well as a more technical dispute over the eligibility of a disputed elector in Oregon. In this case, the process of determining which electoral votes Congress would certify was a protracted one, eventually delegated to a special 15-member Electoral Commission. This commission controversially resolved each dispute by an 8–7 party-line vote.
While this process was controversial, it was not marred by political violence by an armed mob invading the chambers of the national legislature. Capitol Hill has hosted political violence inflicted by lawmakers on one another in brawls and duels, but the last time an armed force invaded the building, that force was flying a British flag.
In 1968, Congress debated about whether or not to accept a vote from “faithless” elector from North Carolina, who voted for George Wallace when expected to vote for Richard Nixon. In 2004, Congress debated whether or not to accept votes from Ohio, where the election had been marred by multiple controversies. While politically contentious, these moments were not marked by political violence.
Peaceful transitions are normal.
The American presidency has passed from one living person to the next thirty six times in a row without any dispute of the transition from the outgoing incumbent president. Only once has a transition of power from one president to the next been marked by any notable level of violence: 1861, when the South seceded in response to the election of Lincoln.
Even in 1861, Lincoln’s predecessor (James Buchanan), his opponents (Douglas, Bell, and Breckinridge), and the governments of the seceding states accepted that Lincoln had won the election and was the new President of the United States. The spectacle of a sitting president riling up a mob to impede their own replacement is one that was reserved for other countries, ones without the Washingtonian tradition of graceful exit from office.
Yesterday, America was not exceptional. Yesterday showed that the United States has been lucky in its past presidents.