The president-elect was warned – there was a conspiracy to prevent the counting of the electoral ballots and disrupt his inauguration. There was even talk of seizing Washington by military force in a deeply divided nation.
It was not Joe Biden receiving the alarming reports after his 2020 election, but Abraham Lincoln following the vote of 1860.
“There was also an assassination plot against the president-elect to prevent him from arriving in Washington at all,” according to Lincoln historian Howard Holzer.
Members of a white supremacist secret society and a Baltimore militia, both committed to preserving slavery, had discussed seizing Washington by force before looking to sabotage the train carrying Lincoln to his inauguration.
Lincoln was inaugurated as the 16th president of the United States on March 4, 1861. By then southern states had already begun seceding to form the Confederated States of America. To get to the ceremony in Washington, Lincoln avoided going through the slaveholding city of Baltimore, as had been announced, detouring to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania disguised as an ordinary passenger in a sleeping car on a night train.
The plot to kill the president-elect (who was assassinated in 1865 after winning a second term) “turned out to be little more than rumor and drunken boasting and Lincoln was afterward so embarrassed that he had listened to any of it that he almost went to the other extreme in disregard of his personal safety,” according to Princeton University Professor Allen Guelzo.
As in 2020, some Americans in 1860 were incensed by unfounded charges about the legitimacy of the popular and electoral votes.
“It was even more ridiculous than the recent charges by Donald Trump,” Holzer told VOA of the claims that Lincoln was not legitimately elected because he prevailed in the North but had no electoral votes in the South.
Lincoln “won the election on the strength of the electoral college vote, but with only 39 percent of the popular vote. However, the states where he won the popular vote — and thus the electoral vote — gave him whopping margins of victory, so there was never any question about challenges to electors in those states,” says Guelzo, director of Princeton’s Initiative on Politics and Statesmanship of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions.
The first mob at the Capitol
In another parallel to recent events, on Feb. 13, 1861, a mob tried to force its way inside the U.S. Capitol to disrupt the electoral vote count. Unlike the riot at the Capitol on January 6, 2021, authorities were prepared.
General Winfield Scott, a Southerner and hero of the Mexican War in charge of defending Washington, had even sent a cannon to Capitol Hill.
The general made it known that any intruder would be “be lashed to the muzzle of a twelve-pounder and fired out the window of the Capitol.” For emphasis, he added: “I would manure the hills of Arlington with the fragments of his body.”
“That intimidated the group a bit,” notes Holzer.
A major difference between 1861 and 2021 is that all the senators and many of the House members from the breakaway states had already permanently departed Washington.
“So, there was no one there really to take votes and object to the state counts. And that's one of the other reasons why it actually went much more smoothly than it did in 2020,” says Holzer, director of the Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute at Hunter College.
The vice president of the United States, who is the president of the Senate, in both 1861 and 2021 did not tamper with the ceremonial but crucial electoral vote count. On that fateful day in 1861, Vice President John Breckinridge of Kentucky (the runner-up presidential candidate from the Southern side of a split Democratic Party) presided over the event.
Two months later, civil war began when Confederate forces attacked a U.S. Army fort in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina.
Modern day dispute
On the first anniversary of the Jan. 6, 2021, deadly attack on the Capitol, Biden declared: "We are in a battle for the soul of America,” accusing Trump of trying to unravel the country’s democratic system by continuing to repeat lies about the 2020 election.
Trump continues to insist, without evidence, there was “massive vote fraud” in several states he lost.
A special House committee, meanwhile, is investigating the siege of the Capitol and the violent attempt to disrupt the electoral vote counting.
The U.S. election system has improved since Lincoln’s days, but more reform is needed, according to numerous politicians, analysts and historians.
“In those days, state electors were elected in many states by the legislature, not even by voters. There was a lot of possibilities for fraud, or at least over-politicization that ignored the will of the people,” says Holzer. “We don't have that now. We have electronic and computer counts. We have poll-watchers, we have the popular vote.”
Numerous technical issues with the certification and counting of the electoral votes remain concerningly vague, however, according to Michael Morley, a law professor at Florida State University and a member of the National Task Force on Election Crises.
“It’s an issue that four years ago wouldn’t have been on anyone’s political radar,” says Morley, who explains he is now “cautiously optimistic that we might see some changes.”
The danger for the next presidential election in 2024 in a deeply divided nation, as it was in Lincoln’s time, is “both the possibility, as well as a public perception of the possibility, that the outcome of the election could be determined by politically motivated decision-making rather than the dictates of the law and what the actual outcome of the vote is,” Morley tells VOA.
Will law be updated?
Such concerns have a bipartisan group of U.S. senators examining ways to modernize the law concerning the electoral ballots.
The 1887 Electoral Count Act is woefully out of date, Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine, told reporters on Wednesday. She explained that lawmakers are exploring how to raise the requirements for members of Congress to challenge state-certified election results and ensuring the vice president’s role is purely ceremonial when the electoral votes are certified.
The 1887 act written in reaction to the presidential election of 1876, in which Democrat Samuel Tilden won the popular vote but ultimately lost to Republican Rutherford B. Hayes. Three Southern states had sent in multiple competing electoral returns and Congress had no rules in place to resolve the conflicts.
It is critical, according to Collins, to prevent a repeat of last year when Trump pressured his vice president, Mike Pence, to overturn electoral results.
"Fortunately, Vice President Pence did the right thing and followed the 12th Amendment, but the Electoral Count Act is ambiguous about the role of the vice president," Collins told WMTW-TV. “But what if we had a vice president who wasn’t as ethical and bound by his constitutional duty?”