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Historically Speaking: Does History Really Repeat Itself?

Updated: 3 days ago

By Will Bellaimey with Elizabeth Gracen:

I sat down recently with my friend Will Bellaimey for the latest in our series of interviews that connect the latest news in politics and world events to the history of United States. I began by telling him about friends of mine who have been immersed in media since Trump’s election in 2016. One of them adamantly disagreed with the statement that “history repeats itself” when it comes to the current state of politics in America. He feels that this country and our democracy have never quite been in such danger of collapsing—simply because of the vast amount of disinformation that is pushed out to the American people on certain news networks and social media platforms on a regular basis. Since Will is a high school history teacher with a true passion and understanding of the historical timeline, I asked him what he thought about this idea. Does history repeat itself?

Image: Mike Shaheen on Visualhunt

WB: If anybody's read any of the articles or seen the videos that we’ve made for Historically Speaking here at Flapper Press, you know that I certainly think that there's something unique about the media environment that Americans live in. I also have several friends who, to one degree or the other, let media invade their lives and make them miserable. They feel that this country is in real peril. There’s a level of confusion from disinformation right now that feels different from any other any time in American history.

You know, I’ve been reading a lot about Reconstruction lately, and I actually think that Reconstruction is a good comparison point to what we've been dealing with and what we might be dealing with going forward in politics—and not simply because the subjects of race and voting rights are at the center of our dialogue now but also because questions about “legitimacy” were a big issue back then as well.

Photo: Brady-Handy Photograph Collection, Library of Congress

In Ulysses S. Grant’s second term, there was a period when the state of Louisiana held elections, and the Ku Klux Klan was out trying to intimidate Black voters. There were also federal troops still on the ground. Because of that circumstance, a lot of Black voters at that time were actually able to vote. There were two different candidates—the Republican candidate was supported mostly by Black voters, and some white Republicans claimed victory. The Democratic candidate, supported mostly by former Confederates, also claimed victory. And if that sounds familiar, it gets even weirder, because both governors were inaugurated, took office, named their cabinets, and started trying to interact with the state legislature.

Of course, we're now used to Southern Republicans and Northern Democrats, but at the time of Lincoln it was the other way around.

You had two completely separate governments down there . . . and then they started forming their own armed groups. There were Confederate veterans who formed into military or paramilitary groups to defend the Democratic governor. The Republican governor had the support of some African American militias. Eventually these two groups started clashing with each other in the streets. Federal troops had to be called in to adjudicate this, hundreds of people were killed across the South in violent confrontations like this; and this was not the only state where there were multiple governments formed.

This is similar to what had happened in what is called Bleeding Kansas before the Civil War, but in Reconstruction, there were whole periods where half the people in the state felt that one person was the governor and the other half believed that another person was the governor. It was up to the federal government to decide whether to send forces in to try to handle it—which is now not controlled by Lincoln but by this point is controlled by Ulysses S. Grant. In some cases, Grant chose to send federal troops down there to take control, but in other cases, he stood back and believed that it was not his job to sort it out—or that it was not constitutional to sort it out . . . or that it was not politically feasible to sort it out. This is where it gets really complicated.

It would be nice to say that if the federal troops had been down there and protected the Black vote, then the Republicans would have won. And that Black senators and congressmen would have been able to remain in office and changed the course of history. But the truth is that in many of these states, the majority of people had been Confederate supporters, and in a fairly held election, it might well lead to someone coming to power who wanted to erase the rights of African Americans.

This is this basic tension within American democracy: between the desire for people to choose their leaders and have the laws reflect the actual feelings and desires of the people who live in the state or in the country, and that there are certain basic rights and principles that should be protected no matter what. The solution at the time was, okay, you can reenter the country and you can elect who you want, but we passed these amendments, the 4th, the 13th, and the 15th while you were gone. We’ve ended slavery, we've guaranteed equal rights to African Americans, and we've guaranteed voting rights.

I think in Grant's mind, the deal was that as long as you respect those three things, feel free to do whatever you want, but for most of the Democratic candidates of that time, the number one issue[s] [were] segregation, a suppression of voting rights, and a desire at least economically to return African Americans to a position of servitude that was pretty similar to slavery.

EG: And so we can connect the history of the Reconstruction to the current future of elections in our country.

WB: There are going to be real conflicts over legitimacy when elections are being held in states where the majority of people believe that the previous election was stolen. There’s a chance that Trump will be the candidate again for president, and you could have a situation in which the same kind of thing plays out. If Biden runs again, and there's a narrow victory, this time it's like January 6th all over the place because everybody believes the election is being stolen right away, and then Trump could legitimately win. So then how do you, as a country, work through the question of what it means if the democratic process puts a person in power who is not going to respect the Constitution. I mean, I guess we kind of already went through that, but I don't know what it would look like the next time. And how do you figure out where to draw those lines?

EG: But, they didn’t have the overload of disinformation back then like we do now.

WB: Oh, they did! There was massive disinformation everywhere. The newspapers were run by telegraph lines, and people read the newspapers a lot. It wasn't in your pocket buzzing, but I think, in many ways it was sort of similar in that you could never totally believe a very partisan press. If you read the New York Observer, you believed one side, if you were at the New York World, you read another thing.

EG: So what happened in Reconstruction? How did it end?

WB: Well, in Louisiana, in that particular election, the federal troops came in and protected the Republican governor who served out his term, but I think in the next election, he was replaced by a Democrat. Across the South, Confederate sympathizers—at the time referred to as Redemption Democrats, who were mostly former Confederates, and certainly white supremacists—took over all of those states and put in place the Jim Crow laws that prevented voting by African Americans until the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts of the 1960s.

EG: So are we set up for a similar cycle to play out? That’s certainly a depressing thought—especially since we have such major issues we need to be focused on, like climate change.

WB: Well, perhaps there is a difference. Why did Reconstruction fall apart? It wasn't just because the Ku Klux Klan wanted it to. They wanted it to collapse from the very beginning, but it was because at some point Republicans in the North decided that they didn't care. In the 1876 election—which also is one worth studying if you want to get a sense of what a really disputed election could look like—Rutherford B. Hayes and his supporters basically made a deal where they said we will withdraw federal troops from the South, and in so doing acknowledge your right to continue to both attack and suppress the vote of Black citizens if you let us maintain the presidency for one term. It’s a very important moment in American history.

EG: The politics of the past don’t feel that far away from the present.

WB: I’ve been listening to this Grant biography, and part of what I find so interesting is that at the beginning of his first term, he comes when Andrew Johnson has just been impeached and almost removed by what are called the Radical Republicans, who had pushed for the abolition of slavery and for the equal rights of newly freed Black citizens. This was like the political force that he was up against. Grant was seen as a moderate and the Radical Republicans told him, “You better back us up.” By the end of Grant’s second term in 1876, the members of his own party are the ones saying, ”Don’t ever send troops to the South, let this be. Don't try to protect the rights of African Americans,” and he is viewed as the more radical person. So that transformation in those eight years is really important for us to study and understand. And it actually has more interesting implications for liberals today, I think, than for conservatives. I don't think that Trump supporters are going to just wake up one day and change their minds about anything, but the question is, how willing are liberals—I think particularly liberal white people—to continue to push for change?

EG: So are there shifts in thinking that happen within a party, or is it simply with someone who simply wants to be elected or re-elected?

WB: There’s different ways to view why people change their minds in politics. One theory is that it's about moral standards, and sometimes they're difficult. If your morality changes or you're not willing to stand up for them, then they just sort of crumble under the pressure of the other side. There's also an interest-based argument that just says that people do what they do because it helps them maintain power; and then they tell themselves a story to explain why they did it. The Obama coalition that continues to be the formula for Democrats to win elections around the country is based on a mixture of educated white liberals, African Americans, Latinos, people of color—certainly not all of them, but a big portion. Obama didn't win the white vote either time. He's the first president to win an election without the majority of white voters. Biden is in the same category. Trump won white voters. So, there is an argument to be said that, regardless of Democrats’ values, they need to continue to protect the voting rights of people of color to maintain power, and Republicans are incentivized to suppress those votes to maintain power. I also hope that learning from history can get us somewhere.

EG: But some things never seem to change, and we don’t ever seem to learn from history.

WB: We now have laws like the Civil Rights Act—which is not about to be repealed. There were laws in the Jim Crow times that were not enforced, that could've helped and should be plenty of protection, but after George Floyd and Breonna Taylor were killed, there was a huge wave of liberal white people saying we really need to change the police.

EG: But, that was last summer . . .

WB: It didn't take that long. That was last summer. Here we are at the end of this summer, and there's a lot of the same people now saying, “Let's make sure that we have enough money for the police.”

EG: It turns out that it’s easy for people to change their minds about their commitments to causes. Plus, we have the pandemic—issues that weigh us down and exhaust us and keep us from fighting.

WB: And in Reconstruction, there was a huge economic crash during that time period in 1873, what was called at the time the Great Depression, that put tons of people out of work. There were huge problems with the Gilded Age—robber barons and corruption within Grant's own administration—that distracted people from the issue of voting rights. So it also doesn't happen in a vacuum. And I think our commitment to changing systems that cause racist outcomes will also have to share airtime with climate change, health care, and the worst national crisis since World War II.

EG: Half of the people don't even believe that any of those things are happening. So you've got this whole section who are not even dealing in the facts or the reality.

WB: Everyone’s dealing with their own version of reality that’s created by their own media environment that includes some combination of some facts, some opinions, some biases.

EG: Right back where we started . . .


Will Bellaimey teaches U.S. Government and Politics at Flintridge Prep School outside Los Angeles where he is also the director of the Los Angeles Museum of Geography, which is staffed entirely by seventh graders. His podcast, All the Presidents, Man, is available here.

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