Historically Speaking: Does History Really Repeat Itself?

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 m