In an interview ahead of the House Jan. 6 Select Committee hearings, Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), stressed the “extraordinary and unprecedented” nature of the 2021 assault on the U.S. Capitol. “You really have to go back to the Civil War to understand anything like it, but of course, there, you know, the Confederates never denied that Abraham Lincoln had actually won the election. They just wanted to secede from the Union.” Raskin is partially right — Southern secessionists emphasized the sway Lincoln’s antislavery Republican Party had over the Northern electorate as proof that the North was irredeemably radical and that disunion was a necessity.
But the story of Southern secession provides illuminating evidence that the Jan. 6 insurgency was, indeed, precedented, rooted in long-standing efforts to preempt, delegitimize and suppress Black voting.
Aware that roughly 90 percent of Black voters supported Joe Biden in 2020, former president Donald Trump tried, through his “Stop the Steal” movement, to invalidate and suppress votes in African American population centers; he maintained, in effect, that “Black people ha[d] no right to vote him out of office,” as Eugene Robinson succinctly put it. More than 150 years ago, Southern secessionists laid the groundwork for such arguments by maintaining that Blacks had no right to vote Lincoln into office.
Secessionists rallied White Southerners to their banner by warning that Republican rule would bring about a dystopia of racial equality, race war, race mixing, race competition — and Black voting. After the Republicans imposed emancipation, Southern Whites would be “degraded to a position of equality with free negroes,” forced to “stand side by side with them at the polls,” as Alabama secessionist Stephen F. Hale put it, in a frequently sounded alarm.
Moreover, secessionists argued that Lincoln’s election was constitutionally invalid because some Northern Black people had been permitted to exercise their franchise, voting for the Republican ticket in defiance of the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision (1857) that African Americans could not be U.S. citizens.
The most influential expression of this view was a speech by Georgia secessionist Thomas R.R. Cobb on Nov. 12, 1860, delivered just a few days after Lincoln won the electoral college on the strength of Northern votes. Cobb claimed that Lincoln’s election violated the “spirit of the Constitution.” “This Union was formed by white men,” he noted, “for the protection and happiness of their race.” The Founders did give each state the power to declare who should vote, but they assumed that only citizens — Whites — would exercise that power. “Yet to elect Abraham Lincoln, the right of suffrage was extended to free negroes in Vermont, Massachusetts, Ohio, New York and other Northern States, although the Supreme Court has declared them not to be citizens of this nation,” Cobb frothed. Alluding to the resistance and flight by enslaved people, Cobb intoned, “Our slaves are first stolen from our midst on underground Railroads, and then voted at Northern ballot-boxes to select rulers for you and me.”