There Have Been Relatively Few Post-Election Riots in American History. So Far.Historians in the News
tags: elections, political violence, 2020 Election
As America holds its breath for the results of this election, business owners have put up plywood for the second time in half a year, fearing a return of the mass protests and looting from this past summer. (Even Donald Trump’s Hollywood Walk of Fame star is covered up.) With the current president doing all he can to delegitimize the results if they do not favor him, and with various legal strategies reportedly afoot to declare victory before the votes are fully tallied while simultaneously claiming that his opponent cheated, the nation is on edge. The NYPD has already prepared for a kind of low-grade martial law if things start to get out of hand. That seems unprecedented.
But is it? There have, of course, been mass protests in the past, some of them instigated by a particular outrage and turning violent, but did they specifically stem from election-related anger? I went back today and read newspaper coverage from the weeks before several elections that seemed as though they might have incited strong feelings: 1860, 1864, 1968, 2000, and a couple of others. I saw surprisingly few protests specific to the election itself.
There were, of course, public dissents all over those years, especially in 1968: Antiwar marches occurred throughout much of the year, after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in April (an uprising in Harlem was headed off partly by Mayor Lindsay’s swift decision to walk those uptown streets in solidarity) and related to the Democratic National Convention in Chicago that August. And indeed there were a few eruptions on the morning after Richard Nixon’s election: Protests cropped up around Rockefeller Center and in Times Square and in Lafayette Park across from the White House. At Rutgers–Newark, some glass doors were smashed. Marchers called the election “a fraud” and “a hoax,” although they probably were not alleging actual ballot fakery but rather a general Nixonian sneakiness. But not a single story mentioned boarded-up windows in advance. A Reuters report preceding the election said that young people had plans for pranksterish events: releasing pigs to run in the streets, stripping naked in voting booths. (The latter was to happen in San Francisco.)
In 2000 in Florida, the biggest disruption seems to have been the so-called Brooks Brothers riot, in which a bunch of conservative activists demonstrated loudly in an attempt to shut down the vote recount. As we eventually learned, the whole thing was backed by the GOP Establishment, with Matt Schlapp and Roger Stone among the organizers. (The legal team behind the stop-the-recount push included Brett Kavanaugh, Amy Coney Barrett, and John Roberts, a third of today’s Supreme Court.) That event, despite its nickname, was less grassroots protest than performance: It was really a bunch of operatives and lawyers, operating and lawyering.
How about in the 19th century? Judging by the 1860 and 1864 coverage in the Times, there wasn’t street-level violence of note in the aftermath of the election. When I called up Bruce Schulman, a professor of history at Boston University, he agreed — although, he was quick to point out, “in 1860, the aftermath was the secession of seven southern states, leading to civil war! So there was tremendous discontent with the results, but I can’t think of any examples of Election Day protests. And not in 1864, either.” I did discover one little dustup between Wall Street guys (backing Abraham Lincoln) and some “rowdies,” but it doesn’t seem to have been much of a battle. The draft riots, which tore apart New York in 1863, were of course a secondary effect of secession and the war which resulted.
But Schulman did flag an election, one that he has studied closely, when it happened. “In 1896,” when William McKinley was elected over William Jennings Bryan, “supporters of the rival candidate rioted, more or less. The beat officer for the 18th Ward had to summon reinforcements to control the crowd. The Chicago Daily Tribune, as it was called then, reports that crowds did not diffuse until people were bruised and ‘stained with blood.’ And in Manhattan, police tangled with the crowd that was obstructing streetcars, and the New York Times report talks about immense throngs, lively, enthusiastic, parading up and down Broadway from 23rd to 42nd Street, yelling and shouting and causing disruption. So in Chicago, we see a tangle between groups supporting candidates, and violence. In New York, it’s more excited, a little like turning over cars to celebrate victory after a sporting event.”