Skip to main content

Former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley calls himself a “history buff” and we have had several conversations about the relationship between history and current events. Recently, we found ourselves discussing the War of 1812 because of a major similarity to the attempted coup of January 6, 2021, namely a direct attack on the United States Capitol.

As O’Malley reflected on the events of January 6, he became emotional. He thought of his mother, who worked for former Senator Barbara Mikulski, a Democrat from Maryland who was the oldest woman in congressional history and who knew, he said, “every nook and cranny. “from the Capitol. She had instilled in her son a deep love for American history and American democratic institutions.

“As I heard reports of members of Congress barricading doors, huddling under desks and trying to stay silent – so people outside the crowd wouldn’t know they were there and attack them or commit suicide – I remembered the story of the Virginia militia that found themselves inside the Capitol building in 1814, ”O’Malley said.

He was referring to August 22, 1814, the infamous War Day of 1812, when British troops attempted to break America’s will to fight by capturing Washington and burning down the White House, the Capitol and other key buildings. O’Malley described how Americans in his home state of Maryland could see the orange glow of their homes.

Some, like the Virginia militia he mentioned, had a closer view. Barricaded inside a stairwell, they waited while British troops tried to break through an intermediate door. After this failure, the troops set fire to the Capitol and left the frightened Virginians to burn alive. Believing they were on the verge of death, the militiamen carved their names and other details about themselves into the stones. O’Malley contrasted this with the profanation committed by Trump supporters on Capitol Hill on January 6 and said of his mother: “I’m glad she didn’t have to witness this.”

One person who witnessed it up close was Representative Eric Swalwell from California, coincidentally one of O’Malley’s few. Congress supporters when the then governor briefly ran for president in 2016. Like O’Malley, Swalwell is a history buff who knows a lot about the War of 1812. In a previous interview, Swalwell spoke to me of the “uncertainty and terror” that he and his colleagues felt on January 6. He had texted his wife asking her to kiss their young children, fearing that he would never see them again. More recently, Swalwell shared another memory from that day, one he brought up when he saw pro-Trump rioters waving the Confederate flag.

At the time, Swalwell said, his chief of staff was a black man whom he identified to me as Michael. A woman on her team kept checking in with Michael because she was worried about him. “She was watching everyone come down to the Capitol with their Confederate flags,” Swalwell said. “The person she worried about the most was not me, but our black chief of staff because she saw all these racists with their flags, their badges and then with their weapons.” The staff member feared that if Michael encountered the rioters he could be in danger. “When she said that it really increased my concern for him and his safety as well.”

Swalwell also had a few choice words about Donald Trump’s leadership, comparing him to James Madison, who was president during the War of 1812. Swalwell observed that Madison made many mistakes leading up to this conflict, but was a great scholar. and patriot, who helped draft the Constitution and wrote many federalist documents. “Madison loved his country, he just wasn’t prepared for what the British were ready to do,” Swalwell said.

In a similar situation, Swalwell speculated, Donald Trump “would have been indebted in the days of God knows what foreign power. If you read the Federalist Papers, because we aligned with the French during the War of Independence, [the founders] feared that future leaders would meddle with foreign governments. This is why the emoluments clause has been included in the Constitution. … Whoever would have had the biggest salary, essentially, would have been on Donald Trump’s ear. “

There are of course many other differences between the events of August 1814 and January 2021. The former occurred during a war in which the United States was confronted with a conflict with the British Empire. about economic and trade disputes that essentially revolved around whether America was truly independent. . The Washington fire was, in this sense, the last British major to stuck to the face of the young nation.

Moreover, obviously, it was the foreign troops that burned the Capitol in 1814, not the American citizens. On January 6, we saw a defeated political faction go after its leader because its leader was literally a historic sore loser. An angry mob, driven by the first president in American history to lose an election and reject the results, stormed the Capitol in the false belief that they could somehow overturn the 2020 election. Few It doesn’t matter if they genuinely believed Trump had been robbed or, as Salon’s Amanda Marcotte suggested, felt involved in Trump’s scam.

Here’s another difference: While politicians and the public learned important lessons from the War of 1812 about protecting America’s democratic institutions, Republicans went out of their way not to face the truth on January 6, nor learn anything from it. Swalwell recalled seeing the faces of his fellow Republicans as they fled for their lives.

“When I ran into people who were at [Trump] rally or which had also spread the Big Lie, I was like, “Is it strange that we are both running to save our lives?” he said. “It got me thinking, maybe this is an opening. Maybe this will be what it takes to come together, that we find ourselves running for our lives and that we will go to the same safe place. . Maybe it will bring us together and maybe it will be an inflection point for them to separate from Trump. ”Trump had not just targeted Democrats, after all, but“ squishy ”Republicans who did not help him win no matter what.

But now Swalwell thinks his first thoughts were “naive and Pollyanna-ish”. When he “saw the fear” on the faces of his fellow Republicans, he said: “I thought it would bring us all together to condemn Donald Trump … we would finally recognize that unity would be the antidote to ensure that that will never happen again. “

The problem, Swalwell thinks, is political courage. “I serve with people who don’t have the imagination to be done other work than Congress,” he said. “They don’t have the confidence to believe they could get a job other than Congress, so they’re doing everything they can to stay in their job, which means right now you have to support Donald Trump. and whatever it says. “