Mobs at the Capitol

The press has been looking through the past for previous examples of what happened in the Capitol last week, partly to see if they can justify using the word “unprecedented.”

It depends on the sort of precedent one is looking for. Are we looking for times when a violent group forced their way into the building? If so, it may be technically correct that a mob has not stormed the Capitol since the War of 1812, but even then, it was in a time of war, and the mob was the enemy.

Are we looking at violence in the Capitol building? There are many examples of that, including the stick fight that almost killed Senator Charles Sumner in 1856. Are we looking for times where groups of unthinking people have tried to “tear down democracy”? We can find quite a few of those too.

To understand an event deemed “historic,” it is helpful to place it into a context of similar events. Too many events and the analysis is useless — it’s just something that happens a lot. Too few, and there is no context to examine.

For example, is there a precedent for a large group of unhappy Americans letting their displeasure at Congress be known through massive, disruptive action at the Capitol that led to violence?

One possibility is June-July 1932, when the “Bonus Army” came, and stayed, in Washington, DC.

They came in desperation. In 1924, a few years after the Great War, Congress passed a measure granting veterans a special service bonus, to be paid in 1945. June 1932 was at the height of the Great Depression when many were jobless and could not feed their families. It was the time of the Dust Bowl (14 dust storms would happen that year), and astonishing want in the wake of the Stock Market Crash.

Marchers on Pennsylvania Avenue, June 1932 (Library of Congress

The Bonus marchers came to persuade Congress to give the service bonus early, now, when they needed it, rather than wait until 1945. Some had begun the trip to Washington in late May. Quite a few brought their families and set up houses of cardboard or lived in their cars once in the city. Ultimately, many camped out in Anacostia flats, across the river from the city. At its height, to Bonus Army was over 40,000 people. Over 15,000 were veterans from World War I.

The Bonus Army did not invade the Capitol building itself, nor did they try. They did ask to meet with Congress, and a Congressional delegation was sent out to meet with them. A Bonus Bill had been presented.

July 2, 1932 — marchers at the Capitol, unaware that Congress had adjourned for the holiday (Library of Congress)

During the deliberations in Congress, the President authorized police to distribute leftover food from restaurants and medical aid to the veterans. They were even allowed to occupy abandoned warehouses in the city. The DC police superintendent asked Congress for money to feed them but was rejected.

On June 15, the House passed a Bonus Bill, allowing them the money. One representative, Representative Edward Eslick of Tennessee, had died of a heart attack on the House floor the day before, giving a speech in favor of the bill. There were parties in the streets.

Then the Senate voted it down. The country’s representatives were so afraid of their reception by the veterans that they snuck out of the Capitol using the underground tunnels. The police urged the veterans to leave the city, now that they had nothing to gain since Congress had adjourned for the year after the Bonus Bill’s defeat. Besides, President Hoover had said he would veto it anyway.

But the veterans stayed, deflated and unsure what to do. They continued to surround the Capitol and continued living in their camps. What had been cardboard boxes were now houses made of tin or wood, some with fences and little vegetable gardens.

Bonus Army camp in Anacostia, 1932 (Library of Congress)

General Douglas MacArthur was called on to run them out. First, he used mounted troops to remove the veterans from the city itself. His orders were to push the crowd away from the Capitol and let the veterans retreat to their camps at Anacostia. He later claimed he had the authorization to clear the camps.

MacArthur directing the evacuation (Library of Congress)

MacArthur crossed the bridge into Anacostia and burned the camps. Some of the marchers were killed, and many wounded. Several civilians were tear-gassed.

It would be fair to conclude that in 1932, the nation’s leaders could not handle a group of citizens who were peacefully demanding assistance. They met these demands with military violence. Later views considered that the government overestimated the mob’s threat, but others claimed there were communists and rabble-rousers in the crowd, fomenting revolution. The entire incident left questions about the government’s responsibility when its most worthy citizens are in trouble.

With armed members and forcing its way into the Capitol, a group trying to stop certification of a presidential election is unprecedented. It is also very specific. Are there lessons to be learned from 1932?

Also published in Medium: Frame of Reference

1 comment to Mobs at the Capitol

  • Jmm

    Thank you for reminding us of that tragic situation. The first time I learned about it, probably in college, I was shocked at the Senate’s callous disregard of these people.