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Opinion: Will America’s midterms in 2022 replicate 1866?

Editor’s Note: Manisha Sinha is the Draper Chair in American History at the University of Connecticut. She is the author of multiple works on the history of slavery and abolition, the Civil War and Reconstruction, including the forthcoming “The Rise and Fall of the Second American Republic: A Long History of Reconstruction, 1860-1900.” The views expressed here are hers. Read more opinion on CNN.


Midterm elections are usually not history-making stuff. Few have been memorable. But in the 2022 midterms, as in the 1866 elections, the fate of American democracy hangs in the balance. If there is a moment from history that our current political moment most resembles, it is the 1866 midterm elections, held a year after the end of the Civil War.

Manisha Sinha

The party in power has historically lost midterm elections with a few exceptions. Political pundits have repeated this conventional wisdom this year, with predictions of a November debacle for Democrats.

Things looked a bit different recently. The Biden administration’s considerable legislative successes, the tamping down of gas prices until the slowdown of oil production by Russia and OPEC countries, and the forgiveness of some student loans, combined with the Supreme Court’s unprecedented Dobbs decision, the never-ending saga of Trump’s legal troubles and extremists running on the Republican ticket have leveled the playing field somewhat despite Republicans blaming global inflation on the Biden-Harris administration and playing to fears about crime.

Though predictions of doom have been tempered, professional pollsters still give the GOP control of the House of Representatives in the midterms and now predict that the Republicans might yet take the Senate. A massive Democratic wave would also be needed to combat furious gerrymandering, proposed election meddling procedures and voter suppression laws in red states.

We must hope that the midterm elections of 2022 might engender that unusual political wave and resemble the 1866 midterms, when the party in power, the Republicans in this instance, won decisive majorities in both houses of Congress. (The two political parties have long since flipped political and ideological roles.)

In 1866, as now, the nation faced a rogue President, who incited and condoned political violence. Though in the present case, Trump, unlike Andrew Johnson, is no longer in office. While complaining of persecution, Trump recently signaled support for paranoid QAnon conspiracies.

Johnson called abolitionists and congressional Republicans rather than ex-Confederates “enemies” and “traitors” in his infamous “swing around the circle” midterm campaign tour in 1866. Republican Carl Schurz noted that he had “stimulated the most dangerous reactionary tendencies to more reckless and baneful activity.” These words ring true today.

Then, as now, armed paramilitary groups threatened the country. The Ku Klux Klan was founded after the Civil War and during the bloody summer of 1866, racists and ex-Confederates attacked freed people and Unionists in Memphis, Tennessee, and New Orleans. The January 6 insurrection by a violent mob of Trump supporters was as much a wake-up call for the nation as the Memphis and New Orleans massacres. Congressional investigations of these two riots — like the January 6 commission’s hearings — were eye-opening for many Americans.

During Reconstruction, the period when Congress tried to establish an interracial democracy in the South, the Democratic Party developed an armed wing for its campaign of domestic political terror. President Joe Biden has called out the philosophy of the MAGA wing of the Republican Party as “semi-fascism.” Sycophantic GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina has predicted bloodshed in the streets if Trump is held accountable for taking top secret national security documents. A fellow South Carolinian and Graham predecessor in the US Senate, Ben Tillman (who served from 1895 to 1918) went as far as personally committing acts of violence against Black people and his political opponents.

Then as now, the American republic had been saved from grave danger, the slaveholders’ rebellion in 1865 and Trump’s dangerous efforts to keep power in 2020. But instead of conceding defeat, both former Confederates then and Trump’s loyalists now doubled down on their folly. Some Republican candidates still aspire to overturn the results of the presidential election of 2020, just as unrepentant Confederates wanted to undo the results of the Civil War. A stolen election is the new lost cause mythology for many Republicans.

During 1865-1866, ex-Confederate states passed “Black Codes” that sought to put former slaves to as close a state to slavery as possible, kidnapping Black children for their labor, denying African Americans the due process of the law and restricting their mobility and employment. In 2022, GOP state legislatures are passing draconian laws against abortion, at times with no exceptions for rape, incest or the mother’s life. To most Northerners, the Black Codes made a mockery of emancipation and challenged the results of a hard-fought war, just as anti-abortion laws are criminalizing women’s long held right to bodily autonomy.

It is highly likely that the massive reaction the Black Codes engendered in the North in 1866 will be replicated in 2022, especially among women voters who are out-registering men this election. It is an irony of history that the 14th Amendment ratified in 1868 to protect the rights of former slaves is the amendment from which we derive our modern rights, including the right to privacy that legalized abortion, same-sex marriage and the outlawing of gender-based discrimination.

Will 2022 replicate 1866? As a historian, as a woman and as a citizen, I can only hope that it does. On emancipation, Southern elites threatened that freed people would swarm the North. Today, Republican Govs. Ron DeSantis of Florida and Greg Abbott of Texas are using migrants as human pawns by transporting them to blue states in a sick political stunt.

Americans need history not just to understand the present but also as a guide to the future. In 1866, congressional Republicans passed the first federal civil rights law. A similar victory in 2022 could lead to federal laws protecting the right to vote and abortion if the Democrats can hold the House against all odds and a slightly bigger Democratic majority could get rid of the filibuster in the Senate. Then as now democracy is at stake.

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