Joe Biden begins his presidency on Wednesday in a nation scarred by far-right violence and steeped in disunion.
In the tumultuous days leading up to Biden’s inauguration, the country has seen a mob attack its government and the current president impeached for a second time. In the background of this America lurk clashing memories of the Civil War — invoked by the Confederate battle flags that white supremacist rioters brandished in the US Capitol and echoed in the country’s fierce conflicts over politics, race, and democracy.
Historians say one lesson to learn from the aftermath of that war is not to rush toward a false sense of unity, but to first take unflinching action against harmful ideologies and the people who spread them, to secure liberty for all rather than trade it away.
“Healing and unity came without justice [after the Civil War]. That’s what’s at stake here,” said David Blight, a historian of that era and a professor at Yale University. “There needs to be institutional confrontation.”
But as congressional Democrats seek to hold President Trump accountable for inciting a deadly mob and Americans outraged by the violent attack call for swift action against insurrectionists, Republican officials, even those who echoed Trump’s false and destructive claims, have largely called for forgiveness, unity, and healing.
Such steps toward reconciliation can occur only once Americans agree on the harm that was done and wrongdoers are held accountable, experts said. Anything less would amount to papering over divisions, leaving victimized communities unprotected and democratic institutions in peril.
Even on the personal level, forgiveness is a two-way street, explained philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah, a professor at New York University.
“Forgiveness … is usually the right response to an apology and acknowledgment by someone that they’ve done wrong,” Appiah said. “The first step is, is there to be an agreement between you that a wrong has occurred?”
As things currently stand, Appiah said, Americans agree on very little.
Some on the right insist that the Capitol attack is no different from the largely peaceful Black Lives Matter protests over the summer, a comparison that ignores insurrectionists’ documented goal of disrupting a democratic process and the intentional chaos and violence they stoked. The myth that animated the mob — that the presidency was stolen — continues to find support in Congress, with 147 Republicans voting to dismiss 2020 election results just hours after the attack.
A belief in “conversation across differences” grounds much of Appiah’s scholarly work, he said, “but conversation is an activity that takes place between consenting adults. If the other people don’t want to talk, or are just bent on destroying you or destroying what you take to be the shared basis of coexistence, there’s not much you can do except defend yourself.”
The consequences of forcing unity under such circumstances fall disproportionately on marginalized communities, said Martha Minow, an expert on political and legal forgiveness who is a professor at Harvard Law School. For those most threatened by violent ideologies, forgiveness without accountability is “a perpetuation of the original wrong,” Minow said.
“There is, sadly, lots of experience in this country [and] elsewhere that groups that have been disadvantaged structurally [and] historically are often expected to be forgiving,” she said. “Certainly that’s true for African Americans and women.”
Ultimately, entire societies pay the price for allowing harm to go unaddressed and unaccounted for, Minow said, as those who wish to sow further division can easily exploit neglected wounds and injustice perpetuated.
“If you haven’t had some serious efforts at accountability … there are ongoing rifts always available to be manipulated and stoked, and we have examples of that all over the world,” she said, citing multiple countries where unaddressed grievances served as tinder for war and genocide.
We also have an example much closer to home, Minow said, in the aftermath of the Civil War.
When the country emerged from war, a political and moral battle over white racial primacy ensued, said Blight, who wrote “Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory.”
The central question facing the country in that period resonates in this moment, he said: “Can you have cultural healing — meaningful healing — without justice being done on some level, to some degree, for those most harmed by the history that led to this event?”
For a time, during the period known as Reconstruction, historians said, the federal government responded to that question by legislating and protecting newly emancipated people’s rights. The country’s first Civil Rights Act barring race-based discrimination was passed in 1870 and granted Black men the right to vote. In a short period, Black Americans were elected to state and national legislatures and built thriving institutions and economies.
But the white South wanted “reconciliation” in the form of absolution for their rebellion and a return to power over the region and its Black inhabitants, historians say.
Ultimately, the nation conceded, said Henry Louis Gates Jr., a leading scholar of US history and race and a Harvard University professor.
Federal oversight of the former Confederacy faded away. Rebel generals were granted amnesty. Plantation land was returned to enslavers. Civil rights legislation was struck down or ignored, not to be revived until the 1960s. Sharecropping and vagrancy laws worked in tandem to effectively reinstitute the cruelties and privation of slavery. Black Americans’ political and financial gains were all but wiped out by legal discrimination and unrestrained racist violence.
North and South were unified, but under the banner of white supremacy, Gates said.
“It was a bogus form of reconciliation. It was a bogus form of reunion, because it was at [Black] people’s expense,” he said. “The North forgave the South ... at the expense of the belief that Black people and white people are fundamentally the same and equal as American citizens.”
That trade-off between justice and unity for some Americans at the expense of others allowed racial grievance and white supremacy to persist, historians said.
Several pointed to the enduring power today of Confederate symbolism, distilled in photos of a rioter who marched the Confederate battle flag through the Capitol. The man was photographed walking past portraits of John C. Calhoun, a fierce proponent of slavery who helped lay the groundwork for secession, and Charles Sumner, an abolitionist, whose likenesses hang almost side by side in the nation’s most hallowed halls.
“The issues central to Reconstruction have never been resolved in this country,” Gates said. Citizenship and voting rights, the meaning of democracy, economic exploitation — “These issues continue to roil our society and politics today, making an understanding of Reconstruction even more vital,” he said.
The legacy of Civil War-era reconciliation also lives on in contemporary calls for unity, experts said.
Time and time again since the Civil War, the United States has chosen to “let bygones be bygones,” said historian Carol Anderson, a professor at Emory University. “When we don’t hold folks accountable for the violence that they do to American democracy, we end up with insurrectionists storming into our national Legislature,” she said.
True unity is possible, experts said, but only through fulfilling what could be called the abandoned aims of Reconstruction: accountability and a radical restructuring of unequal systems.
Experts offered a range of first steps: consequences for those who incited and participated in the Capitol riot; frank messaging from political leaders who can persuasively dismiss conspiracies and bring Americans to a shared, honest understanding of reality; investment in public education and economic supports that could help siphon away backing from white supremacist movements.
In many ways, the actions the country must consider in this moment echo the demands that civil rights activists have made for generations, including the call for equal justice in law enforcement, said Tomiko Brown-Nagin, dean of Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study.
“Civil rights organizations and policy experts have offered numerous other proposals pertaining to education, climate change, health care, voting, and employment. All are especially worthy of consideration during this volatile historical moment,” she said.
Taking the long and difficult road to unity is ultimately what Americans owe one another, said Appiah of New York University.
“One of the things we owe our fellow citizens is to treat them seriously. Treating people seriously means both trying to understand them and holding them responsible if they’ve done something wrong,” he said. “It’s not easy to see how to get out of this. But I don’t think ... that freedom without repentance is a good idea.”