The Crowd in History and the January 6, 2021 Attack on the US Capitol

By Casey Harison

Individual Republican politicians in the United States and the Republican party in general have downplayed the seriousness of the January 6, 2021 attack on the US Capitol by a pro-Trump crowd. Despite what many of us saw on television that day—images that have since been bolstered by the revelations of the House Committee investigating the event—the Washington Post reported last summer that “Republicans still mostly just shrug.” Indeed, as the Post proceeded to report in September, a majority of polled Republicans believe January 6 “wasn’t a riot at all, just a demonstration, maybe with a few bad apples.” Former President Donald Trump has echoed the nonchalance, even as he has tried to turn one of the invaders into a martyr.

It may be that some Trump supporters at the Capitol that day did not expect violence or were unaware of the threats against police and members of Congress that took place. Crowds can, of course, be sprawling and segmented, some participants peaceful and some not. But even when some individuals aren’t aware of it, the main thrust of a crowd can be threatening, violent and deadly. Scholarship on crowds that looks at historical episodes similar to January 6 has demonstrated how true this is.

Indeed, for those familiar with the history of crowds, January 6 has real similarities with a pattern of collective action that happened across the Atlantic World dating from the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Paris is the most famous setting for the “crowd history” that started with an older generation of scholars, including historian George Rudé and  sociologist Charles Tilly.[1] French historian Georges Lefebvre mentioned by Beatrice de Graaf in an Age of Revolutions post was a student of crowds, too. As these scholars described, eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Parisian crowds invaded legislative halls and royal residences, usually threatening, but also sometimes carrying out acts of violence. On occasion, crowds helped overthrow governments.

Perhaps the Parisian event closest to the January 6 invasion of the Capitol took place on May 15, 1848, when a radicalized crowd upset by recent election results (France, like the United States, was a republic) and stirred up by demagogues, invaded the hall of the National Assembly. Some of the invaders were armed and as they mingled among the legislators—most of whom, unlike the Congress on January 6, were unable to get to secure positions—the atmosphere was fearful. Alexis de Tocqueville, author of Democracy in America and one of the legislators in the Assembly hall that day, thought at least some of the insurgents had violent intent and aimed to overthrow the government. He remembered the day as one of the most frightening he’d ever experienced.[2] Eventually police and soldiers arrived, and the crowd left. But in a sense the violence was only delayed: a month later, Paris witnessed the June Days rebellion that left as many as 1,500 dead and led to more than 11,000 arrests—some of whom probably had taken part in the invasion of the legislature.[3]

Scholars of the crowd know individual participants can have very different perceptions of the events they take part in. This is to be expected, since crowds—especially politicized crowds, which on January 6 included the radical Oath Keepers—typically include a core with specific intent, along with others who are just there for the ride or to smash things up.

Where testimonies are available to understand crowd events, they need to be carefully scrutinized and placed in context. We know from the history of Parisian crowds, for example, that individual admissions of participation often depended on the outcome: if the government was overthrown, there was incentive to claim participation because that could mean awards and pensions; but if the government stayed in power, it made sense to claim ignorance because participants could be tossed in jail or deported.[4] In this regard, it is not surprising that some members of the Republican party have downplayed the invasion of the Capitol.

Nonetheless, it is not hard to grasp the main objective of a crowd at a particular time and place: there is no doubt that the Parisian crowd attacking the Bastille in July 1789 was supporting the revolution brewing at nearby Versailles. And while the actions of the January 6th crowd, and Trump’s role in bringing together and inciting it, are still being investigated by the House Committee and Department of Justice, we already have enough evidence to endorse what seemed perfectly obvious at the time: the pro-Trump crowd was there to help undo the Joe Biden’s election to the presidency.

The history of collective action in France offers some other insights about January 6. The mostly working-class crowds of Paris from the Revolution of 1789 through the Commune of 1871 were on the left of the political spectrum, seeking expansion of civil and political rights, spurred by economic grievances, and sometimes motivated by nationalism (before nationalism moved to the political right). Late in the nineteenth century, there was a shift with the emergence of proto-fascist crowds during the Boulanger and Dreyfus Affairs and then in the 1930s we can identify fascist crowds in Paris. Given all that we have learned since Trump announced his candidacy in 2015, it is not controversial to note the fascistic side of Trumpism. The January 6th crowd looked fascistic.[5]

Does French history offer any insights about what to call the events of January 6? Was it an attempted coup, putsch, insurrection, or invasion? Were the Trump supporters a “mob” or “crowd”? A Washington Post article last summer noted a majority of polled Republicans described January 6 as a “legitimate protest.” Indeed, scholars and commentators have struggled with the language of collective action. Rudé preferred “crowd” to “mob” because the latter suggested irrationality, and he thought most crowds operated in a way that made sense. Still, contemporaries have often been vexed to grasp what motivates crowds and explains their behavior. Take Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, the epic novel whose climax is set during the failed Paris rebellion of 1832, and which includes a lengthy digression that tries to distinguish between (good) insurrectionary crowds and (bad) riotous crowds. Politically conservative as a young man, Hugo became a progressive who sympathized with revolution, but who was ambivalent about rebellious crowds because he knew they could transform into violent mobs in a flash.

“Crowd” or “mob”: if on January 6 you saw a frightening invasion of the US Capitol intended to undo a legitimate election, your eyes weren’t deceiving you. Scholars who have seen this sort of thing before would agree.

Casey Harison is professor of history at the University of Southern Indiana and the author of Paris in Modern Times (Bloomsbury, 2019).

Title Image: François Bonhommé, Journée du 15 mai 1848 (1848). Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Further Reading:

Barrows, Susanna. Distorting Mirrors: Visions of the Crowd in Late Nineteenth-Century France. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1981.

Censer, Jack and Lynn Hunt. “Imaging the French Revolution: Depictions of the French Revolutionary Crowd,” American Historical Review 110 (2005): 38-45.

Gribaudi, Mauricio and Michèle Riot-Sarcey. 1848, la Révolution oubliée. Paris: La Découverte, 2009.

Pinkney, David H. French Revolution of 1830. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1972.

Rémond, Réné. Les Droites en France. 4th ed. Paris: Aubier, 2014.

Rudé, George. The Crowd in History: A Study of Popular Disturbances in England and France, 1730-1848. New York: Wiley, 1964.

Schnapp, Jeffrey T. and Matthew Tiews, eds., Crowds. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2008.

Shaya, Gregory. “Unruly Emotions of the Execution Crowd and Its Critics in Late Nineteenth-Century and Early Twentieth-Century France,” Cultural History 8 (2019): 70-93.

Tilly, Charles. The Contentious French: Four Centuries of Popular Struggle. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

Tocqueville, Alexis de. Recollections: The French Revolution of 1848, trans. by George Lawrence. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1992.

Traugott, Mark. “The Crowd in the French Revolution of February, 1848,” American Historical Review 93 (June 1988): 638-52.


[1] Both have written many works, but see, for instance, Rudé, The Crowd in History: A Study of Popular Disturbances in England and France, 1730-1848 (New York: Wiley, 1964); and Tilly, The Contentious French: Four Centuries of Popular Struggle (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1985).

[2] Tocqueville, Recollections: The French Revolution of 1848, tr. George Lawrence (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1992), Part Two, Ch. 7.

[3] Jill Harsin, Barricades: The War of the Streets in Revolutionary Paris, 1830-1848 (New York: Palgrave-Macmillan, 2002).

[4] Government commissions were created following the Revolution of 1830 and the February Revolution of 1848 (each revolution overthrew an existing regime), to dispense awards for individual participation; David H. Pinkney, French Revolution of 1830 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1972) and Mark Traugott, “The Crowd in the French Revolution of February, 1848,” American Historical Review 93 (June 1988): 638-52.

[5] Réné Rémond is an expert on the French political right, fascism and proto-fascism; an overview is Les Droites en France, 4th ed. (Paris: Aubier, 2014).

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