Democracy vs. Autocracy Timeline

In America we tend to have a view of our politics as exceptional — and specifically, impervious to authoritarian takeover. We think of ourselves as the democratic shining city on a hill (even Reaganites!) that will act as a beacon to other nations, steadily rolling back despotism and dictatorship around the world.

It hasn’t quite happened that way — and indeed, we’ve proven quite volatile here at home over the question of small “d” democratic vs. authoritarian rule. We have had authoritarian presidents in our history: Andrew Jackson, Andrew Johnson, John Adams, George W. Bush, Woodrow Wilson, Richard Nixon, Donald Trump, etc. We’ve had authoritarian social movements like the KKK, neo-Nazis, Christian Identity, Army of God, “Patriot” movement, white power, militia movements and others who did not subscribe to the idea of refraining from the use of political violence to “solve” problems.

In reality, we’ve long had a dance between democratic ideals and reactionary authoritarianism in the United States since our founding, and even before. We don’t seem to collectively know this history quite well enough though, it seems — because it still always feels surprising. There was collective shock at the advent of Trump, even though in many ways he was simply the apotheosis of a right-wing sprint to the Dark Side that began as a backlash to the peace, love, and dope of the 1960s. The events of the January 6 coup attempt certainly caught a lot of people by surprise.

Here’s a lookback at the interplay of these two major thematic arcs in America history. This timeline is a work in progress that will grow over time.

DateEventDescription
1776Declaration of IndependenceNamed as the founding philosophy of America the notions that 1) "All men are created equal" and 2) A government's authority comes from the consent of the people.
1778VA ends slaveryGovernor Thomas Jefferson ends the slave trade in Virginia, the first state to do so.
1789Constitution ratified
1794Slave Trade ActCongressional bill prohibiting the building or outfitting of slave ships in the US
1850Fugitive Slave Act
1854Kansas-Nebraska Act
1856The caning of Charles SumnerHouse Representative Preston Brooks attacked Senator Sumner on the floor of the Senate after he gave a fiery speech against slavery, beating him almost to death while Congress looked on.
1858The Lincoln-Douglas DebatesAlso known as The Great Debates of 1858, the Senatorial matchup pitted Abraham Lincoln against incumbent Stephen Douglas and prominently concerned the topic of slavery.
1859Harper's Ferry MassacreAbolitionist John Brown leads a raid on Harper's Ferry to get weapons to arm slaves and resist slavery.
1860Abraham Lincoln elected
1861Civil War begins
1865Abraham Lincoln assassinated
1865VP Andrew Johnson becomes presidentLincoln's Democratic Party VP assumes the presidency after his assassination, and proceeds to undo many of the gains made by the northern Republicans to establish a free labor economy in the south and across America.
1865Civil War ends
1865-1877Reconstruction
1873The Colfax MassacreRepublicans had just narrowly won the state of Louisiana in the 1872 election, but the Democrats contested the results and killed African-Americans to reinforce antebellum ideas of white supremacy.
1882Chinese Exclusion Act
1885Rock Springs Massacre, WY
1887Tacoma, WA burning of ChinatownThe town's mayor led the charge in the burning of Chinatown, during the height of anti-Chinese laborer hysteria
1914-1918
1919The Palmer Raids
1921Tulsa Race MassacreA white mob started attacking the African-American community in Tulsa known as Black Wall Street, destroying more than 35 blocks of the district, leaving 10,000 people homeless and 300 dead in the nation's wealthiest black neighborhood.
1924Immigration ActCongressional bill sponsored by Representative Albert Johnson intending to exclude non-whites from immigration to the US
1933The New Deal
1939-1945World War II
1950Joe McCarthy begins hunting CommunistsSenator Joseph McCarthy presented his first list of supposed Communist sympathisizers and spies working within the US government
1958John Birch Society foundedUltraconservative anti-communist group considered so extreme it was excommunicated from the Republican Party by William F. Buckley.
1964Barry Goldwater wins the Republican nominationGoldwater's 1964 candidacy is widely credited for reigniting the conservative movement
1969Woodstock
1971The Powell Memo
1974Richard Nixon resigns
1980Election of Ronald Reagan
1981-1986Iran-Contra affair
1994-1998Newt Gingrich is Speaker of the House
2000The hotly contested Al Gore vs. George W. Bush presidential contest ends the hanging chad debates with SCOTUS unceremoniously ordering Florida to "Stop the Count," effectively handing the presidency to Bush.
2001September 11 attacks kick off the War on Terror
2008-2016Barack Obama presidency
2009Tea Party movement