The History Of Post-Election Riots: Should We Expect Civil Unrest After Results?

By Jacob Shelton

Inauguration of Abraham Lincoln, March 4, 1861. (Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons)

Nothing has defined the modern era of presidential elections like fear, distrust of the government, and anxiety, but 2016 and 2020 haven't been the only election years that were full of post-election dread and the possibility of violence in the streets, coups, and/or an uprising from a losing party. American history is rich with disparate groups flipping out because they didn't get their way, and though it's hard to determine when there's going to be civil unrest, the best thing we can do is look to history to tell us how things tend to play out.

The Secession Of The South

The most important post-election coup/government shakeup (to put it mildly) occurred following the election of 1860. Lincoln's victory in this race was one of the catalysts for the secession of seven Southern states from December 20, 1860 until February 1, 1861. While violence didn't immediately occur, the Civil War officially began on April 12, 1861 and lasted another four years.

The secession that began the Civil War isn't technically a post-election riot, but it does illustrate just how far people and political parties will go to show their dissent. In this case, rather than work toward a compromise, the Southern states cut America in half in an attempt to remake it in their vision.

Poster for the successful 1896 presidential campaign of Governor William McKinley of Ohio and Garret Hobart of New Jersey. (Gillespie, Metzgar & Kelley/Wikimedia Commons)

The Dueling Riots Of 1896

The presidential election of 1896 was fraught with tension and violence as William McKinley ran against William Jennings Bryan. At the time, the country was just coming out of a lengthy depression that left laborers and business owners looking for a change, although each group wanted something vastly different. McKinley ran from his front porch in Ohio, funded by industrialists to the tune of $4 million and essentially creating modern campaign financing.

It also inspired Bryan's supporters to riot in Chicago's 18th Ward and Manhattan, albeit for different reasons. In Chicago, rioters fought the police until they were bloody and falling down in the streets, while those in New York City took more of a Super Bowl approach to the whole thing, yelling and shouting as they ran up and down Broadway.

Mob posing by the ruins of The Daily Record in Wilmington, North Carolina. (Unknown author/Wikimedia Commons)

The Wilmington Insurrection Of 1898

One of the most devastating post-election riots of the 19th century occurred in Wilmington, North Carolina following a windfall election of candidates from a party formed by the state's black population with white moderates. Weeks after the win, the town's white population formed an armed brute squad and marched through the city. The members of the violent, racist mob burned down the local paper and attacked the black community before attempting to bury this ugly piece of history. It's believed that between 60 and 300 people died in the coup, which turned Wilmington from a fairly liberal town for the 19th century into a bastion of racism.

Times Square in the '60s. (Jim Evans/Wikimedia Commons)

Anti-Nixon Riots Of 1968

On November 6, 1968, anti-election protests broke out in New York City as 84 demonstrators stormed Rockefeller Center and Times Square, ending with a brawl between the young protesters and the N.Y.P.D. At the same time, 100 people protested Nixon's election in Lafayette Park, across the street from the White House, and similar small skirmishes occurred in Newark, Ann Arbor, and Boston, all ending in mass arrests.

2000 presidential election recount in Palm Beach County. (Dtobias/Wikimedia Commons)

The Brooks Brothers Riot

The kind of post-election riots that broke out in the '60s following the election of President Nixon stopped happening en masse in the back half of the 20th century. Instead, a new kind of post-election turmoil was created by lobbyists and higher-ups in a political party who had a lot to lose (jobs, contracts, speaking fees, book deals, etc.) if their candidate went the way of Dukakis.

On November 22, 2000, hundreds of paid Republican demonstrators descended on South Florida to protest the state's recount efforts following the 2000 presidential election, insisting that they weren't being performed transparently. When the demonstration grew violent, people were trampled, beaten, and emotionally destroyed.

The recount was shut down following the event, both because there was no way for the it to be done publicly and because the deadline for the recount had passed due to the incursion. George W. Bush won the election, the G.O.P. got their way, and in doing so, they created a blueprint for the modern coup.

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Jacob Shelton


Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.