Updated: Dec 4, 2020
The peaceful transition of power is a hallmark of American Democracy, a national treasure envied throughout the world. Yet, we dare not take it for granted, for its perpetuation depends on the good faith, good will and integrity of leaders and citizens alike.
The peaceful transfer of power, embedded in the very foundation of our constitutional system by the men who invented, defined and implemented it, represents a dramatic alternative to authoritarian regimes which systematically ignore the will of the people.
This foundational principle--as sacred as any of America’s most precious principles-- is as fragile as the founders’ experiment in republicanism itself. It is vulnerable to the reckless behavior of candidates and citizens alike. Like other fundamental norms, it requires commitment, nourishment and defense, particularly in moments of great political and electoral turmoil.
Two of our founding titans—Thomas Jefferson and John Adams—were indispensable in the establishment of the principle, most prominently in the lessons that they imparted in the presidential elections of 1796 and 1800. In the aftermath of the two contests, despite their personal disappointment and foiled ambition, both swore allegiance to republican principles and the national interest.
After George Washington was unanimously preferred by electors in 1788, and nearly so in 1792, Adams narrowly defeated Jefferson in 1796 in what was the first contentious national election. Abigail Adams feared that subsequent elections would be stained with “bloodshed.” “We have had a paper War for six weeks past, and if the Candidates had not themselves been entirely passive, Rage and Violence would have thrown the whole Country in a flame,” she added.
The restraint of Adams and Jefferson protected the nation from unbridled turmoil, but what they did after the election was even more important to the future of the nation. They found ground for reconciliation of considerable differences, pledged their commitment to the future of the republic, and extended to one another messages of sincere respect.
The election of 1800 might have destroyed prospects for a peaceful transfer of power, had it not been for the exemplary statesmanship of Adams and Jefferson.
The race was nasty. It was punctuated by personal vilification, extreme partisan spirit and political vengeance. Both sides feared civil war.
Adams, like Washington, was seeking a second term in office, which represented to the nation the virtues of continuity and stability of leadership in the fledgling republic. Jeffersonian republicans portrayed Adams as vain, insane, an advocate for monarchy and willing to marry his children to members of the royal family in England to promote his political ambitions. Adams’s loyalists characterized Jefferson as an atheist determined to bring the excesses of the French Revolution to America, including use of guillotine to punish opponents.
Jefferson’s victory--“The Revolution of 1800”-- reflected Americans’ decision to oust Adams and the Federalists in favor of Jeffersonianism, essentially a wholesale trade in governmental philosophy. It represented a crucial achievement for the country since it demonstrated that an opposition candidate could peacefully assume the reigns of governmental power under the Constitution.
In his magisterial inaugural address, Jefferson demonstrated good will, deep commitment to national unity and republican principles and, memorably, voice to the implementation of a peaceful transfer of power: “We are all republicans—we are all federalists.”
History imposes a set of expectations on those who have run the last leg in the race for the American Presidency. It expects winners of presidential elections to exhibit grace and magnanimity toward those defeated. It requires, as well, a declaration of commitment to the Constitution, the values of democracy and the welfare of all the people--federalists and republicans alike.
The symmetry of historical demands upon the defeated candidate, are clearly more burdensome. Deprived of the soaring spirit and energy enjoyed by the winner, the “runner-up” possesses only flagging spirit and energy, particularly if he was in pursuit of a second term. But grace and magnanimity must be summoned, for the good of the republic, and in the interest of national unity. It is the essence of a peaceful transfer of power.
To his credit, Adams spoke of Jefferson’s “splendid talents” and “the long experience.” A line of subsequent presidents, defeated while in quest of “four more years,” including Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush, passed the baton as part of a peaceful transition of power and found words of respect and congratulations to Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, respectively, in the spirit of national unity and the welfare of the nation.
If, as it seems increasingly likely, President Trump is defeated by former Vice-President, Joe Biden then he too, must rise to meet the requirements of history and statesmanship, and exhibit the grace and magnanimity summoned by his predecessors. Failure in this duty would inflict lasting harm to the republic, and to the ideals of those who created it.
David Adler is president of The Alturas Institute, created to advance American Democracy through promotion of the Constitution, civic education, equal protection and gender equality. He has lectured nationally and internationally on the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. His scholarly writings have been quoted by the US Supreme Court, lower federal courts and by both Republicans and Democrats in Congress.