Hard Fought Elections and Peaceful Transitions are the Consistent Norm
By Phillip G. Payne
At various times in the history of the republic, the person occupying the office of the presidency has been great, mediocre and not-so-great. Similarly, our elections have not always run smoothly. Democracy isn’t easy. In 2020, for the first time the President of the United States and his allies are actively and aggressively publically challenging the election process and outcome. Donald Trump, on November 15, wrote on Twitter:
“He [Biden] won because the Election was Rigged,” he tweeted. “NO VOTE WATCHERS OR OBSERVERS allowed, vote tabulated by a Radical Left privately owned company, Dominion, with a bad reputation & bum equipment that couldn’t even qualify for Texas (which I won by a lot!), the Fake & Silent Media, & more!” —Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 15, 2020
Since then Trump has ratcheted up his efforts to overturn the election through legal maneuvers and political pressure that would override the popular vote giving Trump an Electoral College victory. This can only accelerate the trend of Americans having doubts about our political system and the institutions that uphold democracy. The irony is that the 2020 presidential election, held during a pandemic and ongoing political polarization, comparatively went well. As it turns out, the president not the election is the anomaly.
Let’s try to place this in context.
Elections are, by definition, contests. There is no romantic past full of noble politicians engaged in harmonious debate. But the norms and systems established over the years serve to harness and control the rough and tumble of contentious politics. Every four years, Americans go to the polls to pass a verdict upon a president and potentially pick a new one. Occasionally, the office is empty, in which case voters by proxy pass a verdict on the president’s party and successor. Should those policies continue? Those presidents who have met with defeat have reacted in different ways, but whatever their private thoughts they have publicly accepted the will of the people as expressed at the ballot. As we watch President Trump refuse to accept his defeat in the recent election, it is important to look at how unusual it is for a sitting president to not accept a peaceful transition. The lesson we should take is that as rickety as our political institutions seem at times it is our customs and norms – commonly held political values – that props up the rickety democratic infrastructure built in the 18th century and periodically overhauled and retrofitted into the 21st century.
To the point, George Washington established much of the norms of how presidents behave in a republic, with the key norm being restraint. This includes the idea that presidents step down after two terms, surrendering power to return to the citizenry and live under the rules they helped establish. American celebrated Washington as an American Cincinnatus, a man who surrendered power both as a general and as a president. Washington could have been king, but he did not want that. Still, despite the power of Washington’s example, his successors could have ignored it.
The first test came when Thomas Jefferson, Democratic Republican, defeated John Adams, Federalist, in 1800 in a divisive election settled in the House of Representatives. For the Federalist Party, the election signaled electoral doom to as a growing and changing nation eroded their base, and indeed the Federalist Party barely lasted another two decades. John Adams, deeply bitter, left so that he would not witness Thomas Jefferson’s inauguration in the new capitol. The defeated Federalist Party also appointed a raft of “midnight” judges to help them hold onto at least some power. The election also led to the 12th Amendment, an attempt to fix the Electoral College after the fight in the House of Representatives.
The bitterness and drama led the first peaceful transition of power, with Jefferson in his inaugural address calling for unity around the idea of representative government:
We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists. If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this Union or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.
Jefferson continued his affirmation of self-government:
Sometimes it is said that man can not be trusted with the government of himself. Can he, then, be trusted with the government of others? Or have we found angels in the forms of kings to govern him? Let history answer this question.
The election of 1800 is often referred to as the Revolution of 1800. This can be thought of in a couple ways. Revolution meant a political shift, the election brought Jefferson and his Democratic Republicans to power in the first peaceful transfer of power in the United States. In 1800, not everyone expected a peaceful transition of power. Indeed, the opposite was the norm, changing governments often meant violence. Jefferson and Adams reconciled in their retirement, writing some of the most famous correspondence on reflecting on a common belief in republican government.
Throughout the 19th century, presidents followed the norm established by Washington of stepping aside after two terms. This, of course, did not preclude them from continuing political activity. Former presidents Martin Van Buren and Millard Fillmore ran on third party tickets. Van Buren, an architect of the modern Democratic Party built around the populism of Andrew Jackson, ran on the anti-slavery Free Soil Party ticket in 1848. Fillmore, a Whig who was elected vice president and assumed the presidency with Zachary Taylor’s death, carried the banner of the nativist American Party in 1856 (more commonly known as the Know Nothing Party) when the dissolving Whig Party blocked Fillmore in 1852 because of his support for the Fugitive Slave Act. Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan each served one term leading up to 1860. It is worth noting that these elections took place in the highly charged political realignment that led to the dissolving of the Whig Party, the birth of the modern Republican Party and the Civil War.
The election of 1860 is, far and away, the best example of a losing party refusing to accept defeat. Abraham Lincoln won a plurality of the popular vote but a majority in the Electoral College, keeping the election out of the House of Representatives. Southern Democrats noted that Lincoln and the Republicans carried the election without support from a single Southern state, the eleven that would form the Confederacy refusing to allow Lincoln’s name on the ballot. Southern states had long had an oversized role in the federal government because of the constitutional advantages of the three-fifths compromise, the Electoral College and each state having two senators regardless of population. For them, Lincoln’s election signaled the end of that advantage and with it their ability to protect the institution of slavery. Rather than face that prospect, starting with South Carolina, Southerners attempted to leave the union. The result was the Civil War.
During the Civil War, Lincoln’s detractors accused him of dictatorial behavior, especially regarding suspending the Writ of Habeas Corpus. No doubt in prosecuting the war Lincoln expanded the powers of the executive in ways that previous presidents would have hesitated to do, but Lincoln backed holding elections during the war in both the midterm elections of 1862 and the presidential elections of 1864, an election Lincoln thought he would lose. Like Jefferson before him, Lincoln used his Second Inaugural Address to call for a healing of wounds:
With malice toward none with charity for all with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right let us strive on to finish the work we are in to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan ~ to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
Shortly after this, John Wilkes Booth assassinated Lincoln making Andrew Johnson president. Elections during the Reconstruction years following the Civil War held both promise found in the 14th and 15th Amendments but also corruption. Reconstruction came to an end with the disputed election of 1776, where three states reported different sets of electors amid reports of irregularities. Congress eventually settled the election in a bargain that made Republican Rutherford B. Hayes president in exchange for agreeing to end Reconstruction and support for black suffrage. What followed was Jim Crow, one party rule in the south and intense partisanship nationally.
Sometimes when a norm is broken badly or boldly enough, the norm becomes a law. This happened with the 22nd Amendment, approved in 1951, setting term limits for the presidency. Franklin Roosevelt shattered the record winning four terms. Roosevelt defeated Herbert Hoover in 1932 during the depths of the Great Depression. Hoover served only one term and feared Roosevelt’s policies. The pictures of a clearly dejected and unhappy Hoover riding in the car with President-elect Roosevelt on Inauguration Day spoke volumes. Still, Hoover left office and muted his criticism of Roosevelt. Hoover returned to public service after World War II working on food aid for Europe with Roosevelt’s successor Harry Truman. Since FDR and the 22nd amendment, the norm has been that presidents get reelected, but also to exit office gracefully (with the notable exception of Richard Nixon), and work to improve the nation.
In all this, presidents have left office peacefully. Sometimes they sulked. Sometimes they feared for the country. Sometimes they welcomed leaving. But… they returned to the citizenry. More than a few contributed to the ongoing American Cincinnatus tradition by aiding the current holder of the presidency, working to improve the nation and the body politic. It seems at the moment, for Trump and his allies the current crisis is that the Electoral College aligned with the popular vote leading them to question the validity of votes cast for their opponent, they seem to fear living as citizens under the rules they helped create governed by the fellow Americans and political rivals. As of November 24, the General Services Administration announced it would allow the transition to go forward without a concession from President Trump. As we watch President Trump and his allies embrace increasingly partisan, conspiracy-theory driven, and aggrieved attempts to dispute the election, the question is will this become the new norm? Is this the natural evolution of hyper-partisan culture wars on the steroids of cable news and social media? Will this be the revolution of 2020?
Phillip G. Payne is a professor of history at St. Bonaventure University, where he has taught since 1998. He is the author of Dead Last: The Public Memory of Warren G. Harding’s Scandalous Legacy (Ohio University Press, 2009) and Crash!: How the Economic Boom and Bust of the 1920s Worked (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015) in addition to articles on diverse topics.