Opinion: History on peaceful transfer of power, partisanship and the Constitution

Adam Carrington

At noon on Wednesday, Joseph R. Biden Jr. assumed the office of president of the United States. In so doing, he continued a line of succession stretching back to George Washington in 1789. Forty-four other men (to count Grover Cleveland only once) have occupied this office. All 44 have relinquished it, either by retirement, electoral defeat or untimely death.

However exchanged, the movement of men into and out of the presidency has by and large been a peaceful one. The threatening clouds of violence hung over the first transfer between political opponents in 1800 only, thankfully, to dissipate. Lincoln’s inaugurations in 1861 and 1865 took place in the shadow of violent rebellion, wherein a portion of the country chose “bullets” over “ballots” when the latter did not accord with its wishes.

At noon on Wednesday, Joseph R. Biden Jr. assumed the office of president of the United States. In so doing, he continued a line of succession stretching back to George Washington in 1789, Carrington writes.

These instances have comprised the exception, not the rule. And the rule has been a marvel in world history. In other times or places, intrigue and violence have dominated exchanges of power. We not only have avoided both, in the main, but have done so with such consistency as to find peaceful transfers routine.

The current transfer of officeholder, sadly, comes closer to the exceptions. After a contentious election, a significant slice of our polity still questions the legitimacy of the ballots cast. Most have done so forcefully but peacefully. However, on Jan. 6, a small subsection of them chose "bullets," meaning violence, to oppose the certified election results. By that dastardly deed, the 2021 exchange of power has proven the least peaceful in many generations.

Wherever one falls on the events of November through January, a way forward demands a partial exiting of our partisan hall of mirrors. The present moment requires politics of reaffirmation.

We find this reaffirmation in the words of Thomas Jefferson, declared in his inaugural address given during the first contentious transfer of power. On March 4, 1801, Jefferson addressed a country torn by an election on which both sides thought the future of the country depended. His opponents, John Adams and the Federalist Party, thought an electoral loss portended mob rule, atheism and moral degradation. Jefferson and his party, the Democratic-Republicans, thought their opposition was hurling the young country toward oppressive monarchy and aristocracy.

These accusations should sound familiar. Adjusted in issues and in labels, we see something of our own partisan divide in them. We also can find in Jefferson’s response some guidance on our own way forward. His address gave the reaffirmations needed for our own time.

In a “contest of opinion” defined by difference, Jefferson reaffirmed the truths that united us. First, he reaffirmed how we act under our Constitution. We should abide by what he called “the vital principle of republics.” This principle consisted of majority rule through “the right of election by the people.” This mode respected human equality. It also guarded peaceful decision-making. For apart from consent of the majority, no appeal resided in a republic other than to “force.” Today, we would be well-advised to remember how precious peaceful settling of differences is and how an election’s winners and losers must guard that gift now and in the future.

Moreover, Jefferson reaffirmed the principles that we should pursue through majority rule. The Federalists hearing his speech likely worried that appeals to majority rule might mean oppression for their side as the losers of the previous election. Jefferson addressed this worry with words prescient for today. While affirming majority will, he added that “that will to be rightful must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate would be oppression.”

These words certainly could assuage the Federalists at the time. They also should do so among those found in the minority today. But they were directed just as much toward the winners, then or now. As Jefferson had written in 1776, the purpose of government was to secure the natural rights of all persons, majority or minority. Protections for religious liberty and freedom of the press, he would later add in this address, comprised “the essential principles of our Government” that no one should violate. Even in republics, might did not make right. Right defined and constrained might within its just bounds.

In this vein, Jefferson also rejected a perspective on political opponents that today we might equate with so-called “cancel culture.” He argued that, having rejected religious persecution, we also must deny “a political intolerance as despotic, as wicked and capable of as bitter and bloody persecutions.” We must reject trial by combat in favor of struggle through ballot. But to do so we must protect the liberty to express opinion and persuade through that expression, even those that are unpopular at the time among the people in general or among elite circles.

Jefferson also reaffirmed Americans common citizenship across partisan lines. While not downplaying the importance of the previous election, Jefferson reminded his hearers that “every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle.” Today, we might take to heart in better fashion that not every partisan divide determines the fate of Western civilization or America’s existence. Some might, but our tribalism has reduced all battles to existential ones. In taking Jefferson’s counsel, we might be able to find common ground on more than we presently do. We might be able to, as Jefferson encouraged his audience, “unite in common efforts for the common good.”

Finally, Jefferson reaffirmed the centrality of our Constitution in all of these matters. He expressed his own humility before his task, saying that he should despair if left to his own efforts. However, he found a remedy. He was reminded “that in the other high authorities provided by our Constitution I shall find resources of wisdom, of virtue, and of zeal on which to rely under all difficulties.”

So should we in our own times. Leaders, be they Jeffersons, Lincolns, Obamas or Trumps, come and go. Our Constitution remains. It possesses a wisdom to know the good. It possesses means to instill virtue to desire this good. And the patriotism it elicits has given generations past the zeal to rely on it during the worst of times. So let it be with us.

Adam Carrington is an associate professor of politics at Hillsdale College. His teaching focuses on the history of political philosophy, constitutional law and American political thought that brings students into conversation with Aristotle, Locke, the American founders, Lincoln, and many more of the great political thinkers and statesmen of the past. Carrington is also a 2020-21 Garwood Visiting Fellow at Princeton University's James Madison Program.