Every four years, the United States of America inaugurates a new presidency. It doesn’t matter if, as a result of free and fair elections, a president remains in office for two terms. The winner of the November election, no matter who he or she might be, incumbent or successful challenger, must be sworn in to a brand new term after four years have elapsed.
Until this year, many of us Americans took this ceremony for granted, giving no real thought to how unique a thing it is in the world. The words “peaceful transfer of power” have seemed almost as mundane to us as “have a nice day” or “thank you for your service.” Formalities that are expected and almost socially compulsory. But the fact that it has been happening like clockwork every four years ever since the first president of the United States, George Washington, rejected the idea of being an emperor and “presided” over the federal government for the two terms that he thought prudent and then retired after a peaceful transfer of power to John Adams, is nothing short of a miracle.
Although he established an important precedent by serving two four-year terms and no more, Washington’s reasons for leaving were political and personal—including a major rift between Jeffersonian Republicans and Hamiltonian Federalists, which was his main reason for staying for a second term, so as to act as a peacemaker in his troubled cabinet. But it seemed clear to him after two terms that his remaining in office might only deepen the divisions. And so, he withdrew his candidacy for a third term and peacefully and graciously handed over the post to the next president.
A Federalist, Adams would only serve for one term before Thomas Jefferson was voted in to replace him. But even in these troubled early days of the new nation—which famously led to Jefferson’s first Vice-President Aaron Burr’s shooting and killing Hamilton in a duel—presidents were legitimately voted into office and certified by the Electoral College, and each and every transfer of power was prompt and peaceful, no matter what kind of bitter political rivalries might separate the candidates. It was, in fact, Jefferson, who had acrimoniously feuded with Washington and Hamilton, who encouraged Washington to stay for a second term and offered to quit the government as well if the first president didn’t remain in office. And it was Jefferson, too, who cemented the eight-year mandate precedent that Washington set by also leaving office after his second term and peacefully transferring power to the newly elected James Madison, who, along with Hamilton and John Jay, had collaborated in the writing of The Federalist Papers, which would greatly contribute to the ratification of the nation’s Constitution.
|Thomas Jefferson and John Adams - |
differences of opinion, not principle
It was thanks to the clear democratic vision of these first patriots— who, no matter how they might disagree on the issues, agreed on the importance of each voice being heard and each issue being debated in a climate of democratic order—that set the guidelines and code for the future. And with each new peaceful transfer of power, democracy, and so the nation, only grew stronger.
This “established order” and peaceful transfer of power that we have so taken for granted, have continued unabated throughout the two and a half centuries of US history. Even in the most troubled and divisive of times, indeed, even during the years before, during and after the Civil War. One president after the other has respected the will of the people and the rules of the Electoral College and peacefully ceded power to the next without incident, most with extraordinary grace and an almost ritual respect for the democratic process. A very few—John Adams, who bitterly opposed Jefferson’s Republicanism; his son, John Quincy Adams, the sixth president, who abhorred the seventh, Andrew Jackson; and Andrew Johnson, a Southerner who opposed Reconstruction and hated the next president and Union hero, Ulysses S. Grant—snubbed their successors by refusing to attend their inaugurations. But all of them, to a man, respected the democratic process and quietly and peacefully left office when the people and the people’s representatives determined that their time was through.
This year’s Inauguration Day, celebrated last Wednesday, was anything but mundane. Never has an Inauguration Day been less taken for granted by a large segment of the population. Because, for the first time in history, the peaceful transfer of power came under serious and unequivocal threat. And so too did two and a half centuries of US stability and American democracy. For the first time, a president who lost a free, fair and democratic election sought to deny the results, fabricate a false narrative among a radical segment of his followers, and remain in power by inciting violence against another branch of government. In other words, for the first time, the United States has failed to have a peaceful transfer of power in keeping with our nation’s democratic norms.
Four years ago, few of us would ever have thought such a scenario was possible. It could never happen in the United States of America, many were convinced. That was the sort of thing that happened in unstable “third world” countries, not in “the land of the free and the home of the brave.”
But it did, and created the biggest threat to democracy and to the integrity of the nation since the Civil War ripped the country in two. That’s why, when a new president was sworn in last Wednesday at high noon, I, along with many other Americans, I’m sure, had a knot in my throat and tears in my eyes as I watched. It was the emotion of joy that welled up in me, despite all of my hard-earned cynicism about politics and politicians.
The tears and emotion weren’t, I realized, for the new president, no matter how much I wish him well and hope he’ll have enormous success. Rather, they were for democracy, tears of relief that it was still standing, though badly battered, and clearly not out of the woods yet. My joy was that our two and a half-century experiment in representative democracy had survived a very clear and present threat. We had, to a much greater extent than many of us cared to admit, dodged a bullet, stemmed an insurrection, overcome a rebellion against the majority will, a revolt that counted on the active assistance and authority or the passive acquiescence and silence of far too many internal players. People we Americans have voted into office, and who failed miserably to honor our trust that they would keep their vow to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States.”
As I’ve been thinking about these things, I’ve been recalling the messages of Inauguration Days past. The sixteenth president’s, for instance. Emerging from a bitter war of brother against brother—a war with the unconscionable injustice of slavery at its core, a prolonged war from which, under Abraham Lincoln’s leadership, the Union emerged victorious—instead of taking the victory lap he so deserved, instead of warning the former Confederate States that they had best have learned a lesson, because if not they would be in for another whipping, the president chose his second inaugural address as an occasion to promote unity and forgiveness.
|"With malice toward none..."|
“With malice toward none, with charity for all,” he said, “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.”
I spoke earlier of the bitter feuding between Federalists and Republicans in the times of the forefathers. And it was seldom any worse than between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. And yet, despite Adams’ inaugural snub, Jefferson’s inaugural speech was clearly democratic and conciliatory. “Every difference of opinion,” he said, “is not a difference of principle. We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.”
|Nothing to fear but fear itself|
|Ask what you can do for your country|
Nor did Abraham Lincoln sound the clarions of battle and division in his first inaugural address, right at the beginning of what was to be America’s most bloody and bitter war, and even as the Southern slave states were seceding from the Union. That speech was just as unifying and inspiring as his last, and even more poetically beautiful. In it, he said, "We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
As we approach the next four years, after the last four which were, unquestionably, some of the most divisive in our history, we would do well to re-read and recall the words of all of these great leaders. But we should particularly take to heart those of Lincoln, who is taken by many to have been the gold standard for selfless, patriotic presidents. We should remember his words and try to see past the divisive rhetoric and actions of the last four years, draw a line and start a new road on which we allow ourselves to be guided by “the better angels of our nature.”