The Constitution and the Peaceful Transfer of Power

In October 15’s blog, I brought up the Election of 1800. It was a hotly contested election that embodied some of the same intense partisan divisions of today. In fact, many historians call it “the revolution after the revolution.” I also mentioned one of the major ways it was such a critical moment in world history: it marked the first peaceful transition of power. Yes, that is right, for the first time in human history, an opposing party took control of the government peacefully. No civil war, no declaration of “fraud,” just John Adams, the Federalist, packing his bags from the White House and Thomas Jefferson, the Democratic-Republican, moving in. I want to spend today’s post understanding the importance of the principles behind this moment.

The United States Constitution addresses the election of presidents in three places. Article II is the most well known, and original to the 1789 ratification. After clear holes were found in the process in the election of 1800, the 12th Amendment laid out a clear process for electors in the Electoral College to cast a vote for the President and Vice President, to avoid deadlocks. Then, in 1933, the end of a presidential term was changed to “noon on the 20th day of January.” This means that by noon on January 20th, the elected President assumes office. 

There has been a lot of talk about the contested nature of this election. While former Vice President, Joe Biden, has asserted that if he loses the election he will concede victory and respect the results, President Donald Trump has provided less assurance. Of course, Senate Republicans, who largely support the Trump Administration have quickly assured “a peaceful transition of power.” Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnel (R-KY) tweeted, “The winner of the November 3rd election will be inaugurated on January 20th. There will be an orderly transition just as there has been every four years since 1792.” Nebraska Senator, Ben Sasse (R) was even more blunt in his comments, “The president says crazy stuff. We’ve always had a peaceful transition of power. It’s not going to change.” As their own comments relate, having a peaceful transfer of power is one of the hallmarks of a Constitutional Democracy, where the voice of the people governs.

One thing that the framers of the U.S. Constitution recognized was that for America to be successful, the government had to be bigger than a person, bigger than a political party. This is why George Washington stepped down from office despite popular approval in 1796. It’s why President Bill Clinton assured the people at the end of the contested 2000 presidential election that “The peaceful transfer of power from one administration to the next, from one party to another, may confound others around the globe. But it reflects the underlying strength of our Constitution and rule of law.” Centuries apart, these presidents recognized the importance of transferring power. 

As political scientist, John Zvesper notes, a peaceful transfer of power demonstrates that even the most deep partisan divisions can be properly resolved. When one leader hands the reins to another, it reminds us that our country is not built on the winds of a particular leader or a particular party, but on the voice of the people. Our principles transcend time, place, and person. Our Constitution’s first three words, “We the People,” are enshrined in this peaceful process of transferring power, and well, that is something to be proud of.