One of the great accomplishments of the United States is that for the last 230 years we have had a peaceful transition of power from one president to the next. The transition from Washington to Adams was actually jovial, sort of a celebration, of the great contribution George Washington had made to our country. Four years later, in the early morning hours of March 4, 1801, John Adams, the second president of the United States, quietly left Washington, D.C. under cover of darkness but he quietly left there was not question as to whether he would do so. He lost to Thomas Jefferson and while he would not attend the inauguration ceremony held later that day, it was clear that the electorate had chosen his former friend—now political rival—Thomas Jefferson and Jefferson was not the President of the United States.
Adams set a very important precedent. His departure would be peaceful and uncontested and the office of the President would simply transfer between political opponents without resistance. Since then, the loser of every presidential election in U.S. history has willingly and peacefully surrendered power to the winner, despite whatever personal animosity or political divisions might exist.
The election of 1800 was a contested one. When the votes were counted, confusion reigned. Though Jefferson and his running mate, Aaron Burr, had defeated Adams and Pinckney, both had received the same number of electoral votes. The tie sent the decision to the House of Representatives, where Jefferson finally won the presidency on the 36th ballot. (Burr would later disqualify himself from high office by shooting and killing Alexander Hamilton but we don’t talk about what happens in New Jersey…)
Since 1801, the peaceful transfer of power has remained a hallmark of U.S. government, joining the two-party system as key aspects of ensuring a healthy democracy. Adams’s early-morning departure aside, a majority of outgoing presidents have attended the inaugurations of their successors. Notable exceptions include Adams’s own son, John Quincy Adams, who declined to attend Andrew Jackson’s first inaugural in 1829; and the embattled Andrew Johnson, who refused to attend the inauguration of Ulysses S. Grant as his successor in 1869, choosing to hold a final meeting of his cabinet instead. In 1837, Jackson and his successor, Martin Van Buren, began a new tradition by riding together to Van Buren’s inauguration at the U.S. Capitol. Until the early 20th century, the outgoing and incoming presidents additionally rode together back to the White House after the inaugural ceremonies. Theodore Roosevelt was the first to depart from this pattern in 1909 by heading directly from the Capitol to Union Station, where he caught a train to New York. Later presidents, such as Harry Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower and Lyndon B. Johnson, left the Capitol grounds by car. Since Gerald Ford’s departure from office in 1977, every outgoing president and first lady have departed the inaugural ceremonies via helicopter, leaving their successors to attend an inaugural luncheon inside the Capitol building.
Donald Trump as repeatedly shown his distain for tradition and the history of our country. We’ll see if he chooses the honorable precedent of his peers (former presidents) or whether he chooses a new peer group and exits office in the manner of Charles I or Louis XVI. Lets hope he keeps his head on straight :).