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Ask Civics 101: Why is the Peaceful Transition of Power Important?

Sara Plourde/NHPR

The peaceful transition of power is a central tenet of American democracy. It has long been a point of pride for this nation that even in times of deep political strife the sitting president accepts the election of a new leader, and, if abashedly, steps down without protest.

Shortly before he left office in 2017, President Barack Obama gave a speech to his supporters in which he promised a peaceful and assisted transfer of power from his administration to then President-elect Trump and his administration. The crowed booed in response. President Obama, rather than addressing the root of their displeasure, just short of scolded his audience. The peaceful transition of power was an essential element, he insisted, of a functioning democratic government:

In 10 days, the world will witness a hallmark of our democracy... [Audience boos] No, no, no, no, no — the peaceful transfer of power from one freely elected President to the next. I committed to President-elect Trump that my administration would ensure the smoothest possible transition, just as President Bush did for me. Because it's up to all of us to make sure our government can help us meet the many challenges we still face.

We spoke with constitutional scholar Linda Monk to find out where this principle came from and how we've upheld it over the years.

"The procedures are set out in the Constitution," Linda explained, "I mean, that's the whole reason you have a constitution, right? Is to set out, okay, what happened? How are we going to decide who wins and who loses? How are we going to have power?"

The Constitution does not explicitly say “there will be a peaceful transition of presidential power.” What it does tell us is that we are to hold a free and fair election and that the winner of that election will become the president. Election law further provides for counting and resolving legal challenges to the ballot before that transfer. The framers put this in writing because they knew - and this was before political parties - that people would squabble and disagree over their political desires. They also feared the influence of foreign powers.

"So the Constitution says that's the norm… we've got some disagreements, we're going to have elections, and here's how we keep the government in power," says Linda.

This peaceful transition is like an unspoken implication; here are the rules of how power will change hands, and as long as you uphold the Constitution that power shift will be peaceful.

The principle was untested until the defeat of our second president, John Adams. He was the incumbent, a Federalist, competing against his Democratic-Republican Vice President Thomas Jefferson in the election of 1800. It was the first time a sitting president lost reelection.

"That was when people look to say, 'are we going to be able to survive a transfer of power with such diametrically opposed candidates?'" says Linda, "And then Jefferson, in an inaugural speech, says 'we are all Federalists. We are all Republicans.' The idea is, even then, it was clear what the divisions out there breaking into political parties. And Jefferson tries to bring the nation together, saying essentially, we're all Americans."

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This principle applied even when people were very, very sore losers. Like when Abraham Lincoln won the presidency in 1860 and seven states seceded.

"There was a legal transfer of power after the election of 1860 and then states seceded," Linda explains, "So there was a peaceful transfer of power, but then the unsuccessful states decided to declare their own nation."

A peaceful transfer of power does not necessarily mean a friendly one. Though President Barack Obama expressed belief in a kind of gold standard transition, the rise and inauguration of a new president has historically been accompanied by protest and even violence. Lincoln himself faced threat of an assassination plot on his way to inauguration in 1860. What has thus far been unprecedented in the United States was the refusal of an opponent to acknowledge that the president elect had in fact won the election. That is, until 2020.

"It's a time of grieving right now," Linda feels, "Grieving is necessary because we have forever lost our claim to a peaceful transfer of power during an election. That's forever. Now, maybe that'll make us more humble about what's required to do that, and more protective of our electoral process, more indulgent to our fellow citizens, because all we have to do is look around the world and see where those kinds of challenges happen and what the consequences are…now we've been given a taste of that medicine and, instead of bragging about it, will be servants to it.”

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Hannah McCarthy first came to NHPR an intern in 2015, returned as a Fellow the following year and then bounced around as a reporter and producer before landing as co-host of Civics 101. She has reported on everything from the opioid epidemic to State House politics to haunted woods of New Hampshire.

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