Peaceful Change

An American Invention, and One of Its Greatest Gifts to the World

At the recent Republican National Convention, there were calls of "jail her," or even "hang her," regarding Hillary Clinton. These cries resulted not from her conduct--the FBI Director, a staunch Republican, gratuitously offered his opinion that she had been "careless," but even he had to conclude that no reasonable prosecutor could have brought charges--instead, the raucous shouts resulted simply because to the convention's Republicans she was the enemy.

Such poisonous bleats directed at a political opponent--and clearly encouraged by the Republican nominee--were explicit violations of America's most honored political traditions. They stimulated some thoughts about the United States of America, and what this country at its best has contributed to the world.

In 1797, John Adams became president. President Washington had retired after two arduous terms, and the succession by his vice president could be accepted by both supporters and opponents as political continuity. Four years later, the situation was starkly different. President Adams had lost his bid for re-election. Continuity was no more; his successor would be Thomas Jefferson, his political opponent.

The new United States had no experience with such political change, and useful guidance could hardly come from world practice. Inheritance was the usual process for replacing a leader, or sometimes a rival faction with greater power could seize control. There then was likely to be bloody reaction, with losers becoming victims. Even with inheritance, there sometimes were violent efforts to change the outcome.

In 1801, America ushered in the 19th century by applying its Constitution and trying something unprecedented. To a large extent, the success of the innovative approach would depend upon the actions of one man, the outgoing president, John Adams.

Yes, Adams was bitter. Jefferson had been vice president during his administration, and had worked secretly--and sometimes even openly--to undercut the sitting president. Moreover, the election was close. Adams would have won except for the Constitution's infamous three-fifths clause. That clause allowed slave states to count three-fifths of their slaves in their population, even though they treated those whom they enslaved as livestock, not as human beings, and had no intention of changing. This gave the slaveholding states far more representation in the U. S. House of Representatives than they would otherwise have had, and that in turn greatly increased their number of presidential electors. The increased number of southern electors gave Jefferson the votes that defeated Adams.

Adams, though, did not whine and say the election had been stolen. He did not call out troops and try to hang on to power. He did not say that he was the only person who could save the country. He did not say his political enemies should be jailed or hanged. He did none of those things.

Instead, he quietly left Washington on a stagecoach, and proceeded home to Massachusetts. He did not attend Jefferson's inauguration. Historians have condemned him for showing disrespect to the new administration, but other, more thoughtful, historians point out that he had entertained president-elect Jefferson earlier, and that there was as yet no precedent specifying how a defeated president should act.

Adams may have refused to attend the inauguration from pique (he definitely had a bad temper and carried grudges, and there is no doubt that he was stung by his defeat), but he may simply have felt unwelcome. Because he was in an unprecedented situation, he may even have felt that his presence, not his absence, would have been disrespectful considering the circumstances.

Actually, two other presidents refused to attend their successors' inaugurals, both clearly because of bitterness and anger. The first was another Adams, the former president's son, John Quincy, who had lost to Andrew Jackson in an unusually acrimonious battle in 1828. The other was Andrew Johnson, the thoroughly racist successor to the assassinated Abraham Lincoln. Johnson was bitter at his successor, U. S. Grant, who as commanding general had thwarted many of Johnson's efforts to ensure the subjugation of the newly-freed former slaves.

As for John Adams, we do know that he had reserved his place on the stagecoach some weeks in advance of his departure, so that it was not a sudden decision to forego attendance at Jefferson's inauguration. We cannot know just why he decided as he did, nor does it matter.

What does matter is that Adams set an example for the United States, and also for the world. However unhappy he was at the circumstance, the defeated president accepted his sudden change of status from high office to no office quietly, and without protest. The American political system built upon and continued the Adams precedent, and accordingly has remained strong and stable. He deserves to be honored for what he did.

We now almost universally acknowledge that political change should be peaceful. Losers should be permitted to retain their dignity, to seek to re-group, and not be restrained from trying again later. That is the way democratic change operates. Our democratic republic could not prevail if it were to adopt the practice of jailing or hanging defeated political opponents.

The bloodthirsty screeches condemning Hillary Clinton are a disturbing reflection of profound ignorance of American traditions, or perhaps something worse. They could signify disregard of that tradition, or even opposition to it. It should give us all pause, if the most unusual effort by Donald Trump to secure the presidency, carries with it--as it seems that it does--a willingness, even an eagerness, to discard all the practices that have made America great.

If that is the case, the Trump phenomenon demonstrates that we are in danger of departing from our most noble political traditions. Their replacement would be reminiscent of the hysterical actions at Salem in the seventeenth century, or to use a twentieth-century example, the insanity that infected an entire culture as another demagogue took power in Germany, leading the world to the greatest war in its history.