Today our country marks the orderly transition of power from one presidential administration to the next. It’s an admirable, vital tradition. For most of human history until recently, handovers of governmental power were often the very opposite of orderly. In many cases, they were chaotic and, too often, bloody.
In ancient times, the fate of government was often a hostage to plotting and thuggery. A society’s leader was frequently the aspirant who was cleverest at scheming or who could amass the strongest resources for violence. In ancient Rome, emperors sometimes followed each other in quick succession because of such incessant intrigue and bloodthirstiness.
Some societies had a measure of stability through dynasties. But such a system could tumble into chaos and war when rival members of a family sought the throne or when a monarch died without leaving a clear heir.
Our country’s founders understood such history, and they were determined to find a better way.
They found it in the creation of a republic. Governmental power was grounded in the will of the people, not the whims of a divine ruler. Under the American system, a president losing an election would peaceably give way to his successor.
Over time, political parties formed. Though they were eager to gain and hold onto power, they respected election outcomes and turned the levers of authority over to the rival party if voters so decreed.
Our presidential inaugurations are intended to celebrate and confirm this important tradition. True, a few presidents have chosen not to attend their successor’s inauguration. John Adams, stinging from an election loss, left town when Thomas Jefferson was sworn in as president. The same went a generation later for Adams’ son, John Quincy Adams, a presidential incumbent who could not abide election winner Andrew Jackson. President Donald Trump, in similar fashion, has regrettably chosen to snub Joe Biden today.
But overall, presidential history is replete with heartening examples of grace at inauguration time. When Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican president, delivered his 1861 inaugural address, Stephen Douglas, the defeated Democratic nominee, stood nearby holding Lincoln’s hat, to show goodwill at a time of enormous sectional tension. Douglas County is named after that Illinois senator.
At the 1889 inauguration of Benjamin Harrison, rain descended on the outdoor ceremony, and Harrison, a Republican, had to be sheltered by an umbrella as he took his oath of office. Holding the umbrella was the outgoing president, Democrat Grover Cleveland.
Just over a century later, Democrat Bill Clinton defeated Republican incumbent George H.W. Bush. When the Clinton family arrived at White House on inaugural day 1993, Bush greeted them and said, “Welcome to your new home!” After Clinton’s inauguration, he found a note Bush had left him at the White House: “... You will be our President when you read this note. I wish you well. I wish your family well. Your success now is our country’s success. I am rooting hard for you. Good luck — George.”
Americans will always have honest differences over politics. But on the question of accepting orderly presidential successions, we can have unity — we must have unity.
The gestures by Bush and other presidents shouldn’t be dismissed as mere niceties. On the contrary, they have far greater importance: They are affirmations of an abiding national tradition. It’s the duty of all Americans in the present day to understand that tradition and honor it. And then pass it on, intact, for future generations to nurture and protect.