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COLUMN: Peaceful Transition a Hallmark of American Democracy

January 16, 2017
Weekly Column and Op-Ed

America is not the norm. As citizens of one of the world’s oldest constitutional republics, every American, myself included, sometimes needs reminding about the extent to which our freedoms and traditions are the exception rather than the rule in human history. The rule of law and constitutional limits on government power should not be taken for granted. The orderly transition of power from one presidential administration to the next is one of the fundamental principles that ensure stability for our system of self-government.

For most of human history, monarchs and unelected leaders only lost power after they died or were overthrown. Successions accompanied by violent struggles have been typical when regimes changed. Across much of the world in modern times, authoritarian figures seize and maintain power in spite of the law or the consent of the people.

Our founders understood the delicate process of passing on power, so they designed an electoral system, enshrined in our Constitution, which would ensure that that consent of the nation and the rule of law were safeguarded.

The Constitution was put to the test early in our republic. In 1800, there was a hotly contested campaign after which President John Adams, the leader of the Federalists, lost reelection to Thomas Jefferson, the leader of the Democratic-Republicans. Federalists lost both the presidency and their congressional majority.

At the time, there was uncertainty that two parties so bitterly at odds with one another could keep the peace. But common sense and the rule of law prevailed, and Jefferson was inaugurated as president in 1801 without incident. In his inauguration speech, President Jefferson sought to unify a deeply-divided country with his famous statement: “We are all Republicans. We are all Federalists.”

Since 1801, there have been additional contested election results, but all presidential transitions have been resolved peacefully. As President Reagan said in his First Inaugural Address: “In the eyes of many in the world, this every 4-year ceremony we accept as normal is nothing less than a miracle.”

On January 20th of this year, President Barack Obama’s administration will yield to that of President Donald Trump during an official inauguration ceremony in accordance with our Constitution. As Americans, we can be grateful for yet another orderly transition of power that continues our experiment of self-government.