In the wee hours of March 4, 1801, John Adams, the second President of the United States, quietly left Washington, DC under cover of darkness. He would not attend the groundbreaking ceremony held later today for his former friend – now political rival – Thomas Jefferson, who would soon replace Adams in the still unfinished presidential mansion.
In the wake of his humiliating defeat in the previous year’s election, Adams was setting an important precedent. His departure from office marked the first peaceful transfer of power between political opponents in the United States, now considered a mark of national democracy. Since then, the loser in every presidential election in U.S. history has willingly and peacefully ceded power to the winner, despite any personal animosity or political divisions that may exist.
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The first political parties
The US Constitution failed to mention political parties because many founders saw “factions” as a danger to democracy. “The current and continuing misdeeds of party spirit are sufficient to make the interest and duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain them,” said George Washington in 1796, after making the momentous decision to step down after two terms as the country’s first president.
But the party spirit already existed in the United States – even within Washington’s own cabinet. As the nation’s first Secretary of State, Jefferson repeatedly clashed with Alexander Hamilton, the Secretary of the Treasury, over the growing power of the federal government, of which Jefferson was suspicious. In 1791 Jefferson and James Madison formed the Democratic Republican Party in opposition to Hamilton’s ambitious federalist programs, including the new national banking system.
In the 1796 election, Jefferson and Adams, Washington’s vice president, clashed to succeed him, Adams with a narrow victory. Because the Constitution did not provide for political parties, the system for electing the president did not take them into account: the candidate who obtained the most votes (Adams) became president and the finalist (Jefferson) was became vice-president.
During Adams’ presidency, Democratic Republicans and Federalists clashed over everything from taxes to religion, but most of all over the primary political dilemma the nation faces: how to deal with the ongoing French Revolution. Jefferson and his supporters favored an alliance with France, while Adams and the Federalists leaned towards a stronger relationship with Britain and tried to exert control by passing the controversial Alien and Sedition Acts, which allowed Adams to imprison those who spoke out against him.
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The ‘Revolution of 1800’
These bitter differences were at the heart of the presidential campaign of 1800, which unfolded in the highly partisan press. Federalist newspapers and propaganda materials called French sympathizers dangerous radicals, while Democratic Republicans accused federalists of wanting to reestablish a monarchy.
Meanwhile, the federalists were divided among themselves: Hamilton attacked Adams in the print media, and even orchestrated a failed plan to get the federalists to vote for his running mate, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney.
When the votes were counted, confusion reigned. Although Jefferson and his running mate, Aaron Burr, defeated Adams and Pinckney, both received the same number of electoral votes. The tie sent the decision to the House of Representatives, where Jefferson ultimately won the presidency in the 36th ballot. (The 12th Amendment, ratified in 1804, would require voters to vote separately for president and vice-president, thus avoiding similar chaos in the future.)
Before leaving office, Adams made a number of federalist judicial appointments – including the installation of John Marshall as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, what Adams later called “the proudest act” of his life. Then, for reasons he has never made public, he chose to skip Jefferson’s inauguration, leaving Washington early in the morning to begin the journey back to his beloved Quincy, Massachusetts.
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Evolution of peaceful transfer of power
Since 1801, the peaceful transfer of power has remained a hallmark of the US government, joining the two-party system as a key aspect in ensuring a healthy democracy.
Aside from Adams’ early morning departure, a majority of outgoing presidents attended the inaugurations of their successors. Notable exceptions include Adams’ own son, John Quincy Adams, who refused to attend Andrew Jackson’s first inauguration in 1829; and the besieged 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.
The inaugural customs of outgoing presidents have changed over the years, according to the Congressional Joint Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies. In 1837, Jackson and his successor, Martin Van Buren, began a new tradition by riding together at Van Buren’s inauguration at the United States Capitol. Until the turn of the 20th century, outgoing and incoming presidents also returned together to the White House after the inaugural ceremonies. Theodore Roosevelt was the first to deviate from this pattern in 1909 by heading straight from the Capitol to Union Station, where he took a train to New York.
Later presidents, such as Harry Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Lyndon B. Johnson, drove out of Capitol Park. Since Gerald Ford left office in 1977, each outgoing President and First Lady have left the inaugural ceremonies by helicopter, leaving their successors to attend an inaugural luncheon inside the Capitol building.