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Mr. President, Please Consider Following John Adams’s Example

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“So, if President Trump sticks to his plans not to attend the inauguration of President-elect Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, he has a remaining option that still very much respects the peaceful transfer of government set into place by our nation’s Founders.”

After months of rhetoric based in conspiracy, which ultimately led to the fatal events at the United States Capitol last week, President Donald Trump finally conceded to President-elect Joe Biden and acknowledged defeat in the November election. In his video message posted on the evening of January 6th, President Trump committed to a “smooth, orderly, and seamless transition of power,” thus carrying out a tradition that has been part of American democracy since the time of President George Washington. Where President Trump continues to break with tradition, however, is with his decision not to attend President-elect Biden’s inauguration. In doing so, President Trump becomes the first outgoing president to skip his successor’s inauguration since President Andrew Johnson in 1869.

In light of this—and considering the bitterness and divisiveness stoked by his presidency—President Trump should consider taking a page from the book of one of our first peaceful transfers of power: that of President John Adams to President-elect Thomas Jefferson on March 4, 1801. Under the cover of darkness that morning, President Adams, whose presidency was marked by political unrest and immense partisanship, slipped quietly out of the White House and into private life before his successor took the oath of office. With no plans to attend President-elect Biden’s inauguration, President Trump should consider a similar approach and allow the nation an opportunity to move on from a bitter four years.

The Adams presidency marked the only time in American history that the President and Vice President belonged to opposing political parties. Despite President Washington’s cautions against partisanship in his famed 1796 Farewell Address, the affairs of the time gave rise to two distinct political factions in the young nation. President Adams, a Federalist, favored relations with Great Britain and a more centralized government. Thomas Jefferson, his Vice President, was a Democratic-Republican and believed the future rested with closer ties to France, along with checks on centralized, federal power. (Of course, the differences between the two parties were manifest and far more extensive than alluded to above.)

Although he was serving alongside President Adams, then-Vice President Jefferson took part in a vicious campaign against the President during their administration. He opposed many of President Adams’s policies and employed political loyalists, partisan newspapers, and acts of strategic political subversion to shift public sentiment against the President. President Adams was aware of this, and, needless to say, it deeply affected their personal relationship. This partisan battle led to the now-infamous Election of 1800: a contest between the two Founding Fathers, as well as between a sitting President and his own Vice President.

A bitter and divisive presidency—combined with an equally bitter presidential campaign—was more than President Adams could overcome. As a result, Vice President Jefferson—along with his running mate, former New York Senator Aaron Burr—each received 73 electoral votes, as compared to President Adams’s 65. 70 were needed, and President Adams, thus, became the United States’ first one-term President.

Although it was clear that President Adams had lost, the tie between Vice President Jefferson and former Senator Burr brought about controversy. Prior to the ratification of the Twelfth Amendment to the United States Constitution in 1804, there existed no distinction between President and Vice President on the ballot. Since Vice President Jefferson and Senator Burr received the same number of electoral votes, a contingent election was needed to select the next President. (A contingent election occurs when there is a tie or absence of majority in the Electoral College. Then, the election is decided by the House of Representatives, with each state delegation receiving one vote, and the candidate who carries the most states becoming President.) After 36 ballots and a month of intense political bargaining, the House of Representatives elected Vice President Jefferson as the third President of the United States.

During his final days in office, President Adams contemplated his political legacy, attended to final business, and hosted—along with his wife, Abigail—President-elect and “former friend” (First Lady Adams’s words) Jefferson for dinner. President and First Lady Adams were always, wrote Jefferson, people of “dispositions liberal and accommodating.” Shortly after their last meal together, the First Lady set out for the long journey home to Braintree, Massachusetts. President Adams’s last days in office were spent, notes historian Joseph Ellis in his 2011 book Passionate Sage, in the empty, unfinished, and miserably cold President’s House (not yet the White House) “surrounded by barren walls, packing crates, [and] moving trunks…”

Despite being “the man who, next to Washington, did most to assure and then secure American independence,” President Adams decided he would not attend the inauguration of his successor. The “Pillar of American Independence,” as one contemporary referred to him, was worn. The first decade of the new republic had put a bitterness in his soul, and he wished only to return to Massachusetts for a peaceful retirement with his beloved wife.

In the early morning hours of the day of President-elect Jefferson’s inauguration, March 4, 1801, President Adams slipped quietly, under the darkness of night, out of the White House and into private life. By the time President Jefferson took the oath of office at noon, President Adams’s coach was far away from the capital. He was heading home. Afterwards, the two men, who were once close friends and helped together to build the foundation of American democracy, did not speak for over a decade. The nation’s first transfer of power between opposing parties was exceptionally peaceful. There was no bloodshed and no violence—only hurt feelings.

The Adams-Jefferson transfer of power set a precedent that we have celebrated here for over two centuries. The damages inflicted upon this sacred tradition throughout the past two months have, indeed, harmed American democracy. So, if President Trump sticks to his plans not to attend the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, he has a remaining option that still very much respects the peaceful transfer of government set into place by our nation’s Founders. Mr. President, please do as President Adams did and slip quietly into private life.

Zachary Rose is a history teacher in New Jersey. 

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