When Thomas Jefferson defeated John Adams in the presidential election of 1800, Adams was bitter for several reasons. First, he was an important American patriot and revolutionary who believed he deserved to be re-elected by the American people. He could not understand why someone of his historical significance would be retired after a single term. He had the notion that he should serve at least as long as George Washington (two full terms) and that he, not the nation, should signal when it was time for him to retire to Braintree, Mass.
Second, he felt that Jefferson was a dangerous and naive man who was too enamored of humankind’s capacity for self-government. Adams believed that humans are selfish and in some important ways corrupt. To his mind, Jefferson was either pretending that humans are equal to the business of governing their own affairs (and therefore a hypocrite) or — worse — he actually believed such nonsense. In either case, he was someone who should not be trusted with the presidency.
Third, he was angry and bitter that Jefferson (or the Jeffersonians) had hired the unscrupulous James Callender to write nasty things about him. Callender had called Adams “a repulsive pedant, a gross hypocrite and an unprincipled oppressor. . . in private life one of the most egregious fools on the continent.”
Still, Adams understood that a republic is a fragile system of government and that the peaceful transfer of power is absolutely essential to public order and civic virtue.
Bitter though he was, he wrote the following note to his successor:
“This part of the Union is in a state of perfect Tranquility and I See nothing to obscure your prospect of a quiet and prosperous Administration, which I heartily wish you. With great respect I have the honor to be Sir your most obedient and very humble Servant.” (March 24, 1801).
Adams would not personally forgive Jefferson for another dozen years, but he loved his country more than he loved himself.
This is the sort of gentlemanly behavior that a republic requires. Mature human beings understand that our civilization is more important than any single individual, and that graciousness in defeat is the mark of a highly evolved human being, no matter how unhappy s/he may be about the election results.
One of the best chroniclers of the peaceful transfer of power was a woman named Margaret Bayard Smith. After observing Jefferson’s inauguration on March 4, 1801, she wrote, “I have this morning witnessed one of the most interesting scenes, a free people can ever witness. The change of administrations, which in every government and in every age have most generally been epochs of confusion, villainy and bloodshed, in this our happy country take place without any species of distraction, or disorder. This day one of the most amiable and worthy men (has) taken that seat to which he was called by the voice of his country.”
No person has ever written with greater insight about the importance of civility and continuity in our system of government.
On Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2016, asked whether he would accept the results of the November 8 election, Donald Trump refused to commit himself to a graceful concession if he loses the election to Hillary Rodham Clinton. He said he preferred to keep the country in suspense. This, coupled with other remarks he has been making about the “rigged election” of 2016, not only violates one of the truly sacred principles of American Constitutional life but gives license to the more rabid of his followers to deny the legitimacy of Clinton’s election, perhaps at the end of a gun. Some of his diehard supporters have already vowed to engage in armed rebellion if their “populist tribune” loses, and they have pre-determined that if Trump goes down to defeat, the election will have been illegally stolen from him.
This is very dangerous business. Trump’s coy and incendiary statement in the third and final debate — and all that preceded and will follow it — is the gravest affront he can possibly make against the world’s first, most important and most enduring constitutional republic. To question the legitimacy of the 2016 election, as he has for years called into question the legitimacy of America’s first African-American president, is an unprecedented violation of basic norms of American decency and constitutional decorum. Trump is essentially inviting a low-level civil war in the wake of his probable defeat.
John Adams journeyed home quietly to Braintree in 1801. Richard Nixon complied with the Supreme Court ruling (July 24, 1974) requiring him to turn over audio tapes that proved that he had been engaged in obstruction of justice in the Watergate break-in. Al Gore gave a heroically graceful concession speech (Dec. 13, 2000) when the Supreme Court stepped in to declare George Bush the president of the United States. George Herbert Walker Bush, bitter and depressed, wrote a graceful note (1992) of welcome for his successor William Jefferson Clinton.
We deserve better in “this our happy country.”
Those who wish to study the way in which former or discredited Presidents treat their successors should read “The Presidents Club: Inside the World’s Most Exclusive Fraternity” by Michael Duffy and Nancy Gibbs.