200 Years of Peaceful Transitions

COMMENTARY Civil Society

200 Years of Peaceful Transitions

Mar 2nd, 2001 2 min read

Vice President of American Studies

It had been a close election, so close it wasn't settled until 10 weeks after Election Day. And it was so bitter the opponents didn't speak for 11 years afterward.

But when it was over, and Thomas Jefferson prevailed (on the 36th ballot in the House of Representatives) over John Adams to become America's third president, Adams did something no head of state had ever done before: He stepped aside.

True, George Washington had turned the presidency over to Adams four years earlier, but both belonged to the Federalist Party and Adams was Washington's hand-picked successor. Jefferson, however, represented the Democrat-Republican Party, and when he took office-200 years ago this Sunday-it marked the first time in world history that power transferred peacefully from one party to another as a result of a popular election.

It had been a hard-fought race. During the campaign, Jefferson and the Democrat-Republicans accused the Federalists of favoring monarchy and dictatorial rule. The Federalists portrayed the Democrat-Republicans as radicals sympathetic to the violent revolutionaries in France.

But in the end, Supreme Court Justice John Marshall, a Jefferson foe whom Adams had appointed on his way out of office, administered the oath of office to Jefferson. No troops were called, no legislatures dissolved, no members of the defeated political party killed or imprisoned. America had shown the world that bitter political divisions could be resolved, as Lincoln put it, with ballots rather than bullets.

Adams, still miffed about the outcome, refused to attend Jefferson's inauguration, the first held in the new capital of Washington, D.C., which meant that he and the Federalists who boycotted the ceremony with him missed one of the best, most quoted inaugural addresses in American history. Writing nearly 25 years after he wrote the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson penned words that speak to our politics even today.

Throughout history, and in many nations today, defeated partisans turn to violence rather than relinquish political power. Jefferson declared that in the United States the legitimate voice of the people, "announced according to the rules of the Constitution," settles the question of who will lead, and "all will, of course, arrange themselves under the will of the law, and unite in common efforts for the common good."

Jefferson believed that republican government strengthened liberty because it encouraged deliberation and allowed for the peaceful resolution of differences of opinion. "Every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle," he said.

He pointed out that although majorities rule, equal rights extend to all. "All, too, will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate would be oppression," Jefferson said.

We reconcile our political differences not by circumventing this principle but by strengthening our consensus about the importance of majority rule and minority rights. "Let us, then, fellow-citizens, unite with one heart and one mind," Jefferson told our young nation. "Let us restore to social intercourse that harmony and affection without which liberty and even life itself are but dreary things."

Jefferson also pointed out that good government is limited government and that limited government encourages civic happiness. He favored a constitutional government of enumerated powers, one that would restrain men from harming one another but would otherwise leave them to their own pursuits. "This is the sum of good government, and this is necessary to close the circle of our felicities," he said.

The election of 1800 nearly finished the friendship between Jefferson and Adams, who had been fellow patriots since 1775. But in 1812, they reconciled and began one of the greatest and most poignant correspondences in American history. The two died within hours of each other on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of America's independence. Adams' last words-although factually incorrect-convey a larger truth: "Thomas Jefferson still lives."

Matthew Spalding, director of the Simon Center for American Studies at The Heritage Foundation (www.heritage.org ), is the author of "A Sacred Union of Citizens: George Washington's Farewell Address and the American Character."

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