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How John Adams Established the Peaceful Transfer of Power

September 17, 2020 in History

By Sarah Pruitt

The election of 1800 marked the first time the leader of one political party handed the reins of government to his opponent.

In the early morning hours of March 4, 1801, John Adams, the second president of the United States, quietly left Washington, D.C. under cover of darkness. He would not attend the inauguration ceremony held later that day for his former friend—now political rival—Thomas Jefferson, who would soon replace Adams in the still-unfinished presidential mansion.

On the heels 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 viewed as a hallmark of the nation’s democracy. Since then, the loser of every presidential election in U.S. history has willingly and peacefully surrendered power to the winner, despite whatever personal animosity or political divisions might exist.

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The First Political Parties

The U.S. Constitution left out the mention of political parties, as many founders viewed “factions” as a danger to democracy. “The common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party are sufficient to make it the interest and duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it,” George Washington famously declared in 1796, after making the momentous decision to step aside after two terms as the nation’s first president.

But the spirit of party already existed in the United States—even within Washington’s own cabinet. As the nation’s first secretary of state, Jefferson clashed repeatedly with Alexander Hamilton, the treasury secretary, over the growing power of the federal government, which Jefferson distrusted. 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 election of 1796, Jefferson and Adams, Washington’s vice president, competed to succeed him, with Adams pulling off a narrow victory. Because the Constitution hadn’t provided for political parties, the system of electing the president didn’t take them into account: The candidate who got the most votes (Adams) became president, and the runner-up (Jefferson) became vice president.

During Adams’s presidency, Democratic-Republicans and Federalists clashed over everything from taxes to religion, but especially over the main policy dilemma facing the nation: how to deal with the ongoing French Revolution. Jefferson and his supporters favored …read more