A History of Tumultuous Transitions in the American Presidency



America has certainly had a lot of experience in difficulties in the change of governments in the last two centuries.


By Dr. Ronald L. Feinman
Adjunct Professor of History
Florida Atlantic University


Three months from now America will once again experience the tumult and stress of presidential transitions, if one believes the polls that show former Vice President Joe Biden thwarting President Trump’s attempt to win a second term in the White House.  Trump has already made clear his intention to fight tooth and nail, no holds barred, to win a second term, including legal maneuvers with no limits, plus threats simply not to concede.  This could create a constitutional crisis that would surpass any previous presidential transition.  America has certainly had a lot of experience in difficulties in the change of governments in the last two centuries.  An examination of such tumult and stress is instructional.

When John Adams lost to Thomas Jefferson in 1800 the two men, once friends, and later to be such again, had condemned each other during the campaign in every imaginable manner.  The stress became ever greater when Adams had the opportunity to name John Marshall Chief Justice with only a few weeks left in his term. Jefferson argued that a “lame duck” President should not be able to transform the Court after being defeated.  Marshall, who ironically was a cousin of Jefferson, would go on to serve as the most significant Chief Justice in American history, and also its longest serving Chief Justice. He is often considered to have had the greatest influence on the Court’s entire history through the doctrine of judicial review.  

But this period of transition, which also saw Adams not attend his successor’s inauguration on March 4, 1801, was also complicated by the reality that Vice Presidential nominee Aaron Burr claimed a tie in electoral votes, opening up the possibility of Burr being elected by the House of Representatives. This necessitated a multi-ballot battle in 1801, until Jefferson was selected with the backing of the losing Federalists. Alexander Hamilton lobbied for the election of his ideological rival Jefferson over Burr, whom Hamilton considered a dangerous man with no ethics or principles.  This would, of course, ultimately lead to Burr killing Hamilton in a gun duel in 1804, marking Burr as one of the prime villains in early American history.

John Quincy Adams was elected the 6th president over Andrew Jackson when the 1824 election was decided by the House of Representatives early in 1825, the second and last time that the House was saddled with the need to choose the winner. This led to accusations by Jackson of a stolen election.  Jackson had ended up first in popular and electoral votes, in the first test of popular vote strength in a presidential election, but in a four person race, the election went to the House of Representatives since Jackson had not won the majority of the electoral vote.  It led to a four year campaign by Jackson accusing John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay of a “corrupt bargain” when Clay backed Adams and then was given the highly prized position of Secretary of State.  

So when 1828 came on, the campaign between President JQ Adams and Jackson was especially bitter and nasty, including personal attacks on Jackson’s wife a bigamist, which arguably led to her death during the transition period after Jackson won the election handily.  Adams left Washington without attending the inauguration of his successor, and pledged to come back to fight Jackson, whom he considered a dangerous man.  To the horror of Adams and many other Jackson critics, the new president’s supporters were encouraged to celebrate his inauguration on March 4, 1829, and they proceeded to engage in a drunken brawl, breaking windows and china, and damaging furniture in the White House. Within two years, Adams indeed did come back as a Congressman from Boston, and fought Jackson on many issues. He remains the only former president elected by popular vote to Congress in all of American history until the present.

In 1860, James Buchanan, totally repudiated and not choosing to run again, had to deal with the danger of the oncoming Civil War, as Southern states began to secede from the Union. He refused to take any federal action against Southern states, which were seizing US military forts. The president-elect, Abraham Lincoln, was unable to convince Buchanan to uphold federal law and the Constitution, a reality that would condemn Buchanan forever in American history.  There were regular and constant death threats against Lincoln during the transition, most notably the “Baltimore Plot” that was seen as a real danger and forced Lincoln to travel through the city in the dark of night without notice, on his way to Washington.  The stress level and tumult was very high. Within six weeks of the inauguration, with Lincoln determined to protect US military forts but not start a war, South Carolina chose to attack Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina, on the morning of April 12, 1861, leading to the undeclared Civil War.

After Ulysses S. Grant was elected president in 1868, months after the failed impeachment trial of President Andrew Johnson, the outgoing president was hostile toward Grant, who had backed away from supporting him in the impeachment crisis.  He refused to go to the inauguration of his successor, staying in the White House until the ceremony was completed.

In 1876, in the closest electoral vote election in American history, a controversy over who had won the electoral votes of three southern states (South Carolina, Louisiana, and Florida) dragged on for nearly four months until two days before the inauguration, with fear of a renewed civil war. But a behind the scenes deal known as the Compromise of 1877 arranged for popular vote loser Rutherford B. Hayes to win the precise majority of electoral votes (185-184) needed to be inaugurated over popular vote winner Samuel Tilden.  There had been some consideration of allowing President Grant to stay in office if the crisis had not been settled by Inauguration Day.

The Compromise of 1877 undermined the reputation of Congress and the Supreme Court, with members from both houses and the Court on the Electoral Commission that struck the political deal, with long range implications of the Republican Party abandoning African Americans to the Democratic Party and its southern adherents, creating “Jim Crow” for nearly a century until the modern civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s finally led to legal and statutory laws against segregation.

When Herbert Hoover lost reelection to his onetime friend, Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932, at the worst moments of the Great Depression, the two men could not agree on actions to be taken during the four months until the inauguration in March 1933. And FDR came close to being assassinated in Miami, Florida on February 15, 1933. The mayor of Chicago, Anton Cermak, sitting next to him, was murdered by the perpetrator, Giuseppe Zangara.  When Inauguration Day arrived two and a half weeks later, Herbert Hoover sat glumly in the automobile taking him and the President elect to the Inaugural stand, and refused to talk with FDR.  The bitterness was lasting. Hoover denounced the New Deal regularly, and the two men never had any contact again.

President Harry Truman did not think highly of his successor Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952, and the transition into January 1953 was not particularly warm.  And yet, they had once collaborated in the early years after World War II. Truman had thought of Eisenhower as a possible successor in 1948, when Truman suggested that he would step down again to the Vice Presidency with Eisenhower leading the ticket, but Eisenhower rejected the offer.  Truman became a major critic of Eisenhower during his Presidency, and only at the funeral of John F. Kennedy in 1963 did the two men reconcile.

Gerald Ford did not think positively about his successor Jimmy Carter after the hard-fought battle between them in 1976, and Ford, while cordial in the transition period, was a sharp critic of Carter during his Presidency.  But then, the two men and their wives became fast friends, and they agreed that when one passed away first, the survivor would give the eulogy at his funeral. Carter did precisely that at Ford’s funeral in December 2006.

The same scenario existed between George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton after Clinton defeated Bush in 1992. Bush held hard feelings and offered strong criticism.  But after Clinton left the presidency, he and Bush became good friends, Bush referred to Clinton as the son “from another mother,” and they collaborated on Hurricane Katrina relief in 2005.

Clinton and his wife Hillary Rodham Clinton were strong critics of George W. Bush during the 2000 Presidential campaign, when Clinton’s Vice President, Al Gore, won the popular vote over Bush, but the uncertainty of Florida’s victor led to a 36 day standoff with legal action by both political parties.  When the Supreme Court intervened, however, Al Gore was statesmanlike. Notably, in his required role as outgoing Vice President, he had to open up 51 envelopes from the states and the District of Columbia during a January joint session of Congress and count the electoral vote. Gore announced his own defeat by 271-266, despite his popular vote lead of 540,000 votes.  

During that transition period, however, a major shouting match occurred between Clinton and Gore in the Oval Office. The issues was Gore’s decision not to utilize Clinton in the campaign, due to the impeachment trial of Clinton over his sex scandal, and Gore’s choice of Clinton critic Senator Joe Lieberman as his running mate. Clinton and Gore were never as close and engaged ever again as they were during their two terms in the White House, but the Clintons over time became friendly with the entire Bush family, despite the political battles.

The George W. Bush-Barack Obama transition was far less controversial, due to the developing crisis of the Great Recession, and the Obamas would become friends of the Bush Family. The two Bush Presidents avoided open criticism of Obama, although the Republican Party certainly had no lack of confrontation and challenge to the 44th President during the eight years of his presidency.

Most recently, Obama tried to cooperate with Donald Trump, who had unleashed constant attacks on Obama during 2015 and 2016, but except for one meeting a couple of days after the election in 2016, the Trump transition team was not out to cooperate with Obama, and Trump has continued to be totally condemnatory of everything Obama represents, and has worked to destroy the Obama legacy in a vicious, uncaring, and totally undiplomatic manner.

It is now clear the gloves are off, symbolically, and Donald Trump will have no limits on tactics to attempt to insure a second term, and will be vicious in every way possible toward former Vice President Joe Biden, linking him to Obama constantly.  There is no desire to accommodate or avoid total confrontation in the transition period, so one can expect a very tumultuous, stressful 78 days from November 3, 2020 to January 20, 2021.  We must be prepared for a greater potential constitutional crisis than we have ever witnessed in all of American history.


Originally published by History News Network, 08.09.2020, reprinted with permission for educational, non-commercial purposes.

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