This past Saturday, March 4th, 2017, was the 220th anniversary of the first transition of presidential power in the United States. I first became aware of this historic significance through the email newsletter of Rev. Tom Are, Jr., the pastor at Village Presbyterian Church. Shortly after the conclusion of our long and combative 2016 presidential campaign and election, Tom thoughtfully wrote,
“On March 4, 1797, a remarkable thing occurred in human history. John Adams became the second president of the United States. What was noteworthy on that day was the lack of violence. It was not a coup. It was not a violent overthrow. It was the peaceful transition of power. The peaceful transition of power remains a rare and beautiful thing in this world. It also means that whether grateful or grieving, we do not need to be afraid. Whether you are relieved or grieved, we are in this together. Be grateful for the peaceful transition of power and as always continue living toward God’s promised day.”
Hope, Stability, & Durability
Reverend Tom’s reflection inspired hope. Hope that despite a hotly contested election and our particularly fractious political moment, the peaceful transition of power remains a hallmark of American democracy. As the pendulum swings from one side of our effectively two-party system to the other, both sides can agree on the fact that a smooth transition of leadership is in the best interests of our country. Despite the deep partisan divides that every election cycle brings to the surface, the transitional process brings the outgoing and incoming administrations together to preserve stability and look to the future of our great nation.
The same cannot be said for many other nations, whether democratic or not. Recent failures of the transition of power in Egypt and Libya, among others, serve as stark warnings of the chaos and instability that can be a result of violently contested regime change. Thankfully, the recent transfer of power in the United States upheld the stability and durability of our political system.
As noted in an in-depth and illuminating November 9th blog post from PBS, outgoing President Barack Obama wasted no time in declaring that he would work with the incoming Trump administration to ensure a “smooth transition so that [Trump could] hit the ground running on January 20th.” While President Obama was a vocal supporter of democrat Hillary Clinton, he nonetheless prioritized the ongoing efficacy of our government institutions and reached across the aisle despite a contentious relationship with his successor. This faithful service to the principles of democracy was a welcome reprieve from the frequent ugliness of the prior election cycle and is to be commended.
The Presidential Transition Act
The peaceful transition of power has been practiced time and again over these past 220 years, but has been enshrined in law for only the past 53. The Presidential Transition Act became law in 1964, promising “to promote the orderly transfer of the executive power in connection with the expiration of the term of office of a President and the Inauguration of a new President.” Prior to 1964, the winning political party had to pay the costs of the transition out of their own coffers. The Presidential Transition Act gave Congress the power to appropriate up to $900,000 (a figure that his since been steadily revised upwards) to cover costs such as office space and transition operatives and consultants, providing a stable foundation for the transitional period.
Despite the codification of the orderly transfer of power, the process has often been contentious, if not outright disruptive. The transition between Clinton and Bush II, for example, was fraught with allegations of misbehavior. While the transfer of power was preserved, it was not handled with grace. The transition between Bush II and Obama was a better example of how divergent ideologies can nonetheless coexist briefly for the good of the country, no doubt setting the tone for President Obama’s graceful transfer of the White House to President Trump.
Honoring Our Democracy
Reflecting on Reverend Tom’s words several months later, in what continues to be a sharply divided political climate, I am nonetheless heartened to note that our democratic institutions remain intact. While opponents of the new administration exercise their right to free speech and public protest, they have largely done so without violence and with respect for the stability of our government and its processes. The peaceful transition of power is a reminder that “whether [we] are relieved or grieved, we are in this together.”
Regardless of our opinions about the results of this historic election, we can all find cause for hope in the preservation of our democratic institutions through the time-honored tradition of the peaceful transition of power. Through this demonstration of grace, unity, and cooperation we become a better, stronger nation – every time.