The Inauguration and the Peaceful Transfer of Power

A nation divided. A hotly contested election. A president feverishly appointing judges favorable to his viewpoint in the twilight of his term of office. Rumors that the opposition will lead the nation into radicalism and violence.  2020?  Perhaps.  But I’m here to tell you about the presidential inauguration in the aftermath of the election of 1800.  That contest has been thought to be, perhaps until recently, the most significant test of the country’s electoral resilience, particularly because it took place so soon after the establishment of our federal government.  

Only the third time the nation had chosen its president, the election of 1800 was the first change between what we now know as political parties.  George Washington, our only truly independent president, had warned in his farewell address against the harm of partisanship. Yet, the election of 1800, a brutal tangle among those who had been close to Washington, was so perfectly polarizing in both the campaign and the voting, that the winner needed to be chosen by the House of Representatives.  President-elect Thomas Jefferson felt the weight of healing the nation after the recent rancorHarkening back to his founding role in the articulation of American liberty and liberal democracy, he was also careful to distinguish his Republicanism from the Federalism of the previous administration of John Adams while calling for the end to division. 

Jefferson’s inauguration stands as a testament to what we now know as a central tenet of American democracy: the peaceful transfer of power.  At that time and throughout history, changes in leadership were acknowledged to be times of anxiety: would the defeated candidate and his allies accept the will of the winning side, and how could the behavior of the winner bridge the divide created by the recent, heated contest? 

There are several highlights of this inauguration that scholars point to that help us consider these questions: 

Media and Messaging 

Jefferson choreographed his inauguration day to reflect an image of himself, much as we expect of our modern presidents It should be no surprise that he made certain that the press would cover the details, right down to publishing his entire address.  He handed the full draft to a reporter for the National Intelligencer in advance and it was published broadly. 

The Rosenbach’s copy of Philadelphia’s Aurora General Advertiser (published by William Duane, the successor of Benjamin Franklin Bache in Franklin Court on Market Street) dates to March 7, 1801, just three days after the inaugural itself (see image below).  Pages dedicated to the inauguration contain Jefferson’s address and lengthy quotes by the Speaker of the House, Theodore Sedgwick (an excerpt of his report shown below).  The details that follow below were reported for the American public to digest, just as Jefferson desired. 

Banner, Aurora General Advertiser. Philadelphia: William Duane, 7 March 1801. AN .A931
Quote by Theodore Sedgwick in Aurora General Advertiser. Philadelphia: William Duane, 7 March 1801. AN .A931

Calculated Humility      

Knowing every detail would be observed and reported, Jefferson sought to distinguish his republican style from what he found to be an excessive, almost royal style of the two administrations before him.  Jefferson‘s was the first inauguration to occur in the new capital city, although both the Capitol building and the President’s House (even with the previous president, John Adams, living inside) were still unfinished. Jefferson had been in residence at a local boarding house prior to the events of the day. When he emerged from his quarters to walk to the Capitol, he was wearing the plain suit of an ordinary citizen, unlike his predecessors, who wore dress clothes and swords of formal military attire for their inauguration ceremonies. He was accompanied by fellow citizens, members of the militia, and members of Congress on his walk.  His speech, regarded as among history’s best, lasted about ten minutes, after which he took the oath of office from Chief Justice John Marshall, one of Adams’s last-minute appointments, and Jefferson’s political rival and cousin.  He returned to his boarding house for lunch with his vice president and the chief justice, among others.   


An Olive Branch 

In his short speech, Jefferson made an overture of reconciliation after the bruising campaign and hard-fought election itself.  Although he enumerated what he believed to be Republican values, he simply reviewed the principles he had embraced in his early career as the goals for his presidency: equal justice, freedom of religion, freedom of the press, trial by jury, among others.  In an attempt at bridging the divide, he noted that “every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. . . [w]e are all Republicans; we are all Federalists.”  As he noted later in his life, the “revolution of 1800, in the transfer of power from one faction to another, had been accomplished through suffrage alone. 


An Absent Rival 

The second president, John Adams, had known since mid-December that he’d received too few votes to be elected for a second term, leaving only the long battle in the House to finally elect Jefferson on the 36th ballot in mid-February.  As noted above, Adams worked furiously to appoint Federalists to the bench and other positions before his departure from office, a practice that Jefferson later noted as unseemly in correspondence with Abigail Adams drawing her ire in response: the presidency, she noted, was her husband’s until the very last day.  On that last day, John Adams was reported leaving the President’s House (not called “The White House” until 1901, although always white in color) at 4:00 a.m.  Although it is easy to assume that he left out of spite or humiliation, there are several other possibilities for his absence from Jefferson’s inauguration: 

  1. He wasn’t invited.  There really wasn’t a set protocol for these events at the time and no one knows how one determined whether or not to attend.  Adams may have expected to be invited rather than just appearing or soliciting an invitation himself.  Lacking one, he just didn’t go.   
  2. He feared his presence might cause a disturbance.  As noted, the peaceful transfer of power was a concern.  A patriot at heart, Adams was certainly sensitive to the furious nature of the battle for the presidency and may not have wanted to be a focal point on the day meant to acknowledge the beginning of a new administration.  
  3. Home was a long way away. The coach to his home in Braintree, Massachusetts, would have left Baltimore at 6:00 a.m. Thus, his early departure from Washington, D.C. 
  4. His son Charles had recently died.  Adams had never taken a break from his presidential duties to properly mourn.  Perhaps family life called him home. 

If Adams had chosen not to attend out of political differences, it would have made him just the first president to make that choice.  Although it has become protocol for (surviving) outgoing office-holders to remain through the swearing-in ceremonies of new presidents, a few chose not to appear.  John Quincy Adams skipped the inauguration of Andrew Jackson.  Andrew Johnson was absent from that of Ulysses S. Grant.   

As we anticipate the inauguration of 2021 and whatever it may hold, perhaps it is worth thinking back on the events of the year behind us and reminding ourselves of Jefferson’s reflections on the election of 1800. As he noted, the revolution is in the suffrage of the people.  Change is in the voting.