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Business News/ Opinion / Columns/  The petty history of America’s presidential power handovers

The petty history of America’s presidential power handovers

Trump’s exit is a throwback to a less graceful era of partisanship

Presidents viewed as the worst are usually the ones who exit badly (Photo: AP)Premium
Presidents viewed as the worst are usually the ones who exit badly (Photo: AP)

In 1797, president George Washington was determined to unambiguously hand over the nation’s reins for the first time. He attended the inauguration ceremony of John Adams, his vice president, to show his support. At its conclusion, he offered a symbolic gesture of subservience, waiting for Adams to exit the room before he did.

Unfortunately, Adams struggled to follow Washington’s patriotic lead, turning the peaceful transition of power into a stage for his own insecurities and pettiness. He wouldn’t be the last leader to act out during these critical moments for American democracy.

On his first full day as president, John Adams found the time to complain to his wife in a letter about Washington’s magnanimous behaviour. His predecessor, he wrote, “seemed to enjoy a triumph over me. Methought I heard him say, ‘Ay, I am fairly out and you fairly in! See which of us will be happiest!’"

Adams soon became engulfed in controversy. He waged a vicious war on the political opposition, using the Alien and Sedition Acts to prosecute followers of Thomas Jefferson for the crime of mocking Adams in their public writings and private correspondence. Thin-skinned and vindictive, Adams tried to stay in power—and failed.

Jefferson ultimately defeated Adams. Well before dawn on Inauguration Day, Adams decamped from Washington in a horse-drawn carriage, gloomily returning home to Massachusetts.

Some of his more charitable biographers have argued that this flight was simply an attempt to avoid stealing the limelight. But his son John Quincy Adams did something very similar in 1828 when he lost to Andrew Jackson. Unlike his dad, his decision was based on the cabinet’s advice, almost all of whom hoped to avoid further embarrassment after an absolutely brutal campaign.

The younger Adams therefore exited the White House the night before Jackson’s inauguration, moving into a rental in the city. The day of the big event, he went horseback riding with some friends on the outskirts of the city. In his diary, he dwelled on his own predicament rather than the nation’s. “I can yet scarcely realize my situation," he wrote.

When Jackson stepped down, he gave way to Martin Van Buren, his hand-picked successor. No conflict there. In fact, the two men invented a new transition tradition: outgoing and incoming presidents riding together to the inauguration in a carriage.

Presidential transitions remained remarkably civil until Andrew Johnson’s disastrous term. Much like President Trump, Johnson proved a terribly divisive figure. His eventual replacement, Ulysses S. Grant, loathed him as much as anyone.

In the end, though, it was Grant who came off looking like a sore loser—despite winning the election. When Johnson celebrated his 60th birthday at the end of 1868, he decided to throw a party for his grandchildren, inviting hundreds of the kids from the elite families of Washington.

The man who had brought the Confederacy to its knees refused to allow his kids to join the fun. Johnson’s secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles, reported the incident in his diary, blaming Grant for “manifesting … his rancorous and bitter personal and party animosity. Not much that is good can be expected for the country from such a character."

But Grant wasn’t done taking swipes at Johnson. He also blew off an invitation to Johnson’s New Year’s Day reception a couple days later, sending a few low-level staffers instead. When it came time to plan for Inauguration Day, Grant declared that he would not share a carriage with the outgoing president. The two sides began a preposterous series of negotiations that ended with a plan to have two carriages that would pass each other on the street. Johnson eventually opted out of the day’s festivities entirely. Though Johnson is routinely listed as one of the worst presidents, Grant is often lumped in with him as well.

Though subsequent transitions have been tense, they never degenerated to this degree. Herbert Hoover despised Franklin Delano Roosevelt, but they still shared a carriage on the way to the ceremony. Dwight Eisenhower and Harry Truman squabbled a great deal, but they rode together in a limousine.

It may not be a coincidence that presidents who behave badly during transitions usually share something else in common, too: They’re viewed as the worst presidents overall, which suggests that the behaviour that marred their exit from the White House may have been symptomatic of deeper deficiencies.

As for outgoing President Trump, he’s a throwback to a less civilized, more acrimonious era of petty partisanship. Expect him to go all out in his attempts to rain on Biden’s parade.

Stephen Mihm is an associate professor of history at the University of Georgia and a contributor to Bloomberg Opinion

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Published: 13 Dec 2020, 08:46 PM IST
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