The election of 1800 was historically significant, because it was a peaceful transition of power between political opponents. George Washington had been unanimously acclaimed America’s first president, and served for two terms. John Adams, who was Washington’s vice president and shared most of his political views, succeeded him, but a smooth transition was expected because essentially the same people were in charge. In 1800, however, Thomas Jefferson, who had come to be Adams’ political enemy, beat Adams in a hotly contested election. The Federalists had gone so far as enacting the Alien & Sedition Act in an attempt to handcuff anti-Federalist critics (the act made it a crime to speak ill of high government officials), as well as weaken their support amongst Irish and French immigrants (who were strong supporters of Jefferson).
Prior to the American experiment, most changes in government (those who were not simply children succeeding their parents, though sometimes even then) had involved the violent overthrow of the existing ruler. Most people with power do not give it up without a fight. But in the budding democratic experiment, the people (or their representatives) were supposed to choose a (potentially new) leader every four years. While Adams was bitter about the loss, and the Federalists did appoint a bunch of Federalist judges to lifelong appointments on the way out (which led to the famous Marbury v. Madison case), there was no violence, and Adams accepted defeat. This was a real test of the American system of government, and it passed.
Two hundred years later, in 2000, the American system was tested again when Bill Clinton’s vice president, Al Gore, beat George W. Bush in the popular vote, but the electoral college tally was contested. Florida, a state governed by George W.’s brother, Jeb Bush, and a state Bush had to win to become president, was extremely close. While it is likely that more Florida voters preferred Gore (a poorly designed “butterfly ballot” gave a few thousand likely votes for Gore from a large Jewish community to the anti-Semitic Pat Buchanan, which was enough by itself to cover Bush’s 537-vote margin of victory was just one of a number of issues that hurt Gore more than Bush), after the Supreme Court stopped Florida’s recounts, a decision that was so unusual that the court declared that it was “limited to the present circumstances,” Gore conceded the election, averting a constitutional crisis. Gore accepted defeat in order to preserve the country.
Donald Trump, on the other hand, in spite of exhausting every legal challenge and having every recount showing that there was no significant fraud in the 2020 election, has still refused to concede defeat. On Jan. 6, 2021, when Congress was to confirm Biden as the election winner, Trump tried to implement a plan that would have had Vice President Mike Pence claiming that the electors sent from some battleground states could not be certified, and send the issue back to Republican-controlled legislatures that would declare Trump the winner. This was an attempt to overturn the results of the election.
Trump’s plan to remain in power in spite of his loss was set in motion when Trump sent his supporters to the Capitol, where they broke into the building in an attempt to stop Congress from confirming Biden as president. The anger of the crowd was not surprising, given they thought the election had been stolen and believed they were attempting to correct a grievous wrong. Many of the perpetrators later admitted in court that they had been misled, though few of the people who have misled them have had to face consequences. While I don’t doubt that not all were determined to use violence to keep Trump in power, there were certainly enough who were to pose a real threat to the government. Would the crowd have really hung Pence had they been able to catch him? I don’t think most of the people chanting that were serious about it, but had those who were serious caught him and tried to hang him, I don’t have a lot of faith that the crowd would have stopped them. Vladimir Lenin demonstrated what a relatively small revolutionary vanguard can do. Fortune favors the bold, but the bold aren’t always the good guys.
I think the main thing that thwarted the insurrection was Trump’s incompetence and unwillingness to risk anything himself. Had he really led the demonstrators to the Capitol himself, as he promised them, they might have actually stopped the process, at least temporarily. Had he gotten dedicated Trump supporters in the military to support his efforts, the takeover would have been much harder to stop. As is typical with Trump, he wanted other people to do the work for him. Had the assault on the Capitol worked, does anyone really think Trump would have denied their efforts to keep him as president? His eagerness to watch the violence unfold, and do nothing about it for hours, answers that question.
A democracy relies on people supporting the process, and accepting the results. The system is only as good as the people who make it up. One of George Washington’s most significant achievements was to voluntarily give up power. There is a reason public officials swear to uphold the Constitution instead of swearing fealty to an individual. If we want to live up to Ben Franklin’s challenge at the close of the Constitutional Convention (“[It’s] a Republic, if you can keep it”), it is up to all of us to prioritize the good of the country over the ambition of any individual.
Kent James has a doctorate in History and Policy from Carnegie Mellon University and is an adjunct in the History Department at Washington & Jefferson College.