At the time I write this, the day before the 2020 presidential election, we don’t know whether Donald Trump will be a one-term president, or whether he will be elected to a second term. Mr. Trump has repeatedly declared that he may not accept the election results if he is defeated. If he loses, it is hard to imagine a smooth transition from his administration to that of Joe Biden.

People who are savvy about Mr. Trump’s wonted style say much of his threatening talk is mere bluster. The historian Joe Ellis, the author of a dozen outstanding books on the Founding Fathers and the early national period, says that the Constitution’s guardrails may be fragile but the deeper spiritual guardrails of the American people are solid, and they will insist that the results of the election — whatever they are — determine who takes the oath of office on Jan. 20, 2021.

Knowing or Not Knowing the Winner

In the last fifty years, with the exception of the notorious 2000 election, the American people have known who won the presidential election on election night or sometime early the next morning. The 2000 election, which turned out to be literally too close to call, was eventually resolved by the U.S. Supreme Court, on Dec. 12, 2000, in a 5:4 vote that fell out along strictly political lines. The American people lived in uncertainty for 36 days before the Supreme Court stepped in to settle the matter.

Although he was bitterly disappointed and pretty sure that the election had been stolen from him by a partisan court, Vice President Al Gore delivered a wonderful and graceful concession speech on Dec. 13, 2000. “Now the U.S. Supreme Court has spoken. Let there be no doubt, while I strongly disagree with the court's decision, I accept it. I accept the finality of this outcome, which will be ratified next Monday in the Electoral College. And tonight, for the sake of our unity as a people and the strength of our democracy, I offer my concession. I also accept my responsibility, which I will discharge unconditionally, to honor the new president-elect and do everything possible to help him bring Americans together in fulfillment of the great vision that our Declaration of Independence defines and that our Constitution affirms and defends.”

Gore was even capable of making a joke about his concession. On election night (Nov. 7), Gore first called George W. Bush to concede the election, but when the Florida vote tightened to a statistical dead heat, he called Mr. Bush back to withdraw his concession. Now, five weeks later, Gore said, “Good evening. Just moments ago, I spoke with George W. Bush and congratulated him on becoming the 43rd president of the United States. And I promised him that I wouldn't call him back this time.” It is a rare individual who can let humor start to heal the nation after getting that close to the presidency and being thrust back.

Most elections are not so problematic. In 1960, however, when John F. Kennedy was elected 35th president of the United States, the losing candidate Richard M. Nixon, still the vice president, was pretty sure the morning after the election that Richard Daley’s Chicago political machine had engineered just enough voter fraud to hand the election to Kennedy. Nixon decided not to contest the election or demand a recount in Illinois or Texas. In his memoirs, Nixon wrote, “A presidential recount would require up to half a year, during which time the legitimacy of Kennedy’s election would be in question. The effect could be devastating to America’s foreign relations. I could not subject the country to such a situation.” We will never know, but Richard Nixon, who is usually regarded as an ethically challenged President, did the high-minded thing for the good of the country.

Richard Daley, mayor of Chicago and head of its powerful political machine that helped Kennedy win the presidential election in 1960.


The 31st President Herbert Hoover, after he was resoundingly defeated by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the election of 1932, is said to have refused to speak directly to FDR, whom he despised, even when they had their pro-forma transition meeting before the inauguration. The outgoing president spoke only (probably principally) to FDR’s aide Raymond Moley. He brought in his Treasury Secretary Ogden Mills to lecture the incoming president on “the importance of the gold standard, the stability of the banking system and the problem of Europe’s war debt,” according to Time Magazine. Afterward, Hoover described Roosevelt as “very badly informed and of comparably little vision.” Thus did one of the least regarded condescend to lecture one of the greatest presidents in American history. For his part, FDR called Hoover a “fat, timid capon.”   

The most difficult transition in American history came in 1860, after Republican Abraham Lincoln won the four-way election with just 39 percent of the vote. Stephen A. Douglas, the Democrat, got 29.5 percent of the vote, John C. Breckenridge of the Southern Democratic Party 18 percent, and John Bell of the Constitutional Union Party got just 12.6 percent of the 4.7 million votes cast. 

The southern states not only refused to accept the results of the election, but just six weeks later South Carolina became the first of 11 states to secede from the union. Things were not put together — and then unhappily — until 620,000 Americans had died in the four-year Civil War. The exit of the Confederate States enabled the Union to do some amazing things that had been caught in sectional paralysis — the Homestead Act, the first transcontinental railroad, and the Morrill Land Grant College Act, among others. But the wounds of the Civil War have never fully healed, and the legacy of slavery continues to haunt the American experiment, even now.

How Breakdowns Can Lead to Progress

The end of legal slavery was not Lincoln’s purpose in the war, but by war’s end, it became clear to America’s greatest president that we could not go on, or come back together, unless and until slavery was abolished. My point is that sometimes things have to break down before real progress can occur. Carl Bernstein (of Woodward and Bernstein) may be right that the American people in our time are locked in a “cold civil war,” but that is certainly preferable to the hot and bloody alternative.

On March 4th, 1861, Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated as the 16th president. He had to sneak into the nation’s capital 10 days earlier, on Feb. 23, 1861, to avoid an assassination plot detected by Allan Pinkerton, the founder of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. When the president-elect left his hotel in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania on Feb. 22, escorted by Pinkerton and his former law partner Ward Hill Lamon, he wore a soft felt hat rather than the famous stovepipe we associate with him, and he hunched to disguise his height. The inconspicuous presidential party slipped through Baltimore, where the assassination was to take place, in the middle of the night, crossed town incognito, and boarded another train bound for Washington, D.C., where they arrived at 6 a.m. The president-elect was recognized on the platform in Washington, but fortunately the individual was a friend and Illinois Congressman Elihu Washburne, who then escorted Lincoln to his temporary headquarters at the Willard Hotel

President Lincoln was inaugurated as the 16th president, but he had to sneak into the nation’s capital 10 days earlier, on Feb. 23, 1861, to avoid an assassination plot.


Two days after the inauguration, the Confederacy called for 100,000 volunteers for its provisional army.

Between the November election and Inauguration Day, Lincoln had almost no contact with the failed incumbent James Buchanan, who believed that the federal authorities had no power or authority to prevent southern secession. Lincoln was on his own. He soon found himself managing the greatest crisis and the bloodiest war in American history.

By that standard, all other awkward transitions have represented only minor disruptions of American life.

Unwelcome Inheritances, Disregarded Counsel, and Silly Pranks 

President John Tyler annexed Texas just three days before the inauguration of his successor James K. Polk in 1845. Fortunately, Polk was quite happy to receive the vast republic that became the 28th state in the Union just six months later (Dec. 29, 1845). President Dwight D. Eisenhower severed diplomatic relations with Cuba on Jan. 3, 1961, just two weeks before John F. Kennedy took his place. Eisenhower had already authorized what would become the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion (April 17-19, 1961).

America’s tangled relationship with Cuba continues to this day, and it may have had something to do with the assassination of JFK on Nov. 22, 1961. Kennedy complained bitterly that he had inherited the Bay of Pigs operation from his predecessor, that the CIA, the U.S. military, and anti-Castro partisans had taken advantage of the presidential transition and his newness to the job to foist upon him a covert operation that he would never have authorized if it had been developed entirely on his own watch. 

The transition from the Obama administration to that of Donald Trump was damaged by the new president’s outsized self-confidence and his desire to disrupt the status quo in Washington. According to former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, his many months of carefully planning the transition for his friend and sometimes rival Donald Trump not only came to nothing in the end, but the detailed briefing books that Christie and his staff had painstakingly compiled to make for a smooth transition and to vet potential Trump appointees, including Cabinet appointees, literally wound up in the dumpster. Christie blames the president’s son-in-law Jared Kushner for refusing to accept the careful suggestions of Christie’s transition team. Christy’s book, Let Me Finish: Trump, the Kushners, Bannon, New Jersey, and the Power of In-Your-Face Politics, makes the point that Trump’s failure to accept his team’s wise advice lead to a bumpy beginning and presidential appointments that Christie regards as disastrous.

Dumb and immature pranks perpetrated on incoming George W. Bush White House personnel by staff members of the outgoing Clinton administration cost the government $13,000-$14,000, according to the General Accounting Office. Among other things, dozens of White House computers were suddenly missing their “W” keys.

One of the most fascinating transitions occurred after the second President John Adams was retired by the American people after a single term. The bitter Adams spent the last weeks of his failed administration packing the U.S. court system with anti-Jeffersonians, including the new Chief Justice of the Supreme Court John Marshal, who presided over the American judicial system for the next 34 years. Jefferson later told Abigail Adams that these “Midnight appointments” were the only thing John Adams had ever done that offended him personally. Meanwhile, Adams refused to remain in Washington, D.C., to see his friend and rival inaugurated in his place. On March 4, 1801, the former president left town (skulked, some said) at dawn on the Baltimore stage, the first leg of his slow return to Quincy, Massachusetts, where settled in to life as a farmer, grandparent, and one of American history’s great readers and letter writers, for the next quarter of a century.

An Inspiring Moment

The last word, however, went to a Washington insider, Margaret Bayard Smith, wife to the editor of the National Intelligencer, and an admirer of Jefferson. Reflecting that the election of 1800 represented the first transfer of power from one party to another in the new nation, Mrs. Smith wrote some of the most inspiring words in American history: "I have this morning witnessed one of the most interesting scenes, a free people can ever witness. The changes of administration, which in every government and in every age have most generally been epochs of confusion, villainy and bloodshed, in this our happy country take place without any species of distraction, or disorder. This day, has one of the most amiable and worthy men taken that seat to which he was called by the voice of his country.”

Amen to that. We can only hope.

Margaret Bayard Smith


For more of Clay Jenkinson's views on American history and the humanities, listen to his weekly nationally syndicated public radio program and podcast, The Thomas Jefferson Hour. Clay's most recent book, Repairing Jefferson's America: A Guide to Civility and Enlightened Citizenship, is among the core readings for a five-week online humanities course Clay will teach on the state of the U.S. Constitution immediately following the election, beginning Nov. 7. Learn more and register for “The Future of Constitutional Democracy” today.