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US Democracy's Proud Record

HO hum. Another free election. Another peaceful and orderly transfer of power well underway.

Nov. 3 was the 52nd time, in an unbroken succession stretching back to George Washington in 1789, that Americans freely chose their chief political executive. The transition now proceeding from the Bush to the Clinton administration is the 20th - 11 in the 19th century, 9 so far in this - in which power has been shifted from one partisan side and philosophy to another, in accordance with the people's choice.

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After more than two centuries of such exemplary democratic practice, most Americans probably consider this year's repeat performance an event as natural and inevitable as the sun's rise each morning. In fact, of course, in the reach of history, popularly determined peaceful transfers of power are an utmost rarity. As with so many aspects of our political tradition, it was Washington who got us off to the right start in transferring political power. The man who could easily have been a kind of constitutio nal monarch for life instead left the example of voluntarily relinquishing office.

At the end of his second term, Washington went home to Mount Vernon eagerly, not reluctantly. Four years later, another important example was set, in the political battle between the Federalists and the Democratic Republicans. In 1800 there was certainly no love lost between the incumbent Federalist, John Adams, and his great rival from Virginia, Thomas Jefferson. The contest between them was as close as it was heated: Jefferson finally prevailed with 73 electoral votes to Adams' 65. For all the charges and high-pitched rhetoric, however, power peacefully changed hands. The tree of liberty may need watering from time to time, as Jefferson said, with the blood of tyrants. But in the final analysis, both sides in 1800 treated their opponents as responsible democratic politicians, not as would-be tyrants.

We can't say that shots were never fired in anger after an American presidential election. Abraham Lincoln's victory in 1860 spurred what had been a simmering slave-state rebellion and led to the firing on Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor on April 12, 1861. But that was the only time a presidential outcome was not peacefully accepted, and even here the people's choice prevailed.

The Civil War provides the most vivid testimony in United States history to the strength of the country's commitment to free elections and the constitutional transfer of power. With the war still being fiercely waged in 1864, the presidential campaign went ahead on schedule. Lincoln was vigorously challenged by his Democratic opponent, Gen. George McClellan - who earlier had commanded the Army of the Potomac.

While the president was ultimately reelected by a fairly comfortable popular vote margin, 55 percent to 45 percent, the outcome was very much in doubt when the campaign began. In the midst of the most bitter and costly struggle in its history, the US was prepared to shift power from one side to the other - and the incumbent was fully prepared to accept the results of that free election.

A century after Lincoln's first election another Republican gave further testimony to the nation's commitment to the orderly transfer of political authority. The contest between Richard Nixon and his Democratic opponent, John Kennedy, had been strongly contested.

The election was exceptionally close. The final tally showed Kennedy ahead by just 115,000 votes out of nearly 70 million cast. And even this razor-thin margin required that all the Democratic votes in Alabama be assigned to Kennedy - even though many of them were in fact cast for a slate of electors who voted for US Sen. Harry Byrd of Virginia, as a protest against Kennedy. In Illinois, a key state with 27 electoral votes, Kennedy was shown ahead by just 9,000 ballots, amidst charges of widespread vote fraud in Cook County.

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Nonetheless, Nixon did not prolong a challenge to the Kennedy victory. He gracefully conceded the race early in the afternoon on the day after the election. The country should not have to endure weeks of wrangling over contested votes, he felt.

When George Bush and Bill Clinton pledged to cooperate in a smooth transition, they were renewing a proud, and enormously important, political tradition.

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