Every American recalls with pride the revolution of 1776, when our forebears joined together to cast off colonial rule and create a new nation. Far less familiar is one that was almost equally momentous: the revolution of 1800.
The presidential election that took place then, a dozen years after the ratification of the Constitution, was fraught with peril. Federalists, who supported incumbent John Adams, regarded his opponent Thomas Jefferson as a dangerous radical.
If Jefferson were to become president, it was said, “Murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will be openly taught and practiced, the air will be rent with the cries of distress, the soil will be soaked with blood, and the nation black with crimes.” Fear of civil war hung over the nation.
It could have happened. An unintended quirk of the Constitution (corrected by the 12th Amendment in 1803) gave 73 electoral votes to Jefferson — and 73 to his running mate, Aaron Burr, who under the rules had an equal claim to the presidency. The election went to the House of Representatives, and after 36 ballots, Jefferson emerged the winner.
But this result presented a new scenario: the transfer of power from a defeated president.
It was a moment of potential crisis for a republic still in its infancy, with its survival still very much an open question. Would the constitutional design function as intended? Or would the losers find a way to hang on to power?
In the end, Adams did what he was supposed to do, and Jefferson became president without incident. Writer Margaret Bayard Smith wrote on Inauguration Day, “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.”
That peaceful proceeding set the pattern for the next two centuries. Disappointed incumbents swallowed their pride and deferred to the will of the people. While serving as vice presidents, in 1961 and 2001, Richard Nixon and Al Gore even graciously presided over the counting of the electoral votes that made their defeat official.
It’s easy to take familiar traditions like these for granted. Only when they are violated does their fragility and their priceless value become apparent. No president ever attempted to stay in power after the voters had rejected him — no president until Donald Trump.
As former federal appellate Judge J. Michael Luttig, a respected conservative, said in a statement to the House committee investigating the Capitol insurrection, “On Jan. 6, 2021, the prescribed day for choosing the American president, there was not to be a peaceful transfer of power — for the first time in the history of our republic.”
Except for the moral and physical courage of someone not previously known for that quality, Mike Pence, we might now be ruled an illegitimate tyrant. We might be embroiled in uncertainty with the outcome still up for grabs. We might be on the verge of civil war.
In any case, our form of government would have been fatally damaged. As Luttig noted, it was not just an election that Trump nearly stole; it was democracy itself. What took place on Jan. 6 resembled a desperate battle for power in a banana republic.
A few Republicans have been willing to denounce the attempted coup — notably committee members Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, who were among the 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump for his role. But most have tried to dismiss or rationalize it.
Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy derided the committee’s televised sessions, demanding that Speaker Nancy Pelosi hold a prime-time hearing on “out-of-control” inflation. But inflation is a recurring malady, which we know how to cure and which the Federal Reserve is already acting against.
By contrast, rescuing constitutional democracy from a mortal threat is something we have never had to do and may not be able to do. It would be foolish to assume that because Trump’s attempted usurpation failed, the danger has passed.
After his victory was announced, Thomas Jefferson was pleased but not complacent. “I sincerely thank you for your congratulations on my election, but this is only the first verse of the chapter,” he wrote a friend. “What the last may be nobody can tell.”