Kings die. That’s just what they do.
Some die slow, peaceful, gradual deaths, eventually succumbing in their old age to their Creator.
Others die grand and glorious deaths in battle; sometimes as martyrs, sometimes as disgraced and defeated failures.
And others die suddenly and unexpectedly in the prime of their life, cut down by an assassin’s bullet or sword.
But they die. And die they must. How else can succession of power proceed? For thousands of years, there was only one way the next prince, political foe, or conquering hero could take charge: the reigning king must get out of the way.
All that changed on March 4, 1797. The people wanted a king. But George (and the Constitution) thought otherwise. Although he was unanimously elected to the office twice, he felt it was important that the office be shared, and that the transition must be smooth, orderly, and lawful.
So the surveyor-turned-farmer-turned-general-turned-president handed the seat of power to his Number Two, John and returned to his farm. In doing so, he set a precedent of peaceful transition that has endured for almost two and a half centuries.
There have been times that bad actors have sought to take advantage of the transition for their own good. In 1861, seven states used the transition period between President Buchannan and President Lincoln to secede and form the Confederate States of America. The American economy nosedived during the transition in 1933 as both departing President Hoover and President-elect Roosevelt sat powerless and watched the banking system implode.
And in 1981, 52 American hostages were forced to sit for hours at the edge of a Tehran airport runway until just after noon Washington time, denying President Jimmy Carter the satisfaction of having them released on his watch.
Although the transition is always lawful, that doesn’t mean it’s without drama. The presidential election of 1800 ended in an electoral tie, which wasn’t resolved until a scant 15 days before the planned inauguration.
And 200 years later, America held its collective breath for 35 days while Florida’s hanging chads determined the election results. It was ultimately settled when the Supreme Court ruled that the margin of 537 votes should give George W. Bush the victory.
In a few days, a lawyer-turned-organizer-turned-senator-turned-president will hand over the keys to the front door of the White House to a magnate-turned-billionaire-turned-politician. And this one should be an interesting one to watch. Eight years ago, Obama promised to “fundamentally transform” America. Apparently, Americans didn’t like the way they were fundamentally transformed. Seeing the possibility of Hillary’s four-more-years of Barack, they chose Donald’s promise to “make America great again".
By design, Trump’s presidency will be the polar opposite of Obama’s. But the transition itself will be a model of democracy. After thousands of years of monarchal transitions, the concept of a democratic transition had its roots in the American Constitution and is now the accepted standard in the civilized world.
The Founding Fathers should be proud.
My thanks to the History Channel’s “Transition of Power” for the inspiration for today’s post.