When President-elect Joe Biden is inaugurated on January 20, 2021, he will become the 46th President of the United States, thus continuing an unbroken tradition of the peaceful transition of power that dates to our Founding Fathers. When thinking of the Trump-Biden transition, another, more historic one comes to mind.
The Election of 1800 marked the first time in American history that there was a peaceful transfer of power between opposing political parties. The result of that election was that John Adams lost and became the nation’s first one-term president. His party was fractured, and Thomas Jefferson became the nation’s third president. Notably, the defeated Adams did not attend his successor’s inauguration and was far outside the capital by the time Jefferson took office. When he stood in front of what was to be the U.S. Capitol, Jefferson spoke words that set a precedent for all subsequent transfers between American presidents, acknowledging their predecessor and his supporters and providing a template for the future. Considering the divisiveness of the last four years, we can expect Biden to elicit a lot of what Jefferson had to say.
Jefferson began his speech with the salutation “Friends and Fellow Citizens,” directly quoting the one used by George Washington’s Farewell Address. This was no mistake, as Washington – who died just a year before the Election of 1800 – remained the most popular and unifying figure in the young republic. Jefferson understood the power of invoking his fellow Virginian, the first president, and stalwart of the revolutionary generation, and strategically used Washington’s words to begin his own presidency.
At the heart of Jefferson’s address, however, lies what Biden will likely evoke. Jefferson acknowledged current affairs and the divisive partisan politics of the last four years and referred to them as “the conflicting elements of a troubled world.” Biden will do the same. Perhaps not mentioning the events directly, he will certainly address the “trouble” this nation has faced in the last few months, culminating in the riots at the Capitol.
At the heart of our recent troubles, of course, lies the past election. Jefferson referred to the Election of 1800 as “a contest of opinion” during which the “voice of the nation” was heard. President Trump referred to the 2020 election as rigged, stolen, and fraudulent on multiple occasions.
Biden must channel Jefferson here and restore faith in our civic norms and democratic institutions that have been under repeated assault by the outgoing administration. Jefferson attempted this restoration by imploring citizens to “unite in common efforts for the common good.” He also made a point to address those who did not vote for him and validated their place as citizens in the nation. “The minority possess their equal rights,” he spoke, “which law must protect, and to violate would be oppression.” Biden must deliver a similar message considering many of those who voted for Trump fear a unified government controlled by the Democratic Party.
Finally, to heal the deep partisan wounds fostered during his predecessor’s administration, Jefferson noted, “every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. “We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.” Biden recognizes this and has tried to remind us that we are Americans before we are members of any political party.
President-elect Biden will indeed begin his presidency in a divided country. An election in which only 6 in 10 Americans were confident was fair and accurate, a vocal and defiant predecessor with a loyal base and an unprecedented domestic assault on the Capitol are all elements of this presidential transition that Biden will have to move past. He wishes to get straight to work for the American people and will benefit from addressing those who did not vote for him. The past four years have created many fault lines and bridged few divides. To heal the ones of his time, Jefferson called on the nation to “unite with one heart and one mind.”
I know President-elect Biden wants to do the same, and I fully expect he will conjure the spirit of Thomas Jefferson in his inaugural address.