What is the history of presidential transitions in the United States?
Fortunately for the United States, presidential transitions have generally been smooth and mostly without trouble. However, in a few cases some of the transitions were awkward or even hostile to an extent. The history of transitions have also sometimes set precedent followed to this day.
The first presidential transition between George Washington and John Adams in 1797 was not only peaceful but relatively easy given the two men had a generally strong respect for the other. On his first day in post, George Washington reportedly allowed Adams to enter before him to symbolize that a new president was now in charge. The first real challenge for the country's presidential transition, however, occurred in 1801, when John Adams lost to Thomas Jefferson in the 1800 election and the latter took power (Figure 1). Adams and Jefferson had been former friends and they had disagreed bitterly over a variety of national and international issues. The transfer of power signaled that the country would go in a different direction as the Democratic-Republican Party party took power. The issue of being allies with France, for instance, was just one issue dividing the two men. The election took place from October 31st-December 4th, reflecting the slow process of election and the needed time until March of the following year to complete the transition. Early in the morning of March 4, 1801, after the bitter election that was ultimately decided by the House of Representatives, John Adams took an early morning stagecoach and left Washington to go live back in Quincy, Massachusetts. He had skipped the inauguration and did not personally greet the incoming president at the White House. However, by leaving without any major effort to stop Jefferson despite the bitter feud between the two and difficult election, it demonstrated for the first time that two rival parties could transition to power without conflict. This, historians have argued, did help establish an important precedent for peaceful political transitions.
There were other difficult transitions in US history, particularly the 1861 transition to the Lincoln presidency. As Lincoln was taking power, southern states had already declared their succession and James Buchanan had effectively refused to do anything direct on the issue without Congress. The inaction by Buchanan, and failure of Congress to pass anything other than appeasement measures, led to Lincoln taking power with the country literally falling apart. Lincoln, nevertheless, wanted to show unity on Inauguration Day, taking a carriage ride with Buchanan after he took his oath of office. Buchanan went on to write one of the first presidential memories to justify his actions, while Lincoln quickly moved to refuse any compromise with southern states, leading to the Civil War. Given the disagreements between the two presidents, there was little effort in trying to keep the Union together until Lincoln formally took office.
The Twentieth Amendment moved inauguration to January 20th since the time after the 1932 election. That amendment was influenced by the fact that long transitions between November and March, as in previous elections, could be harmful for the country, given an administration without much power can do little to enact new legislation. After the 1932 election, the transition from Herbert Hoover to Franklin Roosevelt appeared to be potentially volatile given the vast differences between the candidates on how to tackle the growing economic crisis. Both had argued different methods for healing the economic crisis that became the Great Depression during the campaign, with Roosevelt's New Deal policies winning out over Hoover's cooperative volunteerism. Within a day after the election, Hoover conceded and wrote: 'In the common purpose of all of us, I shall dedicate myself to every possible helpful effort' in reference to his planned assistance in the transition. However, soon after this statement, Hoover moved to try to get Roosevelt to change his mind about enacting New Deal measures, such as the public works plan. Hoover did not want the government to actively encourage these programs and worked to dissuade Roosevelt and branches of government. Roosevelt reacted by refusing to collaborate with the outgoing president in the transition process, leading to tension between the two. By the time inauguration came around, the two rivals did decide to take the now customary carriage ride together to at least show unity. The lack of preparation and cooperation by Roosevelt and Hoover did possibly delay some relief measures that could have helped households, but, nevertheless, Hoover never really formally attempted to block Roosevelt from taking power or enacting his policies.
There were some positive developments. President Harry Truman helped to set a positive tone and precedent by also inviting the president-elect, Dwight D. Eisenhower, after the 1952 election, to the White House and directly ordering federal agencies to work with the Eisenhower team in preparation for the transition. Inviting the winning candidate to the White House soon after the election began to be a tradition after this time. Although presidential transitions were sometimes tense, on the outside the transitions have been peaceful throughout US history with no incident of verified violence that was encouraged by any side. However, until 1963, there was no formal law that governed how a presidential transition would be handled. To help ensure a continuity of a peaceful and orderly transition, The Presidential Transition Act of 1963 was passed. The act enabled mechanisms for a formal transition, including for the incoming president to access branches of the government to ensure that the incoming president could have knowledge of key information prior to taking office. This act has continually been changed and amended to enable formal links of the government with the incoming president, including establishing the General Services Administration (GSA) Administrator to formally write an "ascertainment" letter that would declare a non-incumbent candidate to be an "apparent winner". This would formally release federal money to enable the transition for the incoming president.
In recent history, the messy process of transition between presidents was most apparent after the 2000 election. That election was ultimately resolved when the Supreme Court ruled to halt the Florida recount, leading to Gore conceding in December 13, 2000. That meant that the formal transition from Clinton to Bush in 2000-2001 had only one month, among the shortest transitions in presidential history. Ultimately, after the 9/11 disaster, the 9/11 Commission concluded that this slow transition and limited time in preparation and sharing of information likely "hampered" the Bush administration's ability to put key people in national security roles. Given the lessons learned, the Bush administration made a concerted effort to quickly accept Obama's 2008 election victory so that the transition could be done quickly and without problems. The incoming Obama administration was able to gain access to classified and other information that enabled them to access different branches of the government, which also facilitated their response to the 2008 financial crisis. This helped to ensure that national security data, in particular, could be shared within a day after Obama was declared the winner. With this lesson, Obama also made a point to enable an easy transition to Trump's presidency, inviting the president-elect two days after the November 2016 election. As of November 22, 2020, the Trump administration has yet to concede the results of the November 3 election. This has been the first election since the 1933 transition to Roosevelt that the incumbent administration has worked to impede a transition to the next president. One difference is that Hoover did not do this publicly and there were limited processes that established a formal transition. Since the Presidential Transition Act of 1963, only the 2000 and 2020 elections took more than two days to enable the GSA to formally start the transition process to the incoming administration.
In the history of presidential elections, there has been no shortage of acrimony between rivals for the country's top elected job. However, even before formal laws were established, and despite personal acrimony, presidential transitions since 1801 have been relatively without trouble. Presidents such as Hoover did sometimes work behind the scenes to impede the incoming administration's policies, but no president has formally impeded the process once election results were certified. In fact, only the 2000 and 2020 elections have taken more than a few days after the election to formally launch the transition process. For the 2000 election, it did provide important lessons that limiting the transition time can have negative consequences for the country, particularly on national security issues.
- For more on how the Adams and Jefferson administrations transitioned in presidential power, see: Ferling, J.E. 2004. Adams vs. Jefferson: the tumultuous election of 1800, Pivotal moments in American history. Oxford University Press, New York.
- For more on the Buchanan and Lincoln transition, see: Holzer, H., 2008. Lincoln president-elect: Abraham Lincoln and the great secession winter 1860-1861. 1st Simon & Schuster hardcover ed. ed. Simon & Schuster, New York.
- For more on this difficult transition in 1932-1933, see: Rauchway, E., 2018. Winter war: Hoover, Roosevelt, and the first clash over the New Deal. First edition. ed. Basic Books, New York.
- For more on the Presidential Transition Act of 1963 and subsequent legislation related to it, see: Campbell, K.M., Steinberg, J., 2008. Difficult transitions: foreign policy troubles at the outset of presidential power. Brookings Institution Press, Washington, D.C.
- For more background on recent transitions of power, see: Kumar, M.J., 2015. Before the oath: how George W. Bush and Barack Obama managed a transfer of power. John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore.