He sat alone on a dais in the Philadelphia Statehouse during a hot and steamy Philadelphia summer. For a man many considered royalty, his chair and desk were simple. And although he rarely spoke as he presided over an unprecedented experiment in modern democracy, George Washington, dignified and stately, set the tone for the deliberations of the men who created the United States of America.
Realizing the need for a strong central government, 12 of the 13 states (Rhode Island excepted) of the fledgling nation elected and sent representatives to the 1787 Constitutional Convention. For some four months, and against a diverse backdrop of local, regional and state interests, the 55 men who participated in the convention wrestled with the task at hand.
In the end, they settled upon a Great Compromise bridging the conflicting interests of small and large states: the Constitution they crafted (and the American people ratified the following year) mandated equal representation of states in the upper chamber (Senate) and proportional representation in the lower chamber (House).
Never was there a doubt that Washington, Revolutionary War hero and the most esteemed of all Americans, would be the first president or “National Executive.” Alexander Hamilton proposed Washington be appointed president for life.
Finally agreeing upon a four-year renewable term for the office of the presidency, the delegates created a two-step presidential election system of states’ popular votes channeled into an electoral college and in which the latter would be the deciding factor in the election.
Not surprisingly, this system of insulating the presidential selection from the popular vote would create lasting problems.
More immediately, Washington running unopposed won 100% of the electoral votes in 1788-89 and 1792. Should he have chosen to run for reelection each four years thereafter, he likely would have won each time. Instead, following two terms in office, Washington voluntarily stepped aside and returned to civilian life, his decision shocking the nation and Europe alike.
In a Western world long accustomed to leaders clinging to power as long as possible, Washington’s humility and magnanimity set a peaceful standard for America’s democratic experiment and added all the more to his lofty personal legacy as the nation’s foremost Founding Father.
While Washington’s exemplary persona did not forestall a future of partisan and occasionally unruly elections, for some six decades after he stepped aside peaceful post-election transitions of power, if not always absent animosity between the loser and the victor, remained the norm.
Nonetheless, African slavery, the existential issue dividing the nation since colonial days, remained the poison dagger buried deep within America’s political, economic, cultural and religious heart, a condition fatal if left untreated.
The white South and North alike benefited from slavery, the former a rural landscape of vast inequality driven by a brutal and murderous white supremacist slave economy, the latter’s urban banks and industry indirectly benefiting by financing the slaveocracy and processing cotton grown by slave labor.
Meanwhile, for many decades a Congress effectively controlled by southern interests in the Senate blockaded abolitionists’ growing demands for the eradication of slavery.
But in the 1850s, amid intensifying violence in western non-slave territories and the halls of the nation’s Capitol, congressional sentiment finally tilted toward a smaller step: the containment of slavery to the southern states. Illinois lawyer Abraham Lincoln of the new anti-slavery Republican Party won the presidency in 1860.
Refusing to recognize the legitimacy of Lincoln’s victory, 11 Southern states, condemning the U.S. Constitution and in violation of the founding document, proclaimed independence from the Union. Forming the explicitly slavery-based Confederate States of America in early 1861, they committed treason by going to war against the United States of America.
Four long and bloody years later, the rebellious Southern states were effectively forced to acknowledge the invalidity of their refusal to honor presidential transitions of power in the United States.
Nonetheless, in 1876, southern white supremacy for a second time interfered with an orderly transition of power in a contest between Democratic New York Gov. Samuel Tilden and Republican Ohio Gov. Rutherford B. Hayes. Disputed ballot results in three Southern states not yet readmitted into the Union during Reconstruction – Louisiana, Florida and South Carolina – resulted in neither candidate winning enough electoral votes to claim victory.
Tense negotiations between congressional Democrats and Republicans over the contested three states’ electoral votes stretched into January 1877. Eventually, the two parties reached an agreement, awarding Hayes the presidency in a peaceful transition of power in return for the end of Reconstruction in the South.
Nearly six decades later, Democrat and New York Gov. Franklin Delano Roosevelt won in a landslide presidential election over the vastly unpopular incumbent president, Herbert Hoover, an unfettered capitalist who had done little to alleviate the sufferings of citizens during the early years of the Great Depression.
Roosevelt’s federally funded New Deal policies, embraced by a Democratic Congress and creating jobs and social safety nets for tens of millions of desperately impoverished Americans, led to his reelection a record three times. Following FDR’s death during his fourth term, Congress passed legislation limiting presidents to two terms as originally, albeit if informally, established by Washington.
Roosevelt, meanwhile, in the course of his presidency redirected the federal government toward a more liberal bent in regulating capitalism and serving the needs of the people. His more racially inclusive policies also attracted Black voters into the Democratic Party, a party previously considered more racist than the Republican Party.
Two decades later, following the 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education mandating desegregation of public schools, integration and the civil rights movement drew a violent backlash from many southern white Americans, setting the nation on a course of ever-escalating and racially laced partisanship.
In the presidential election of 2016, racial tensions returned to the forefront as Donald Trump won an Electoral College victory (while losing the popular vote by more than 2 million) by openly appealing to white voters resentful of people of color.
Four years later and at the time of this writing, Trump is running for reelection on the same platform of racial grievances and xenophobia. Trailing badly in polling and fearful of losing, he is openly suppressing the vote, refusing to acknowledge the possibility he might lose the election and threatening not to leave office even if he does lose.
Washington set the exemplary precedent for peaceful and orderly presidential transitions. Turning to treason and war, southern slaveholding states sought but failed to destroy Washington’s precedent. The contested 1876 election, a byproduct of the Civil War, was eventually settled peacefully by both parties. Finally, the 1932 election, though peaceful, set the stage for the bitter ideological hatred of liberalism – including racial equality – on the part of conservative white Americans.
Less than one month prior to the 2020 election, American democracy now faces its greatest existential danger since the Civil War. Historians, political scientists and ordinary Americans recognize that our democracy, bitterly divided between rural conservative red states and more liberal and urban blue states, teeters on a knife’s edge.
In this crisis of democracy, America’s better angels are calling our nation back to the dignified, orderly and peaceful transition of presidential power established by Washington.
But the question remains: Will both political parties listen and heed the example and wisdom of Washington, the difficult lessons from our nations’ racially infused Civil War and the negotiated bipartisanship amid conflict in 1876?