Saturday, January 17, 2009

The Myth of the Peaceable Presidential Succession

As Mr. Obama's inauguration approaches, we are again faced with a series of thoughts on the peaceful and orderly transfer of power. Many are wont to note the venerable tradition of opposing parties ceding power when they lose the election.

Few who perorate on this phenomenon recognize, however, that one election, the election of 1860, set up the conditions for a long civil war in which over half million Americans perished. The southern states had threatened to secede should Lincoln win, and when Lincoln won, they seceded, most of them before he even took the oath of office. Lincoln's first inaugural address can be read as a plea for the legitimacy of his succession to power.

Maybe 1860 is the exception that proves the rule. I know of nothing that comes close to that situation before or since. But it is important to keep in mind that there has not always been a peaceable transfer of power.

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