SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4) – The peaceful transfer of power has been a process most citizens of the United States take for granted. In recent times it’s been a tradition of respect within our democratic process.
And while the images of President Donald Trump’s supporters breaching the Capitol will forever be remembered as a dark time in our nation’s history, the transfer of power has not always been without stress. In fact, Democracy has indeed been tested and challenged before in the United States.
“There are two iconic symbols: The White House, and the Capitol Rotunda. I had to teach a class, and I had the television on, and the crawl line said ‘Protestors have occupied the rotunda,’ and that to me is different than protestors occupying the convention center.”
Professor Frederick Gedicks, holder of the Guy Anderson chair at BYU law school spoke with ABC4 to lend some perspective. Professor Geddicks has taught Constitutional law for more than 35 years.
“It’s chilling,” Gedicks says. “Chilling in the way we understand ourselves and our self-understanding about what the United States and the Constitution and our Republic stands for.”
In America’s past, there have been several incidents of violence in retaliation to political actions.
Gedicks explains, “It’s unprecedented what happened, but we have had violence before in my lifetime. I came of age during the 60s, and there was the confrontation between the Chicago police and peace demonstrators outside the Democratic National Convention. There were violent urban guerilla groups like the weathermen who attacked government buildings, set bombs, and there were extremely violent responses by law enforcement or National Guard like at Kent state and the killing of a Black Panther cell near San Francisco (Marin County Civic Center).”
The professor explains we have had violence if we go back further when the labor unions were trying to form. He mentions the violence during reconstruction, the lynchings (of which, one happened here in Utah), and refers to more of those forms of violence “all through our history really, well into the 1950s and occasionally beyond.”
Ken Ivory, a former Utah State Legislator, a lawyer, and an Adjunct Professor at UVU says, “The very fundamental basis of our system is to elevate the individual American voice by diffusing power.”
He continues, “What I realized after being elected was that there is such general pervasive lack of awareness of the system and how the system functions to elevate and optimize the individual American voice, that it gets set aside for political expediencies.”
What was old is new again
In the beginning, the Constitution did not take into account political parties. According to History.com, “In 1787, when delegates to the Constitutional Convention gathered in Philadelphia to hash out the foundations of their new government, they entirely omitted political parties from the new nation’s founding document.”
Many of the founders did not trust parties, they considered them factions and a danger to democracy. Without the party system, as we know it today, the winner of the election was President, and the runner up became Vice-President.
In the U.S.’s relatively short history, we tend to assume everyone follows the rules and traditions after we have an election, but that is not the truth of our history.
Our representational democracy has never been easy.
George Washington said, “The common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party are sufficient to make it the interest and duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it.”
Washington stepped down from being President after two terms. His transfer of power was easy because both he and John Adams were Federalists.
However, the third Presidential election became the first transfer of power as we know it.
During John Adams’ presidency, the parties at the time clashed constantly. The Democratic-Republicans and Federalists went to task on everything from taxes to religion. Their biggest fight was over the French Revolution. Thomas Jefferson and his supporters wanted to support France while Adams and the Federalists wanted a better relationship with Great Britain.
Adams’ friend turned political rival, Jefferson, beat him in the election and it did not sit well with Adams.
Jefferson won the election over Adams over the public’s outrage over the Alien and Sedition acts passed during Adams administration which allowed him to imprison those who spoke out against him.
Historically, over 2,000 people were arrested for speaking out against the President Adams, 10 were successfully tried and convicted.
The American public viewed the act as an attempt to circumvent the Constitution. The acts essentially made it criminal to criticize the President.
Adams was now a single-term president, felt humiliated by the defeat, and chose to leave Washington D.C. early on March 4, 1801. He did not attend the inauguration ceremony, making Donald Trump’s similar decision, while uncommon by recent standards, not unique in U.S. history.
Professor Gedicks says, “What happened at the Capitol is worse than what happened in 1800 because in 1800 there was not a tradition anywhere of the peaceful transfer of power between political opponents. Transfers of power occurred by assassination and by violent revolution, the history of the English Monarchy, certainly into the 16th century was just one war after the other. The War of the Roses, the killings of the Princes, Every King who ascended to the throne and Queen, were immediately concerned with who might challenge my authority, and the way they dealt with that was by killing their political opponents.”
The professor continues, “In 1800, you could look around the world, or even look at the Western world and say, peaceful transfers of power among political opponents were not the norm. Now they are, which makes us far more culpable today.”
“As difficult and as vicious as the election was and even with Aaron Burr trying to make a play for the presidency because they tied in the electoral college and Jefferson who finally won the electoral vote, the fact that it happened without really very much violence was a triumph for the young American republic.
“Now here we are in 2020, 220 years later and this is quite depressing.”
Ivory says, “If we create a system where so much power is centralized into one person, republican or democrat, I don’t care, you stake your hopes, your life and your livelihood on the outcome of a political pendulum every four years. It’s a recipe for disaster.”
Being part of America is watching our process as it gets challenged, debated, and torn apart. Historically, there have always been conflicts.