J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Washington and “The Peaceful Transfer of Power”

Prof. Larry Cebula of Northwest History alerted me to this detail of Monday’s inaugural speeches. In his brief remarks, Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee said:
Last year, at Mount Vernon, a tour guide told me that our first president, George Washington, once posed this question, “What is most important,” Washington asked, “of this grand experiment, the United States?” And then Washington answered his own question in this way: “Not the election of the first president, but the election of its second president. The peaceful transfer of power is what will separate our country from every other country in the world.”
That quotation appears on the Mount Vernon website, but on the page about “Spurious Quotations” wrongly attributed to the first President.

That page begins:
The following represents a list of spurious quotations attributed to George Washington that have been sent for verification or questioning to the Mount Vernon library in recent years. This list will continue to grow as research staff at Mount Vernon become aware of other misattributed or false statements that have been attributed to Washington.
Evidently not all the Mount Vernon staff are equally aware.

Google Books doesn’t locate the words that Alexander read in any book, suggesting that the coinage is very recent. In fact, I don’t see web uses before this week.

We should recall that Washington had witnessed a “peaceful transfer of power” in many governments during his lifetime: when a monarch died and his heir took over, when the ministry in London shifted hands, when the independent American states elected new governors and legislatures during the Confederation, and when the new Constitution brought him to power nationally. He actually didn’t survive to see the shift of power from one party (his and John Adams’s Federalists) to another (Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans), which was much more divisive.

Since Washington’s time, of course, many nations have enjoyed peaceful transfers of power. We Americans like to think of ourselves as exceptional, but that quality doesn’t separate the U.S. of A. from “every other country,” then or now.


John L Smith Jr said...

Excellent clarification on the "peaceful power transfer" thing, Mr. Bell! Sometimes I wonder if GW would have celebrated Jefferson's "Second Revolution" of coming to power? Peaceful or not...

J. L. Bell said...

I suspect Washington would have been fine with Jefferson's election for three reasons. First, he knew and respected Jefferson's talents. Second, while he probably would have preferred Adams, he might have been dubious about some of the Federalists around Adams. And third, he wanted to trust the system.

As to whether Washington, fundamentally an eighteent-century aristocrat, would have accepted the next big electoral upheaval—the election of Andrew Jackson—I'm not so sure.

John L Smith Jr said...

Very true about Jackson and his kin'folk comin' to town! Washington, Adams (the 1st), Jefferson and Hamilton (throw in Madison and Monroe also) might have ALL agreed on the utter shock of a hillbilly becoming president!