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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Saturday, January 23, 2021

“Contested Elections” and “Difficult Transitions”

Back on 6 January, both the Massachusetts Historical Society and Revolutionary Spaces had online panel discussions planned about the past examples of difficult Presidential transitions in American history.

That was a timely topic, but no one realized how timely. That morning, the President defeated at the polls and in the Electoral College told a crowd of his supporters:
We’re going to have to fight much harder and Mike Pence is going to have to come through for us. If he doesn’t, that will be a sad day for our country because you’re sworn to uphold our constitution. Now it is up to Congress to confront this egregious assault on our democracy. After this, we’re going to walk down and I’ll be there with you. . . .
The President then left. He watched on television as his supporters mobbed the Capitol and threatened his Vice President, taking no action to stop the violence for hours. Five people died in that riot.

Understandably, both local historical societies postponed their panel discussions on 6 January. But in the following week they proceeded with those events as Congress finished the ritual of totaling electoral votes and then impeached the President again for his abuse of power.

Now we can watch both discussions online. They cover some of the early transitions as John Adams and Thomas Jefferson contested the Presidency. At that time, politicians still espoused the ideal of not forming political parties but blamed the other side for forming one first. The 1820s contests between John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson also get attention.

The most contested U.S. election of all was of course in 1860, when one side refused to accept democratic defeat and started a civil war. That event can be bookended with another contested election in 1876, which led to the federal government ending Reconstruction attempts to protect the rights and persons of black citizens in the former Confederacy.

At the Massachusetts Historical Society, the theme of the panel was “‘At Noon on the 20th Day of January’: Contested Elections in American History” and the participants were:
  • Joanne B. Freeman, Yale University
  • Peter S. Onuf, University of Virginia
  • Rachel A. Shelden, Penn State University
  • Erik B. Alexander, Southern Illinois University
  • Ted Widmer, Macaulay Honors College, moderator
Watch here.

At Revolutionary Spaces, the theme was “Difficult Transitions” and the participants were:
  • Joseph Ellis, Mount Holyoke College
  • Eric Rauchway, University of California, Davis
  • Amber Roessner, University of Tennessee, Knoxville
  • David Greenberg, Rutgers University
  • Matthew Wilding, Revolutionary Spaces, moderator
Watch here.

And let’s make some reforms to lessen the chance of having to go through this again.

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