US Democracy's Proud Record

Article excerpt

HO hum. Another free election. Another peaceful and orderly transfer of power well underway.

Nov. 3 was the 52nd time, in an unbroken succession stretching back to George Washington in 1789, that Americans freely chose their chief political executive. The transition now proceeding from the Bush to the Clinton administration is the 20th - 11 in the 19th century, 9 so far in this - in which power has been shifted from one partisan side and philosophy to another, in accordance with the people's choice.

After more than two centuries of such exemplary democratic practice, most Americans probably consider this year's repeat performance an event as natural and inevitable as the sun's rise each morning. In fact, of course, in the reach of history, popularly determined peaceful transfers of power are an utmost rarity. As with so many aspects of our political tradition, it was Washington who got us off to the right start in transferring political power. The man who could easily have been a kind of constitutional monarch for life instead left the example of voluntarily relinquishing office.

At the end of his second term, Washington went home to Mount Vernon eagerly, not reluctantly. Four years later, another important example was set, in the political battle between the Federalists and the Democratic Republicans. In 1800 there was certainly no love lost between the incumbent Federalist, John Adams, and his great rival from Virginia, Thomas Jefferson. The contest between them was as close as it was heated: Jefferson finally prevailed with 73 electoral votes to Adams' 65. For all the charges and high-pitched rhetoric, however, power peacefully changed hands. The tree of liberty may need watering from time to time, as Jefferson said, with the blood of tyrants. But in the final analysis, both sides in 1800 treated their opponents as responsible democratic politicians, not as would-be tyrants.

We can't say that shots were never fired in anger after an American presidential election. Abraham Lincoln's victory in 1860 spurred what had been a simmering slave-state rebellion and led to the firing on Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor on April 12, 1861. …