The Constitution provides that the President and Vice President have four-year terms and are eligible to be re-elected. Starting with George Washington as the first President, no person ever attempted to serve more than two terms as President until in 1940 Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected to a third term and then a fourth term in 1944. In response to Roosevelt’s longevity, Republicans proposed the Twenty-second Amendment which was adopted in 1951 limiting the President to no more than two terms. Consequently, the transference of presidential power occurs frequently and has generally gone smoothly, if not always cordially. Each of the first three transfers of power was unique.
Knowing the importance of starting well under the new Constitution, George Washington agreed to serve as the country’s first President. After three years in office, Washington looked forward to retirement, but because of the precarious situation at home and abroad, Washington was pressured into serving a second term. In 1796, Washington told his closest aides that he would definitely retire at the end of his second term. He published his Farewell Address in September 1796 thus allowing time for others to announce their candidacy. In the election of 1796, Vice President John Adams narrowly defeated former Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson therefore became Adams’s Vice President.
The transition of power between Washington and Adams went smoothly and amicably. Although Adams initially resented Washington’s greater popularity, soon the two men came to appreciate each other and actually became friends. The country was bitterly divided over the ongoing French Revolution and consequent European war. Washington’s Farewell Address warned against entangling alliances and divisions into political parties at home. But Washington had great confidence that Adams would successfully continue the policies established during the country’s first eight years under the new Constitution.
“When the Ceremony was over he came and made me a visit and cordially congratulated me and wished my Administration might be happy Successful and honourable.”
Adams described the inauguration ceremony in Philadelphia to his wife Abigail who remained in Massachusetts too sick to attend. “A Solemn Scene it was indeed and it was made more affecting to me, by the Presence of the General, whose Countenance was as serene and unclouded as the day. He Seem’d to me to enjoy a Triumph over me. Methought I heard him think Ay! I am fairly out and you fairly in! see which of Us will be happiest. When the Ceremony was over he came and made me a visit and cordially congratulated me and wished my Administration might be happy Successful and honourable.”
Washington left office happy knowing that his legacy was well established. He greatly looked forward to returning to his plantation in Virginia. At the age of sixty-five, he felt himself slowing down. It was time for him to retire. His Farewell Address stated “that the shade of retirement is as necessary to me as it will be welcome. Satisfied that if any circumstances have given peculiar value to my services, they were temporary, I have the consolation to believe that, while choice and prudence invite me to quit the political scene, patriotism does not forbid it.” He compared himself “To the wearied traveller who sees a resting place, and is bending his body to lean thereon.” Martha Washington was equally delighted to be returning home. “The General and I feel like children just released from school or from a hard taskmaster.” She pictured herself as a sort of “state prisoner” while her husband served as President. Now, she looked forward to resuming the status of a traditional Virginia housekeeper—“steady as a clock, busy as a bee, and as cheerful as a cricket.” The Washingtons happily transferred presidential authority.
The presidential election of 1800 was perhaps the most bitter in American history. Jefferson would later refer to it as the “Revolution of 1800” as the Jeffersonians captured the presidency, vice presidency, and both houses of Congress. Adams was bitter with the loss—angry not only with Jefferson and his advocates but also with the “Ultra Federalists” who, led by Alexander Hamilton, had intrigued against Adams’s re-election hoping to replace him with Charles Cotesworth Pinckney of South Carolina.
A month after the election, President Adams nominated New York Governor John Jay to replace the ailing Chief Justice Oliver Ellsworth. In forwarding Jay’s commission already approved by the Senate, Adams wrote Jay that only the judiciary would provide “our country, the firmest security we can have against the effects of visionary schemes or fluctuating theories.” Jay was told that “You have now a great opportunity to render a most signal service to your country. I therefore pray you most earnestly to consider of it seriously, and accept it.” According to Adams, God had provided the country with Jay as “the best security its inhabitants afforded against the increasing dissolution of morals” so likely to emanate from the atheistic and theoretic policies of the new administration. Jay, however, refused the appointment preferring to retire from politics after his final year as governor. Adams then nominated John Marshall as chief justice. Related to each other, Marshall and Jefferson, were political and personal adversaries.
Adams wrote Jay that only the judiciary would provide “our country, the firmest security we can have against the effects of visionary schemes or fluctuating theories.”
After the election, the lame-duck President and Congress worked to hamstring the new administration. The Judiciary Act of 1801 created six new circuit courts with sixteen new judges. Adams also appointed more than forty new justices of the peace as well as many judicial officers such as clerks and bailiffs. All of these appointments were ardent Federalists who were expected to oppose Jefferson’s policies. Jefferson took great personal umbrage at this political sabotage. The new Jeffersonian-dominated Congress passed the Judiciary Act of 1802 which abolished the new courts and with them eliminated the new Federalist judges and officers.
John and Abigail Adams felt that Adams’s defeat would unfairly diminish his historical legacy. The Adams’s also believed that Jefferson would direct a dangerous new political course aligned with the French Revolution. Abigail left Washington, D.C., the new federal capital, a week before the inauguration. Writing from New York City while visiting her daughter, Abigail wrote her final letter to her husband that ended with an inquiry about the new judicial appointments. Unlike Washington, Adams refused to attend his successor’s inauguration leaving the city at 5:00 a.m. convinced that Jefferson had robbed him of his rightful fame as the father of the Revolution.
Shortly after his re-election, Jefferson let it be known that he would not seek a third term. He would follow the two-term precedent set by Washington. Senator William Plumer of New Hampshire considered this disclosure “as one of the most imprudent acts of Mr. Jefferson’s public life.” As a lame-duck president, Jefferson lost political leverage, some of which was regained when several state legislatures and various private and public groups asked Jefferson to seek a third term. For a while Jefferson did nothing to suppress these overtures, but by 1807 he announced that he would not seek re-election. At this point he stepped back and refused to make decisions that would affect his successor. “I have thought it right to take no part myself in proposing measures the execution of which will devolve on my successor. I am therefore chiefly an unmeddling listener to what others say.”
His opponents said “the President wants nerve—he has not even confidence in himself … he has been in the habit of trusting almost implicitly in Mr. Madison. Madison has acquired a complete ascendancy over him.” Federalists also viewed Madison as “too cautious—too fearful & timid to direct the affairs of this nation,” and many in the country agreed that there was no proper leadership. After Madison was elected president, Jefferson in his final four months in office as a lame-duck offered only opinion while the president-elect made all final decisions that Jefferson clothed “with the forms of authority.” In many ways, the last year of Jefferson’s presidency was rudderless as the nation vacillated between war and peace. Senator Plumer condemned the President. “Mr. Jefferson is too timid—too irresolute—too fickle—he wants nerve—he wants firmness & resolution. A wavering doubtful hesitating mind joined with credulity is oftentimes as injurious to the nation as a wicked depraved heart.”
Jefferson looked forward to retirement. On nearly the last day of his presidency, he wrote an old friend about retiring “to my family, my books & farms.” Others would now be buffeted by political storms—he would not envy them. “Never,” he wrote, “did a prisoner, released from his chains, feel such relief as I shall on shaking off the shackles of power. Nature intended me for the tranquil pursuits of science, by rendering them my supreme delight. But the enormities of the times in which I have lived, have forced me to take a part in resisting them, and to commit myself on the boisterous ocean of political passions.” He looked forward to “the groves of Monticello” and to becoming “a mere spectator of the passing events.” He felt “there is a fullness of time when men should go, & not occupy too long the ground to which others have a right to advance.”
He felt confidence in his successor, knowing that Madison was “eminently qualified as a safe depository by the endowments of integrity, understanding, & experience.”
Jefferson left the presidency with divided thoughts. He was “retiring from office loaded with serious debts, which will materially affect the tranquility of my retirement.” But at the same time, he had the consolation of knowing that he had not done anything in office to enhance his personal wealth. He knew that he was retiring “with hands as clean as they are empty.” Although financial difficulties lay ahead, he would not deject himself “with evils before they happen.” He “nourish[ed] the hope of getting along.”
Jefferson attended the inauguration of his successor, but tried to be as inconspicuous as possible, knowing that the day belonged to James Madison. He felt confidence in his successor, knowing that Madison was “eminently qualified as a safe depository by the endowments of integrity, understanding, & experience.” After taking a week to settle his affairs and pack his belongings, Jefferson sent three wagons over land and a number of trunks via water to Monticello. He himself traveled by carriage until the roads became so “excessive bad” on the last three days that he rode on horseback alone—the final eight hours “through as disagreeable a snow storm as I was ever in.” Half a year into retirement, he wrote that “I am at length enjoying the never before luxury of employing myself for my own gratification only.