History of Presidential Transitions: Has It Always Been Like Now?


We think that our most current change in Presidential administration is contentious. But our national history has seen worse. And it goes back over 200 years to the third Presidential election, and several since then.

Presidential Transition: from John Adams to Thomas Jefferson

Aaron Burr

Aaron Burr

Perhaps the most contentious election in all of U.S. history was that of 1800. The incumbent President, Federalist John Adams — who was the second President, having served as Vice President to the first President George Washington, ran against Democratic-Republican candidate Thomas Jefferson — Adams’ Vice President at the time — and Aaron Burr.

It was the first election where there was a change in the Presidential political party.

Jefferson had won, but the election was so tumultuous that Jefferson called it the “Revolution of 1800.” In a sense, it was a lengthy, bitter rematch of the 1796 election between the pro-French (think: French Revolution) and pro-decentralization Democratic-Republicans under Jefferson and Aaron Burr, against incumbent Adams’ pro-British and pro-centralization Federalists.

  • From Bad to Worse

Jefferson vs. Adams

But to make matters worse, it was the first of the so-called “contentious elections” in American history; there was no clear winner based on citizens’ votes. In those days, electors could cast two votes, with no distinction between a vote for President and Vice President.

Due to the election’s contentiousness, many voted for Burr due to their strong feeling of “never Jefferson.” But Burr and Jefferson tied with 73 electoral votes each, and Adams had only 65 votes.

The Constitution required that in a deadlock of this nature Congress had to determine the victor. On the 36th ballot, Jefferson finally won. This led to the creation of the 12th Amendment of the Constitution in 1804, which provided for the president and vice president elections to be separate in the Electoral College.

The contest between these two Founding Fathers of the American Republic was like a battle of giants between former friends and collaborators who were now bitter enemies. The contest was filled with propaganda, smear campaigns, slander, liable, and sabotage… from both parties.

  • Hamilton’s Sabotage

Hamilton -- The MusicalAlexander Hamilton, of the Federalist Party, had hoped that his star might rise more under Adam’s administration than Washington’s. But Adams picked Charles Pinckney as a more suitable Vice Presidential candidate. Adams attempted a quiet plan to get Pinckney elected as President.

When the scheme became public, it proved an embarrassment to Adams and damaged Hamilton’s own political career. The story is told in part, and somewhat inaccurately, in the Broadway musical Hamilton.

  • Improper Voting Practices

When it came to counting votes, the certificate of election from Georgia was defective. It did not meet the Constitutional standards. Jefferson, who as Adams’ current Vice President and as such, President of the Senate, chose to count the votes as for himself and Burr. No objections were raised. Had there been objections, the election may not have turned out the same.

In Virginia and New York, rival factions switched voting district regulations in favor of the majority. Adams was coming up short in key areas that had previously been Federalist strongholds.

  • Adams called Jefferson an “atheist.”

Jefferson depicted with the devil toppling the government

Jefferson was quoted, somewhat out of context, as having said

“… But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” -Query XVII, “Religion”

Adams’ campaign jumped on this, claiming that American citizens would not be well served by a President who was an atheist. His camp called Jefferson

“a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father”

which rather inaccurately reflected his ancestry.

  • Jefferson’s supporters called Adams names.

Jefferson’s supporters called Adams

“a hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.”

an epithet not usually seen in modern elections.

Meanwhile, Jefferson hired a sleazy journalist, James Callendar, to conduct a smear campaign against Adams. One “fake news” story suggested that Adams wanted to start a war with France. Callendar would serve time in jail under the Sedition Act for his libel against Adams. This ultimately backfired on Jefferson; when Callendar was released, he pressed Jefferson to repay him. When Jefferson did not, Callendar, in 1802, published a story — that had only been a rumor — that Jefferson was having an affair with his slave Sally Hemings.

  • Adams’ Midnight Judges scheme
Midnight Justices

1st Meeting of the Supreme Court

After Adams had lost the election, he did not see himself as a “lame-duck” president, instead, he worked to reshape the judiciary with the Judiciary Act of 1801 that reduced the number of Supreme Court from six justices to just five, and created 16 new federal judges.

This outraged incoming President Jefferson, who saw this as a partisan move to “pack the court” — though Adams actually reduced the number of Supreme Court justices — and was particularly angry about Adams’ appointment of Chief Justice John Marshall, who was Adams’ Secretary of State. Jefferson called Marshal “anti-democratic” — despite the minor detail that he was Jefferson’s cousin.

You can learn the whole story in my article on the History of Midnight Judges.

  • Adams Did Not Attend Jefferson’s Inauguration

On the day of Jefferson’s inauguration, Adams, having been largely remaining unseen for the remainder of his term, took the early morning Presidential Stagecoach One out of Washington to rejoin his wife Abigail in Quincy, MA, and was not present during the ceremony. He and Jefferson would not exchange another word for 12 years.

JeffersonIn his inauguration address, Jefferson spoke humbly about rapprochement and unity. He promised to mend the bitterness of the last few years by declaring…

“the greatness of the charge and the weakness of my powers so justly inspire… that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate would be oppression… We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.”

Oh, and to his atheism, he spoke about acknowledging and adoring God (Providence), happiness in this life and greater happiness in the next, and freedom of religion. Early in his administration, he spoke about forgiveness.

How did subsequent presidential transitions go in American history?

Presidential Transition: from Ulysses S. Grant to Rutherford Hayes


Tilden Campaign Poster

Following the presidency of Ulysses S. Grant, the election was between Democrat Samuel Tilden and Republican Rutherford B. Hayes. In 1876 disputes regarding 20 electoral votes and allegations of election fraud caused a Constitutional crisis that was not resolved until a decision was made only two days before the Inauguration. At the end of election day, no clear winner emerged because the outcomes in South Carolina, Florida, and Louisiana were unclear. Both parties claimed victory in those states, but Republican-controlled “returning” boards would determine the official electoral votes.

Its resolution required the removal of Federal troops from the South, there since the Civil War, and essentially ended the Reconstruction period of American history. This decision was called the Compromise of 1877.

Presidential Transition: from Herbert Hoover to Franklin D. Roosevelt

In 1932, a reverse situation occurred. Franklin D. Roosevelt, the incoming President to be inaugurated on March 4, 1933, refused to meet with incumbent Herbert Hoover, who had lost the November election. Hoover wanted to meet to discuss a joint program to stop the economic crisis caused by the Great Depression to calm investors. FDR thought this would limit his future options. Hoover had become increasingly unpopular and was called “the most hated man in America” as thousands of banks failed.

Subsequently, FDR was not above taking jabs at his predecessor: Hoover was dropped from the White House birthday greetings list, his name was struck from the Hoover Dam on the Colorado River border, being renamed as the Boulder Dam. That remained the case at least until 1947.

Presidential Transition: from Bill Clinton to George W. Bush


Within more recent memory, the election of 2000 was hotly contested due to the vote recount in Florida. You may remember this as the issue of the “hanging chads” Consequently, the election was decided in favor of George W. Bush by the Supreme Court, shortening Bush’s transition time.

Clinton, whose Vice President Al Gore had lost the election against Bush, was accused of

“damage, theft, vandalism, and pranks”

as he left the White House to Bush. Graffiti was left in the men’s bathroom, glue was put on desk drawers, and various household items went missing. The GAO, the investigative arm of Congress, assessed the damage at about $15,000, including the cost of replacing the letter “W” missing from computer keyboards. Some claim it was payback for the way Bush’s father George H.W. Bush left the White House for Bill Clinton.

Presidential Transition: from George W. Bush to Barak Obama

Despite appearing to be a flawless handover, the whitehouse.gov website was handed over right on time at 12:01, but without any data records from the Bush administration. Phone numbers and calendars were also cleared out, but electronic records were transferred to the National Archives and Records Administration within 3 months, amounting to 80 TB of data.

Presidential Transition: from Barak Obama to the Current Administration

While the transition was relatively smooth — due in large part to the President explicitly instructing his aids to not prank the next occupant of the White House — several “midnight regulations” were enacted by departing President Obama, similar to the aforementioned midnight justices put in place at the end of the John Adams’ administration. Obama’s administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) issued a memo to federal agencies instructing them:

“To the extent feasible and consistent with your priorities, statutory obligations, and judicial deadlines, however, agencies should strive to complete their highest priority rulemakings by the summer of 2016 to avoid an end-of-year scramble that has the potential to lower the quality of regulations that OIRA receives for review and to tax the resources available for interagency review.”

After his second term in November, Obama’s administration concluded 57 rule-making reviews, several of economic significance.

Presidential Transitions: Has It Always Been Such A Big Deal?


Truman shows an incorrect headline

The term “presidential transition” did not appear in general circulation before 1948. That was when presidential candidate Thomas Dewey asserted that if he defeated Harry S. Truman, he planned to begin working immediately reshaping American foreign policy. At the same time, he still kept his day job as Governor of New York.

At the time, The Washington Post thought it inadvisable that the president-elect of the world’s most powerful nation would allow himself to be

“burdened with questions as to how much shall be spent for roads, schools, and hospitals”

in the Empire State.

This all became academic when Truman beat Dewey in the election — pollsters, pundits, and the press were just as inaccurate at predicting the future then as now — but it was the first time that the phrase “presidential transition” appeared in print in an American newspaper.

The mechanics of presidential transition didn’t use to be such a big deal. For most of American history, new presidents were inaugurated into office on March 4 instead of January 20. That made for a transition period of four months rather than the current two months — or longer if an election is a contested one — giving the incoming administration a relatively leisurely interval in which to claim the office. It was done for the most part out of public view, with only the Washington newspaper press corps covering the event.

World War II

Things changed after the Great Depression following 1929 and World War II, which started in the U.S. in 1941. Both of these significantly changed the duties of the President and expanded the federal government.


Eisenhower and Kennedy

Under Franklin D. Roosevelt, between these two events, the Federal budget grew from less than $5 billion to $90 billion. Even after the war, the swollen budget did not abate much.

And after the War, the U.S. President was the most powerful man in the world, with his finger on the trigger of highly destructive atomic bombs.

The President could and did address the entire nation regularly via radio, as FDR did with his Fireside Chats.

With the advent of television, the Kennedy presidency was covered to display the beauty and glamour of Camelot.


Presidential Transition ActOnce the U.S. General Services Administration declares an “apparent winner” of the Presidential election, millions of dollars are released from Congressional appropriation, and the keys to large office space are handed over the the “apparent winner.”

With the current President-elect, he has received $7.3M in funds to pay the salaries of transition staff and consultants, as well as 175,000 square feet of federal office space in Washington, D.C.


So are Presidential transitions in the U.S. smooth? Examining the record, history doesn’t show it to be uniformly so. Several of them have been quite nasty. This is not something new to our times.


Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian


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About billpetro

Bill Petro writes articles on history, technology, pop culture, and travel. He has been a technology sales enablement executive with extensive experience in Cloud Computing, Automation, Data Center, Information Storage, Big Data/Analytics, Mobile, and Social technologies.

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