All of this makes the snub of an incumbent not attending his successor’s inauguration seem trite, but of the 10 previous presidents who received their party’s nomination and lost reelection, the last eight have attended the inauguration of their successors. But the first two, John Adams in 1801 and John Quincy Adams in 1829, refused to do so, allowing political animosities to triumph over a symbolic demonstration of national unity.
Fortunately, the theater of inaugural comity has largely held sway since Martin Van Buren lost to Willian Henry Harrison and broke this pattern. Regardless of how presidents and their successors actually felt about one another, they have maintained the appearance of civility and respect, at least on Inauguration Day. (Grover Cleveland even held an umbrella over Benjamin Harrison at the swearing in). But for the Adamses, such conventions were not yet in place, enabling partisanship to triumph over patriotism.
John Adams’s loss to Thomas Jefferson in 1800 stung. The two men were leaders of political parties, the Federalists and Democratic-Republicans, with antithetical principles. They had been friends and collaborators in the 1770s, but the political events of the 1790s divided them. Adams lamented the French Revolution; Jefferson admired it. Adams stressed strong government; Jefferson emphasized personal liberty. Disgusted by the Federalists, Jefferson denounced them as “an Anglican, monarchical, and aristocratical party.” In 1798, he described Federalist governance as a “reign of witches.”
The slanderous election of 1800 pitted them against one another directly. Adams’s supporters called Jefferson a “mean-spirited, low-lived fellow,” and spread rumors of his relationship with Sally Hemings. If he were elected, they said, “the air will be rent with the cries of the distressed, the soil will be soaked with blood, and the nation black with crimes.” Not to be outdone, a Republican journalist labeled Adams a “hideous hermaphroditical character.”
Jefferson received 73 electoral votes and Adams 65. He won more than 60 percent of the popular vote as Americans turned against an administration that had passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, measures seen by many as an unconstitutional assault on freedom.
Jefferson ended up tied with Aaron Burr in electoral votes because the Constitution stipulated that electors cast two votes with the runner-up serving as vice president (a flaw corrected by the 12th Amendment) and Democratic-Republicans had failed to arrange for an elector to vote for someone other than Burr. Adams lobbied Jefferson to accept a deal whereby Federalists would support Jefferson if he agreed to maintain Federalist fiscal and military policies. Jefferson refused to have his hands tied. After 35 tied ballots in the House, Jefferson emerged triumphant without making any agreements.
In defeat, as Adams prepared to leave Washington, he signed the Judiciary Act of 1801 which created new judicial circuits and judgeships and reduced the size of the Supreme Court. With the hope of maintaining Federalist influence, in the waning days of his administration, he made numerous circuit court appointments. Jefferson saw the appointments, which he described as “from my most ardent political enemies,” as “personally unkind.”
And then, on March 4, 1801, Adams fled Washington in darkness as he mourned the recent death of a son from alcoholism and the triumph of his rival.
Almost three decades later, his son, John Quincy Adams, did the same. The election of 1824 was also contentious and controversial. None of the four candidates — Adams, Andrew Jackson, William Crawford or Henry Clay — received a majority of electoral votes, so the House decided the winner. Eliminated from consideration, Clay threw his support to Adams, who emerged victorious in the contingent election. Although Jackson had won a plurality of the electoral and popular vote, he lost the election in what his supporters labeled a corrupt bargain after Adams later appointed Clay his secretary of state.
Four years later, Jackson swept to victory over Adams, winning the electoral college 178 to 83 and taking more than 56 percent of the popular vote. Adams noted in his diary on Feb. 28, 1829, that he would consider attending Jackson’s inauguration, but observed that, since his arrival in Washington, Jackson “has not thought it proper to hold any personal communication with me.”
Adams thought that Jackson’s “incivility” toward him stemmed either from a mistaken belief that Adams had been involved in personal attacks upon Jackson’s late wife, Rachel, or because Jackson did not want to encounter Clay. On March 3, he consulted with his Cabinet about whether to attend the inauguration and all but Richard Rush, secretary of the treasury, advised against it. Adams stayed away.
It was not the last time Adams would skip an event featuring Jackson. In 1833, Harvard University decided to award the sitting president an honorary degree. Outraged by the decision of his alma mater, Adams wrote the Harvard president, who happened to be his cousin, “I would not be present to witness her disgrace in conferring her highest literary honors upon a barbarian who could not write a sentence of grammar and hardly could spell his own name.”
Although neither John nor John Quincy Adams could bear the festivities of their successor’s inaugurations, nor Andrew Johnson in 1869, who had not been his party’s nominee, other presidents have managed to rise above their hatreds.
In modern times, even great animosity has not broken this custom. Herbert Hoover, who would devote much of his retirement to attacking the policies of the New Deal, rode with Franklin D. Roosevelt to his inauguration. Jimmy Carter publicly avowed during the transition that he had “a good working relationship” with Ronald Reagan, although privately they cared little for one another. For one day, they suppressed their personal feelings and demonstrated their commitment to the nation.
One of the few presidents who forged a meaningful and lasting friendship with his successor was George H.W. Bush, who, on leaving office, left Bill Clinton a letter that stated: “Your success now is our country’s success. I am rooting hard for you.”
In his inaugural address, Biden will no doubt echo Jefferson, who in his first inaugural declared, “We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.” It was a nice sentiment, no truer in spirit then than now, but it needed to be said.
It recognizes a tradition of coming together after elections, and demonstrating the peaceful transition of power that is so important to the American system of government. Whether it is in 2024 or 2028, it seems likely that Biden, understanding the import of that tradition, will be at the inauguration of his successor.