Flashback: Inauguration Acrimony Is as Old as the Republic

Picture this scenario:  A president of the United States, distraught and incapable of coming to grips with losing re-election, scampers out of Washington before dawn just as the city prepares for the ceremonial transfer of power to his successor, scheduled to take place later that afternoon.

The scene referenced above isn’t a depiction of what President Donald Trump could do – it’s precisely what President John Adams did do during the early hours of March 4, 1801.

Rather than stomach the sight of his successor and one-time companion in independence, Thomas Jefferson, take the oath of office as this country’s third president, Adams boarded a public carriage around 4 a.m. and took leave of Washington for good.  

Adams and Jefferson, once close friends during the cause of independence from England, had become bitter political rivals by the late 18th century.  Adams to a degree embraced the political philosophies of the Federalist Party, a party that was grounded in its support for a strong central government.

Jefferson emerged as the leader of the Democratic-Republicans, a political faction that treated an all-powerful government with disdain and suspicion.

Adams was elected president in 1796, beating Jefferson for the office by just three electoral votes.  Since the Constitution initially called for the candidate with the second-largest number of electoral votes to become vice president, Jefferson was elected to that post for four very uncomfortable years. 

The day after his inauguration, March 5, 1797, Adams wrote to his wife, Abigail, and he recounted the festive atmosphere when he was sworn in as the second President of the United States.  “A solemn scene it was indeed and it was made more affecting to me, by the presence of the General [George Washington] whose countenance was as serene and unclouded as the day.”

Washington, who was heavily influenced by Federalist policies during his administration – though he never declared allegiance to any particular political group – had opted not to run for a third term and was present to witness Adams take the oath.  

For his part, Adams clearly enjoyed the pomp and attention awarded him that day.  “All agree that taken all together it was the sublimest thing ever exhibited in America,” he wrote to Abigail.  

Four days later, he would reflect of the crowds’ emotional response in another letter to her, attributing it to perhaps “the pleasure of exchanging presidents without tumult.”

But four years later, Adams felt the entire country had abandoned him.  Even Federalist stalwarts – who never pledged full loyalty to Adams – had by this time deserted the president’s side. To make matters worse, unpopular measures such as the Alien and Sedition Acts, passed during his administration in 1798, galvanized political opposition from Democratic-Republicans, led by none other than Adams’ own vice president, Jefferson.

The election of 1800 was a bitter campaign, with the rivals locked in a drawn-out battle for the presidency. As election results trickled in, Adams secured 65 electoral votes to Jefferson’s 73.  However, Jefferson’s intended running mate, Aaron Burr, also received 73 votes. With no clear winner, the election was cast before the U.S. House of Representatives.  On February 17, 1801, Jefferson was elected president on the 36th ballot, not the least because of influential Federalists such as Alexander Hamilton who hated Burr.

Adams was despondent over losing reelection. Adding to his troubles were personal issues; his son Charles had died in December from what was probably cirrhosis caused by years of alcoholism. 

Still, Adams acceded to defeat in what would become the first peaceful transfer of power from one political faction to another in U.S. history.  Jefferson would later recall that he paid a visit to Adams on the day that they learned of the Republican victory. Despite his humiliating loss, Adams related to Jefferson, that he “would be as faithful a subject as any you will have,” and that the election “should not suffer this matter to affect our personal dispositions.”

Regrettably, Jefferson added, Adams “did not long retain this just view of the subject.”

Adams had already begun staffing Federalist appointments to newly created circuit courts in order to staunch the Republican political wave and to complicate Jefferson’s administration in the future.

Among Adams’ final letters as president was to Jefferson himself, just weeks before the inauguration.  In the letter, he explains that there was no need for the incoming president to purchase new horses, since Adams had left behind seven for his use, as well as two carriages. However, Congress found that Adams had purchased the horses from the wrong federal fund, leading to even more embarrassment as his days as president came to a close.

Adams’ early morning flight from Washington to avoid Jefferson’s inauguration provided fodder for his political enemies, but even his friends saw it as deliberately insulting to the democratic process.

“Mr. Adams’ conduct at your inauguration has wounded his real [friends] & been severely censured by his pretended friends,” Elbridge Gerry wrote to Jefferson on May 4, 1801. 

Adams would live out the rest of his life in Quincy, Mass. Twelve years after his defeat, he and Jefferson resumed a remarkable exchange of correspondence that appeared to heal the old political wounds that had once divided them both. 

Both died on July 4, 1826, 50 years to the day the Second Continental Congress adopted the final draft of the Declaration of Independence.

But in snubbing Jefferson at his inauguration, Adams didn’t realize that he unwittingly launched a sort of family tradition.  In 1824, he lived to witness his son, John Quincy Adams, elected as the sixth president of the United States. Four years later, John Quincy lost reelection to Andrew Jackson.

The acrimony between the two was so profound that Jackson refused to pay the younger President Adams a customary courtesy call three weeks before the inauguration.  

Taking it as a personal slight, which it most surely was, Adams retaliated in kind: he left Washington on March 3, 1829, the evening before Jackson took the oath of office.

Pictured: Seen here in Jean Leon Gerome Ferris’ “Writing the Declaration of Independence,” John Adams (center) fled the nation’s capital in the early hours of the morning to avoid formally transferring power to Thomas Jefferson (right) after the latter won the 1800 presidential election. Image via Library of Congress.

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