Trump's Inauguration Is Not Without Precedent

Michael Barone
|
Posted: Jan 20, 2017 12:01 AM
Trump's Inauguration Is Not Without Precedent

The United States has just had three consecutive eight-year presidencies, and it's only the second time in history that that's happened. The only other such moment came on March 4, 1825, 192 years ago.

That's a bit surprising, given the strong example George Washington's two terms as president set and the rule established by the 22nd Amendment, adopted after Franklin Roosevelt won third and fourth terms in wartime, imposing a two-term limit. It owes something to the tragic happenstance that the four presidents who were assassinated might well have completed two terms otherwise.

There are some striking contrasts between the 24 years that ended in 1825 and the 24 years ending with the inauguration of Donald Trump. The three eight-year presidents then -- Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe -- were Virginians who were, despite some tussles, political allies and members of the same political party. Their houses were just a day's ride then (an hour's drive today) from one another.

The last years of Monroe's administration were dubbed by historians as the Era of Good Feelings. The opposition Federalist Party didn't run a candidate in the 1820 election and held only a handful of seats in Congress.

No one would call any large part of the past 24 years an era of good feelings. Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama were each succeeded by a president of the other party. Parties opposing the president had majorities in the House of Representatives for 14 years and in the Senate for 11 1/2 years of the 24-year period. And the presidents were re-elected with just 49.2, 50.7 and 51.1 percent of the vote, respectively.

Clinton was impeached in his second term. Bush was administered an electoral "thumping" in the midterm election during his second term, and Obama received similar treatment in 2010 and 2014. Although Clinton and Bush refrained from blaming their problems on their predecessors, Obama stopped doing so only as his second term was nearing its end.

But there are similarities to the pair of three consecutive eight-year presidencies, as well. The so-called Era of Good Feelings followed a war as divisive and inconclusive as the Iraq War. The War of 1812 inspired threats of secession by New Englanders and is celebrated by Canadians as a victory. Americans took solace only from the treaty negotiated by John Quincy Adams and the victory won in New Orleans by Andrew Jackson after the treaty was signed but before the news crossed the ocean.

Congress was also deeply split back then. It was over the issue of slavery in the territories. So there was a compromise in 1820 whereby Missouri was admitted into the union as a slave state and Maine, detached from Massachusetts, was admitted as a free state. The dispute was "like a fire bell in the night," wrote Thomas Jefferson, "the knell of the Union." He continued, "It is hushed indeed for the moment, but this is a reprieve only, not a final sentence." It would ring again, more loudly, four decades later.

And the inauguration 192 years ago also evoked cries of illegitimacy, perhaps even more so than this year's. There were four major candidates, each claiming the mantle of Jefferson's party. Jackson had won a plurality of popular votes (though legislatures chose electors in six states) and a plurality in the Electoral College, but Adams had been a close second, while third-place finisher William Crawford had been crippled by a stroke.

The House of Representatives, where Henry Clay was the longtime speaker, spurned Jackson and chose Adams, who promptly named Clay secretary of state even though Clay had opposed Adams' policies when he held that office.

"A corrupt bargain!" shouted Jackson backers -- not without cause -- just as Trump's opponents keep reminding us that Hillary Clinton won a plurality (not a majority as some say) of the popular vote. But both the sixth and the 45th presidents were chosen in scrupulous accord with the Constitution.

Jackson's supporters kept up the clamor and elected him unambiguously four years later; Adams, as his father had when Jefferson beat him 28 years before, skipped the inauguration. From their conflict sprang the Democratic and the Whig -- and eventually the Republican -- parties.

In 1824, Jackson was regarded as a wild man -- impetuous and unfit for the presidency -- by Jefferson, Madison and Monroe. Each surely preferred the scholarly, internationally experienced Adams.

And today, all of Trump's three eight-year predecessors take a similar view of him, though all three accepted invitations to his inauguration. But many other presidents -- Abraham Lincoln and both Roosevelts, plus some duds -- didn't have support from living predecessors, either. Donald Trump is not quite so unprecedented as many of those unversed in history think.