Was 1861 Really a Peaceful Transition of Power?

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I wasn’t going to bother blogging about Lamar Alexander’s peculiar boast that today’s “peaceful, orderly” transfer of power was uniquely American, figuring that it’s just standard patriotic puffery and nothing to complain about. But Dylan Matthews reproduces the chart on the right to show that lots of countries have peaceful transfers of power, and that got my attention. I’m not sure where it came from, but the author appears to think the United States has had 43 peaceful transitions.

It’s true that Barack Obama is the 44th president of the United States. But I’d say that 1861 was a decidedly non-peaceful transfer of power, leading as it did to a secession by half the country and four years of brutal civil war. Since then we’ve had 28 peaceful transfers—generously counting Andrew Johnson’s takeover as “peaceful”—which puts us just ahead of Canada and a bit behind Australia.

Not bad, really. But as it turns out, even less out of the ordinary than it looks at first glance—though we might look better if we counted years instead of changes of government. After all, I’m not sure Italy should really get a lot of props just because their government changes every six months or so.

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DEMOCRACY DOES NOT EXIST...

without free and fair elections, a vigorous free press, and engaged citizens to reclaim power from those who abuse it.

In this election year unlike any other—against a backdrop of a pandemic, an economic crisis, racial reckoning, and so much daily crazy—Mother Jones' journalism is driven by one simple question: Will America will move closer to, or further from, justice and equity in the years to come?

If you're able to, please join us in this mission with a donation today. Our reporting right now is focused on voting rights and election security, corruption, disinformation, racial and gender equity, and the climate crisis. We can’t do it without the support of readers like you, and we need to give it everything we've got between now and November. Thank you.

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