Introduction

Peaceful transfer of power is a concept important to the United States government, referring to when the president peacefully hands over control of the executive branch to the newly-elected president. While the Constitution calls for a peaceful transfer of power, the precedent was more concretely set after the contentious election of 1800 between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. For over 200 years, though there have been a few controversial elections, the transfer of power from one president to another has been peaceful. However, because current President Donald Trump recently refused to accept the election results and peacefully hand over power during a press conference, the conversation about the peaceful transfer of power is being had by individuals and media outlets around the country. Teaching students about the peaceful transfer of power is important so they can understand more about how our democracy functions and current events in politics.

Resources

There are many resources available online for teaching students about the peaceful transfer of power. The majority of resources below focus on either President Trump’s comments and the 2020 election or the election of 1800 when the precedent of peaceful transfer of power was set.

Lesson Plans

  1. Contentious Elections and the Peaceful Transition of Power: The Bill of Rights Institute provides an eLesson on contentious elections and the peaceful transition of power. In the lesson, students will “examine the various ways this peaceful transition is maintained and has been tested through American history,” “examine the Constitutional mechanisms in place for deciding who wins a presidential election,” and “explore several elections during which this system was put to the ultimate test and obtain a better understanding of the systems that perpetuate American republican government.” Included in the lesson are a list of resources, a background activity, which includes an article and questions, an activity, in which students work in small groups to navigate an election results simulation, and a final activity on maintaining a stable democracy, focusing on the elections of 1800, 1876, and 2000.

Articles

  1. Trump, the Peaceful Transition of Power, and How to Explain It to Students: Education Week has published a blog post for educators on how to explain this presidential election’s peaceful transition of power. In a recent press conference, Donald Trump was asked whether he would commit to a peaceful transfer of power, and he made a comment about not accepting the election results because “the ballots are a disaster”. Students may have questions for educators about whether he can actually do this, how the states and Congress would respond, and what the Constitution says about the transfer of power. Therefore, this blog post suggests that educators should show students the press conference clip before taking a look at specific parts of the Constitution itself. The article also recommends that educators discuss a few of the most contentious elections, such as the elections of 1800, 1876, and even 2000. Lastly, there are a few resources provided that can help educators have discussions about the 2020 election, mail-in voting, and the transfer of power.
  2. A Peaceful Transfer of Power Is No Longer a Given in the U.S.: The San Francisco Chronicle provides an opinion piece on peaceful transfer of power in the United States. The author, Martin Benjamin, details how he had learned that President Kennedy had been assassinated when he was in the Peace Corps in Gondar, Ethiopia teaching high school students math and history. The students were very upset, and it took Benjamin and his colleagues a little while to understand that there is no concept of orderly succession in Ethiopia, which caused the students to believe that they would want to be involved in the social and political turmoil involved in determining Kennedy’s successor. Of course, two hours later, Lyndon B. Johnson was declared as his successor. Benjamin then jumps into discussing how he would explain this year’s presidential election to his former students. This brief article was written before the presidential election, so Benjamin lays out his fears regarding the outcome of the election and how this will have an effect on whether or not the transfer of power is in fact peaceful.
  3. Election 2020 – A Perilous Presidential Handoff: FP has published an article discussing the transition of power between presidents, which has been a weakness of the U.S. political system for a while now but never more so than today. The author talks about the peaceful transition of power between presidents throughout American history, including after George Washington’s two presidential terms, during the Great Depression, following World War II, in the early phase of the Cold War, and more. Then, the possibility of the transition out of the Trump era is discussed, as this article was written before the presidential election, and the challenges that may accompany it, which may indicate that the institution of the presidential transition is flawed.
  4. What the State Department Says About Peaceful Transfers of Power: The Washington Post provides an article about what the State Department says about peaceful transfers of power. According to the author, Philip Bump, “It is common for representatives of the State Department to offer public comments praising the peaceful transition of power following democratice elections around the world.” Therefore, this piece is a compilation of responses to elections since the beginning of the administration of President Trump. These responses will help students understand more about the importance of peaceful transfers of power, which is not guaranteed in many other parts of the world.

Informational Sites

  1. On the Peaceful Transfer of Power – Lessons from 1800: Perspectives Daily offers information on the peaceful transfer of power, specifically lessons learned from the election of 1800. The article discusses why the election was controversial and how the idea of transferring power peacefully to a new president engraved America into history as a democracy. From this analysis of the election of 1800, students will learn about a time in history where an election was contentious and how important a peaceful transition of power is in our democracy.
  2. Contested Presidential Elections – Peaceful Transfer of Power: The Miller Center at the University of Virginia provides an essay on the peaceful transfer of power, which was a precedent set after the election of 1800, and Jefferson’s first year in office. The essay discusses the electoral crisis in 1800, the distinctive style of Jefferson, and his most popular policies. There are two videos embedded into the essay along with a few images which will help students better understand the election of 1800.
  3. ‘Nothing Less Than a Miracle’: The Constitution and the Peaceful Transition of Power: Constitution Daily provides a brief article on the Constitution and the peaceful transition of power. The article discusses times in history where the concept of peaceful transfer of power has come into play and explains how our republican self-government depends on good-faith cooperation.

Conclusion

Teaching students about the peaceful transfer of power is important now more than ever. Not all nations have a peaceful transfer of power when a leader passes away or finishes out their time in office, so this concept sets the United States and other democratic nations apart from others. An American president questioning peaceful transfer of power and refusing to accept election results is unprecedented and opens the door to have a conversation about how power is passed from one leader to another in our government. The lesson plans, articles, and informational sites above will help you to have this conversation with students in your classroom!

Additional Resources

  1. How John Adams Established the Peaceful Transfer of Power: History.com has published a brief article on how John Adams established the peaceful transfer of power. The topics touched upon in this article include the first political parties, the ‘Revolution of 1800,’ and the evolution of the peaceful transfer of power.
  2. The White House Historical Association – The Peaceful Transfer of Power: The White House Historical Association provides a two-minute video on the peaceful transfer of power between presidents. The video covers how the transfer from John Adams to Thomas Jefferson set this precedent after the election of 1800.
  3. What Is a Peaceful Transfer of Power?: In this short clip, VOA explains the peaceful transfer of power, which refers to the process during which the control of the Executive Branch of the U.S. government is exchanged, and is a hallmark of American democracy.