Monday, February 18, 2013

Presidents and Precedents

Today is the federal holiday for Washington's Birthday, which we now refer to generically as Presidents' Day. There are many reasons to honor the first president, if only because of the many positive precedents he set--eschewing any form of address that smacked of royalty, e.g., or not running for a third term. The latter is particularly important, because had he done so and won (which he likely would have), he would have died in office in 1799, meaning that the new United States would have had the example of a president holding onto the office until death, instead of voluntarily stepping aside.

In that same light, there was another precedent set by his less-revered successor, that perhaps deserves our notice on Presidents' Day. Few historians would place John Adams up there with George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, or Franklin Roosevelt in the pantheon. But he did at least one thing that should not go unremarked: he gave up power, not because he wanted to, but because the voters wanted him to.

Adams ran for re-election in 1800 and lost the hotly contested campaign to his vice-president, Thomas Jefferson. Throughout the contest, the two sides had predicted calamity if the other prevailed. Abigail Adams believed that "the peace, safety, and security" of the nation depended on her husband's re-election. If he were not returned to office, she wrote, "I am mortally certain we shall never have another" election.

Yet, when the votes went against Adams, he accepted the verdict. Perhaps the near-simultaneous death of his son Charles helped put his electoral defeat into perspective. Rather than plotting how he might remain in office, or how he might later re-gain power, Adams moved on: "The only question remaining with me is what shall I do with myself?" No unquenchable thirst for power consumed him: "I must go out on a morning and evening and fodder my cattle, I believe, and take a walk every afternoon to Penn's Hill--pother in my garden among the fruit trees and cucumbers and plant a potato yard with my own hand."

This precedent is among the most under-appreciated in our history. Yes, Washington chose not to run a third time and gave up power. But Adams had tried to remain in power. He hoped that the garden he would be tending the next four years was the United States. It was not his will to return to Massachusetts in March 1801. He believed in all sincerity that the voters were wrong. But when the vote went against him, he accepted it and went home.

This unquestioning respect for process should have our admiration and emulation. In an age in which far too many people believe that the definition of a "bad process" is one that produces a result they do not like, Adams shows us that respect for process transcends our personal desires, beliefs, and ambitions.

As Pope Benedict showed last week, sometimes the best example to set is not grasping for power, or desperately clinging to it, but the graceful relinquishment of it.

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