Why Do American Presidential Transitions Take Such a Ridiculously Long Time?
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Library of Congress and Mather Brown/Wikipedia.
By Rebecca Onion
Asthe weeks drag out post–Election Day, this presidential transition, which is taking place during an uncontrolled pandemic, seems cursedly endless. But transitions used to be even longer, before the 20th Amendment switched Inauguration Day to January in 1933. More than once, between Election Day and March 4 (the former Inauguration Day), the country teetered on the brink of disaster — trouble that might have been avoided with a more immediate transfer of power. So why did the founders plan for such a long transition period in the first place?
I asked Sara Georgini, a historian who is series editor for the Papers of John Adams, part of the Adams Papers project at the Massachusetts Historical Society, and author of Household Gods: The Religious Lives of the Adams Family, to talk about how presidents used the four-month-long transition period in early America. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Rebecca Onion: Here’s something I’ve heard about the length of transitional periods between presidents in early America: “The founders decided to do it this way to leave time for people to travel on horseback to the capital.” My hunch is this is correct but not quite the whole story.
Sara Georgini: Well, I confirm your hunch! I’d say it was a question of travel, especially in the early period, when the capital flipped around so much, between New York City and Philadelphia. And then in 1800, when it switched to the then–very raw, still-in-formation capital city of Washington, D.C., that caused a lot of travel hiccups for presidents and lawmakers and for their households.
And I’d add, with those travel hiccups came delays in mail. Back then, it wasn’t just a matter of traveling to the capital to get started; in order to receive notice of your election or appointment, you had to wait for the mail to arrive at your house in the first place.
Looking at the John Adams papers, what’s interesting to see is this juicy social history of the transitions between presidents. You see things like: Adams absolutely hated the rents in Philadelphia [the capital during most of his presidency]. You know, $900 a year for a house? He thought it was ridiculous. Of course we would jump at that now! But Adams dispatched lots of friends — former Secretary of War Henry Knox and Tench Coxe, a prominent industrialist — to try to negotiate the rent for him.
So there are these matters of the physical transfer of people to the place, and lawmakers are subject to the same kinds of rules as anyone else, looking for good rentals!
OK, so just to satisfy my curiosity — how long would it take to ride from, say, Boston to Philadelphia on a horse in the late 18th century? I bet not four months!
So if you were the president-elect, you have maybe a two- to three-week journey. And the reason for that is, you’re riding over roads that aren’t particularly finished, and you’re stopping at taverns and boardinghouses. You’re pausing for civic feasts where people have 20 toasts. And usually the first toast is to you, but you have to stick around for the rest of them! Everywhere you go, newspapers report when you hit the city limits and when you exit. And they’re looking to see if you’re acting like a king — maybe a little too luxurious? — and where you stay. They’re checking to see, are you praying at the local church? Are you visiting the local college, the local factory, acknowledging the agricultural and industrial products of the region? You’re kind of on a tour from the second you set out. Not every single time, and maybe more so your first or last rides to office.
Remember there are also women on the roads here — we didn’t use the term first lady until the 19th century, but the first ladies, as we would call them, were traveling too … and they have paid guides at times, because it was easy to get lost when you were moving to a new city.
And of course, if you were coming from Virginia, it might take even longer to get to somewhere like Philadelphia.
Sure, of course! And Washington’s letters are great for this. My favorite George Washington correspondence is how he writes back to his farm managers [from on the road] — beautifully detailed letters about what the roads are like, what the wind is like — a picture of the landscape that he’s offering them. I think because he’s one guy who knows land, writing to the men who were running his land, so it’s really a snapshot.
But people complained all the time when the capital moved to D.C. … Obviously for people coming from Virginia it was closer, but for the New Englanders, it added about another week.
So they’re doing this trip often. They’d stop in the same places. They’d stop to visit family or friends. The Adamses did this a lot: They’d route around so they had little rest stops to connect with family members, the way you’d do on a family road trip.
Remember, this would be a way for the president to be visible — so it’s very much a public image thing. They did it for the optics too.
Can you say more about what a household would need to consider in shutting down in one place and trying to start up in another? What are some things we might not think about in 2020?
They were definitely thinking about how it was very expensive — as vice president or president, you have to put in for your salary with the Treasury Department, and they were paying for these expenses before that. And they’re moving to a city they don’t know.
With the Adamses, they had to hire new servants. [John Adams, unlike many early American presidents, wasn’t a slaveholder.] Over time, the Adamses had family servants and came to kind of know and trust their pros and cons — but also, they have to hire and fire servants all the time, whether they steal or drink or whatever. So they’re thinking about that in the context of the new city.
Beyond servants, the first thing the Adamses did, usually, is ask for books to be sent. John Adams was always writing to Abigail with a list of books: These books exactly. Please send them; I really need them.
Another thing they are always doing is buying and selling horses and carriages and coaches. And they were always worried about, you know, Does it look too fancy? But also, We desperately need it.
They need to entertain — diplomats and statesmen — so they need to have a proper table setting that can seat 20 people for a diplomatic dinner. Adams and Jefferson always had a good stock of wine, though they had different taste. So they always want to make sure they have that on hand.
What else might have gone into the length of these transitions?
I think a lot of it had to do with living on an agricultural calendar, which most of the country was on. Most of the country, you’d want people to be traveling after the fall harvest, then if you’re saying March 4 is Inauguration Day, that means people can travel in February, when the holidays have passed.
I also think they wanted to have some kind of meaningful contrast to how hereditary monarchies change power. This way, there are bookends — space for people to exhale between administrations and then dive into new leadership. It’s a more thoughtfully paced change in power, allowing people to imagine the possibilities of a new administration. I think that might be part of it, since any place they could carve out a distinction between what they were doing and the way things worked with a monarchy, they did.
Then, also, it was a brand-new system. So when the system doesn’t work well, when there’s something that snags progress, like with the election of 1800 — with a longer transition you have some time to resolve that. Eighteenth-century people thought in systems. So the system may need to go through some revisions, and I think they were aware of that; that may have played into the transitions’ length as well.