Blogs > Ronald L. Feinman > The Potential for Crisis Between Election Day and Inauguration: Then and Now

Jun 3, 2020

The Potential for Crisis Between Election Day and Inauguration: Then and Now

tags: inauguration,presidential history,2020 Election

Ronald L. Feinman is the author of Assassinations, Threats, and the American Presidency: From Andrew Jackson to Barack Obama (Rowman Littlefield Publishers, 2015).  A paperback edition is now available.


The period between Election Day and Inauguration Day is tumultuous, particularly when a new president has been elected. At four times in American history (after elections in 1860, 1876, 1932 and 2000) it has been especially tense with danger and suspense.  This year’s election may initiate a crisis far greater than any the nation has seen. Prior crises were resolved in a peaceful manner (though in ways with lasting consequences), which may not be the case after November 3. 

After Abraham Lincoln won a plurality of only 39.8 percent of the total national vote (he had three opponents and ten southern states did not even list him on the ballot), the nation was in a very tenuous position. Seven states started the process of secession, and had completed the process before Inauguration Day, March 4, 1861.  The outgoing President James Buchanan was reluctant to take any action that might inflame the South and stood by, refusing to enforce federal law or protect federal military property.  Lincoln had no power or authority, and there was great and justifiable concern that he would be in perpetual danger once he left Springfield, Illinois for Washington on a whistle-stop train tour lasting from February 11 to 23.  Lincoln brought a security force including Allan Pinkerton and five of his detectives, including Kate Warne, the first woman Pinkerton, to travel through Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, and finally, Maryland, including the Confederate-friendly city of Baltimore.  

Protecting Lincoln, especially during the final harrowing 24 hours from Harrisburg to Washington by way of Philadelphia and Baltimore, was the most urgent task.  Pinkerton’s agents had reported to him of a “Baltimore Plot,” headed by local barber and Confederate sympathizer Cipriano Ferrandini (called the “Captain’ of the conspiracy). While subsequent researchers have disputed the severity of this threat, Lincoln was nevertheless taken through Baltimore in the middle of the night, avoiding any chance of meeting crowds as he had elsewhere along the route.  Lincoln was safely escorted to the Willard Hotel in Washington on February 23, where he remained under security watch until the inauguration nine days later.  Critics ridiculed Lincoln for being unwilling to appear publicly in the rebel city of Baltimore, but it ensured his safety as he readied to take on the most stressful possible situation of a nation on the brink of civil war.

In 1876, as southern elites and their northern allies demanded an end to Reconstruction, the presidential election was the closest ever in American history. The results in three southern states (South Carolina, Louisiana, and Florida) were contested. White Democrats objected to the presence of Union Army troops in the states, which supported black voters' access to the ballot, and partisans of both sides raised charges of a fixed election.  Democratic nominee Samuel J. Tilden came one Electoral College vote short of a majority (with contested votes excluded, he led 184-165), and had 253,000 popular votes more than Republican nominee Rutherford B. Hayes. With the contested electoral votes in those three Southern states and also one contested elector in Oregon, the country faced a constitutional crisis. This was made worse by the fact the Congress was divided, with a Democratic House of Representatives and a Republican Senate; applying the Constitutional process to resolve the disputed election would be impossible to achieve without conflict.  

The Congress set up an Electoral Commission on January 29, 1877, that allowed a 15 member group of Congressmen, Senators, and Supreme Court Justices to determine, with a deadline of about a month, which candidate should rewarded the disputed 20 electoral votes.  The Electoral Commission had 8 Republicans and seven Democrats, all of whom voted the party line, with no real way to be sure that state vote counts were accurate.  This gave Hayes victory, despite being a quarter of a million votes behind Tilden, with the narrowest possible majority of 185 electoral votes to 184.  There was concern that a renewed civil war might erupt, but it was averted by a political deal, known to history as the Compromise of 1877.  

This agreement ended occupation of the three southern states by the Union Army, allowed for political appointments to be controlled by a Democratic Postmaster General under a Republican President as a concession, and pledged federal subsidies to build a southern transcontinental railroad and encourage industrialization in the South (much of which was not completely fulfilled).  The compromise, considered a “raw deal” by many, kept the peace in the nation, at the price of Republican abandonment of the political and civil rights of African Americans in the South.

The next time the nation was in danger after a presidential election was in the throes of the Great Depression, which reached its lowest depths in the months between the defeat of Herbert Hoover in November, 1932 and the swearing-in of Franklin D. Roosevelt in the last March 4 inauguration (Congress passed the 20th Amendment and quickly ratified it by the end of 1933, designating January 20 as the date of future inaugurations). 

Hoover was bitter over his defeat and refused to cooperate with FDR during the four-month interim, even as unemployment grew from 12 million to 13 million, an all-time high rate of 24.9 percent.  Hoover wanted FDR to take actions that he proposed, while FDR insisted that he should take the lead since he was the President-Elect.  So the nation was faced with paralysis, and even on Inauguration Day, Hoover refused to speak directly to FDR, sitting glumly in a car as the two men made their way from the White House to Capitol Hill for the inaugural ceremony.  Fortunately, FDR gave a rousing address, considered one of the most inspiring of all time, and set the goal of a “New Deal” for the American people.

The last time that the interim between the election and the inauguration of a President created such tension was after the 2000 election between Democrat Al Gore and Republican George W. Bush. Gore won the national popular vote by 544,000 votes, but the disputed results in Florida (where Bush’s brother Jeb was the governor) led to a 36 day legal battle over recounting the vote. Only intervention by the United States Supreme Court stopped the state vote recount and declared that Bush had won Florida’s presidential election by the smallest margin in the state’s history, 537 votes out of about six million votes cast. The final Electoral College vote was 271-266, with one elector who should have voted for Gore having left his ballot blank.   

This December 12 decision of the high court was then implemented on January 7, 2001. Al Gore, the outgoing Vice President, ironically declared his opponent the victor in the election, despite some protests by House Democrats.  The election remains highly controversial even a generation later, but was fortunately resolved peacefully (notwithstanding incidents like the "Brooks Brothers Riot" in which Republican operatives disrupted election officials' work to ensure that a recount would fail to meet a court deadline and be nullified), despite significant bitterness and anger on the Democratic side, among whom many criticized Gore's statesmanlike concession.

Now in 2020, we may face a crisis worse than any of these previous four which, arguably, ended as best they could given the circumstances and personalities involved. No participants encouraged armed rebellion against the ultimate results. The same cannot be predicted for Donald Trump should he lose.  Would Trump accept a defeat, or encourage his minions to provoke violence and bloodshed, or refuse to leave the White House on January 20, 2021? Would Trump also refuse to cooperate with the transition planning and details that would surround the presumable President-Elect Joe Biden?

If the Electoral College margin is close, one can be certain there will be a move to have a recount and consideration of the close votes in whatever states had them.  But would the Supreme Court intervene again as in 2000, which many at the time believed was inappropriate?  Would they be fair and just, or just vote party line Republican, with two of the five Republican appointed Justices being chosen by Trump?  And if the Electoral College majority was wide for Biden, would Trump still claim it was a hoax, and declare the election a farce and null and void? 

At this point, with the growing mental instability displayed daily by Trump, would he consider declaring martial law and suspending the Constitution? What would be the reaction of the military, intelligence agencies, the Cabinet, Republicans in Congress, and the Trump base?  Would the outbreak of civil war be possible, and create an opportunity for white supremacists to have the excuse to go after Jews, African Americans, Latino Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans and those seen as liberal or progressive, in the midst of what is likely to be a continuing COVID-19 pandemic?   And the possibility that Donald Trump could provoke a war with China or Iran as a means to refuse to give up office is also a horrifying prospect.

Previous succession crises were resolved peacefully (albeit at great cost to some Americans). The nation may not be so fortunate the next time.                  

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