History of Presidential Transitions: Has It Always Been Like Now?

Bill Petro
9 min readJan 18, 2021

We think that our most current change in Presidential administration is contentious. But our national history has seen worse. And it goes back over 200 years to the third Presidential election, and several since then.

Presidential Transition: from John Adams to Thomas Jefferson

Perhaps the most contentious election in all of U.S. history was that of 1800. The incumbent President, Federalist John Adams — who was the second President, having served as Vice President to the first President George Washington, ran against Democratic-Republican candidate Thomas Jefferson — Adams’ Vice President at the time — and Aaron Burr.

It was the first election where there was a change in the Presidential political party.

Jefferson had won, but the election was so tumultuous that Jefferson called it the “Revolution of 1800.” In a sense, it was a lengthy, bitter rematch of the 1796 election between the pro-French (think: French Revolution) and pro-decentralization Democratic-Republicans under Jefferson and Aaron Burr, against incumbent Adams’ pro-British and pro-centralization Federalists.

  • From Bad to Worse

But to make matters worse, it was the first of the so-called “contentious elections” in American history; there was no clear winner based on citizens’ votes. In those days, electors could cast two votes, with no distinction between a vote for President and Vice President.

Due to the election’s contentiousness, many voted for Burr due to their strong feeling of “never Jefferson.” But Burr and Jefferson tied with 73 electoral votes each, and Adams had only 65 votes.

The Constitution required that a deadlock of this nature Congress had to determine the victor. On the 36th ballot, Jefferson finally won. This led to the creation of the 12th Amendment of the Constitution in 1804, which provided for the president and vice president elections to be separate in the Electoral College.

The contest between these two Founding Fathers of the American Republic was like a battle of giants between former friends and collaborators who were now bitter enemies. The contest was filled with propaganda, smear…

Bill Petro

Writer, technologist, historian. Former Silicon Valley tech exec. Author of fascinating articles on history, tech, pop culture, & travel. https://billpetro.com