A presidential candidate pledge can right the wrongs of an infamous day
On Jan. 6, 2021, a mob of self-proclaimed “patriots” attacked the U.S. Capitol to challenge the certification of Joe Biden’s presidential election victory in a “second American revolution” they claimed was shielded “under the banner of 1776.” They flocked to “Stop the Steal” of a “sacred,” so-called ‘landslide election victory’ from President Donald Trump that was (in his own words)“viciously stripped away from great patriots” due to unproven claims of voter fraud.
What transpired shattered the precedent of the peaceful transition of power created in America that followed every presidential election since 1796, when President George Washington did not seek a third term. It was reinforced after the bitterly divisive election of 1800 — when President John Adams stepped aside for his partisan rival Thomas Jefferson — and reinforced again and again until 2021.
While no coup actually took place and thus the historical transition of power was indeed maintained, one year later, uncomfortable numbers still cast the accused (including the now-convicted) of Jan. 6 as “patriots.” Candlelight anniversary vigils are planned for them, with their supporters even flying American flags emblazoned with words falsely attributed to George Washington.
But there’s nothing patriotic or Washingtonian about Jan. 6. That is why starting with the 2024 presidential election, the nation needs a nonpartisan pledge from every candidate to support a peaceful transition of power and accept election results.
Though the events of Jan. 6 were the most dangerous challenge to American democracy since the Civil War, they were the ugly result of a long-stemming corrosive trend. Members of both political parties have recently challenged elections. In doing so, Democrats and Republicans alike have shaken public confidence in American democracy since the 2000 presidential election.
While George W. Bush and Al Gore behaved admirably and accepted the Supreme Court’s decision, the imagery of “hanging chads” in Florida cast doubts over the election. Though he conceded, to this day, Gore hints at conspiracy.
Four years later, while then-presidential candidate John Kerry promptly conceded, many Democrats believed that massive election fraud had occurred. Michigan Congressman John Conyers raised the prospect of Jim Crow-style voter suppression. Others even urged Congress not to certify the election.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump frequently complained of a “rigged” election and refused to say if he would accept the results: “I will look at it at the time.” His shocking win prompted Democrat Congresswomen Sheila Jackson Lee (Texas), Maxine Waters (Calif.) and Barbara Lee (Calif.) to attempt to block Trump’s certification — complete with a public service announcement by former President Josiah Bartlett, better known as Martin Sheen. After his first impeachment, Trump further stoked fears by tweeting fictitious campaign posters that stretched to 2048 and suggested he’d stay in office “4EVA.” His supporters had long claimed that they ignored his obvious hyperbole and took him “seriously, not literally.” We need to take the words of a public pledge literally and seriously.
Historically, the transfer of power could not always be taken for granted. The Election of 1796 itself was deeply contentious and the rematch in 1800 between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, which became a run-off between Jefferson and his intended Vice President Aaron Burr in the House, brought about the real threat of civil war. Yet Adams willingly respected the peaceful transfer of power and Jefferson took office, pleading for the recognition that we are “all Republicans and all Federalists.” Since that moment, the tradition has stood firm.
In 1783, General Washington resigned his military commission and affirmed civilian supremacy over the military out of the “the Interests of our dearest Country.” As president, Washington surrendered power again. Adams was responsible for the first transfer between rival parties.
In August 1864, believing that the failure of his reelection was inevitable due to a military stalemate and the unpopularity of emancipation, Abraham Lincoln had his cabinet members sign pledges to work with the incoming administration. Lincoln did so knowing full well that a George McClellan administration meant peace with the Confederacy. And when Lincoln won reelection in November 1864, he did so on the back of the soldier’s vote, which was facilitated by a massive change in state voting laws during the war, allowing for soldier absentee ballots in 19 states, despite the serious problem of fraud and intimidation.
A presidential candidate pledge would borrow from the Washingtonian, Adamsian, and Lincolnian traditions. It should be done publicly as part of their campaign to respect and abide by the will of the electorate. It must not be, in the words of Washington’s farewell address, for “the will of a party.” Such a pledge does not mean that candidates and their campaigns cannot engage in legitimate lawsuits or properly ask for a recount. Ensuring public confidence in elections properly requires guaranteeing election security.
Currently, there is no candidate oath or pledge. Still, every federal employee takes an oath to support the U.S. Constitution — one not dissimilar from those of the U.S. Military. These oaths have evolved over time, and it was the military’s commitment to their sworn duty to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic” that ensured election integrity in 2021 with the Joint Chiefs’ denouncement of the attack. If they can publicly declare these sentiments and candidates can “approve” messages, why can’t they make such a pledge?
Jan. 6 was dangerous because it used the veneer of legitimate electoral concerns in order to incite mob action. Such corrosion not only threatens our constitutional structure, but also the public virtue upon which it stands. A presidential candidate pledge reaches back to the need for public virtue in our leadership.
To avert further damage in 2024, candidates should not only be prepared to swear an oath to the Constitution should they become president, but be prepared to properly abide by the will of the public as soon as they stand for election. That, after all, is the American democratic republic in action as the founders intended. Because while Jan. 6th did not destroy Washington’s precedent, it was too close for comfort.
Nicholas Mosvick is a Senior Fellow in Constitutional Content at the National Constitution Center. Follow him on Twitter @nmosvick. Craig Bruce Smith is a historian and the author of “American Honor: The Creation of the Nation’s Ideals during the Revolutionary Era.” Follow him on Twitter @craigbrucesmith. All views are the authors’.