Trump’s refusal to commit to “accepting” defeat — some historical perspective

Ignorance and anti-Trump bias continue to prevail in the denunciations of Donald Trump’s statement that he doesn’t know yet whether he will “accept” the result of the presidential election. For example, Michael Gerson asserts that Trump’s lack of belief in the fairness of our electoral system “is disqualifying” in a presidential candidate.

Gerson notes that the fairness of our electoral system has been “hard-won through a long history of strife and courage.” But if the system has become unfair to a significant degree, the hard work will be undone unless those victimized by unfairness speak up.

The claim that Trump has broken faith with American tradition by not promising in advance to “accept” a loss would be news to Rutherford B. Hayes and Andrew Jackson. Throughout his term as president, Hayes was commonly referred to as “His Illegitimacy” because of the intense controversy that surrounded his victory in 1876. (Without getting into the weeds of that election, Hayes’ victory seemed unfair at the time. However, given the abuses against Blacks who wanted to vote Republican — the party of Hayes — in the key Southern states around which the electoral controversy centered, it may well be that Hayes would have won a completely fair election).

As for Jackson, if complaining about election unfairness is disqualifying, “Old Hickory” should never have been president. In 1824, he was denied the presidency when the election went to the House of Representatives. Four candidates had split the electoral vote. Jackson had a plurality, but lacked a majority.

In the House, Henry Clay, one of the four candidates, helped swing the election to John Quincy Adams who had run second, well behind Jackson in the popular vote. Adams went on the name Clay his Secretary of State.

Jackson and his followers cried “corrupt bargain” throughout the four unhappy years of Adams’ presidency. In the 1828 election, Jackson romped to victory over Adams.

I don’t think it has ever been established that Adams and Clay made a corrupt bargain, and there is reason to doubt that they did. In those days, the Secretary of State position usually went to the most prominent politician affiliated with the president’s party or faction (a tradition that was revived when President Obama made Hillary Clinton his Secretary of State). Henry Clay fit that description in 1825.

Moreover, Adams and Clay had worked together as diplomats. They spent well over a year (if my memory serves) in Belgium negotiating an end to the War of 1812.

To be clear, they didn’t spend the entire period negotiating. The British engaged in shameless stalling. During the down time, it is said that Adams and Clay saw each other only for a brief time each day — the time early in the morning when Adams rose to write in his journal and Clay returned to their hotel in Ghent after a night on the town.

Still, the two respected each other. Clay was the natural choice to be Adams’ Secretary of State without regard to the House election. Moreover, it may well have been that most members of the House simply preferred Adams to Jackson.

As for Trump, he erred politically by not stating categorically, as he did in the first debate, that he will accept the election result. But his refusal to say this was not the egregious offense against American democracy that his detractors make it out to be.


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