How the Baton is Passed (Review)

Historians in the News
tags: presidential history, presidential transition, Transfer of Power

Ms. Chervinsky, a presidential historian, is the author of The Cabinet: George Washington and the Creation of an American Institution.

The Peaceful Transfer of Power: An Oral History of America’s Presidential Transitions

By David Marchick & Alexander Tippett with A.J. Wilson


In October, at the last meeting of the Jan. 6 Committee, vice chair Rep. Liz Cheney solemnly repeated a point she had been making since that tumultuous day: democratic institutions “only hold when men and women of good faith make them hold regardless of the political cost.” As the Capitol insurrection dramatically illustrated, that is never truer than during presidential transitions, when the nation is at its most fragile.

When lawyer and historian David Marchick agreed in 2019 to head the Partnership for Public Service’s Center for Presidential Transition, he couldn’t have known what was coming. But he knew the zeitgeist: he and his colleagues launched a 48-episode podcast, “Transition Lab,” on the history, memory and policy of presidential transitions. His new book, “The Peaceful Transfer of Power,” draws on that project, collecting oral histories from historians, filmmakers, writers, policy experts and former officials from both Democratic and Republican administrations, exploring the best and worst transitions in U.S. history and suggesting reforms that might improve the process.

Mr. Marchick and his interlocutors confirm what most of us know—the president of the United States sets the tone for a transition. But he also demonstrates that its execution, and the fate of the nation, often depend on individuals not memorialized on statues or in museums. Students may not learn about these historic actors, but they leave their thumbprints on history in a big way.

Edwin Stanton, for example, may have been instrumental in preserving the Union. Between Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860 and his inauguration the following March, seven states seceded, President Buchanan was “paralyzed by dysfunction,” and the president-elect had to be smuggled through Baltimore to Washington for his safety. Stanton, later Lincoln’s war secretary, was Buchanan’s attorney general. In that role, the historian Ted Widmer tells Mr. Marchick, he prevented the Southern cabinet secretaries from turning over the nation’s capital to the rebels before Lincoln could arrive.


Read entire article at Wall Street Journal