On Thursday, Delaware’s losing and winning candidates will meet in Georgetown, for Return Day, a tradition since 1791. Officials used to announce state electoral results at this unity carnival while serving what an 1888 state history called “all kinds of edibles … opossum … rabbit meat,” and “OX ROAST SANDWICHES fresh from an all-night open pit barbecue.” Such festivities restore civility, emphasizing the patriotic bonds that unite us despite the partisan differences that divide us.
Although most candidates learn their fates on election night, this state holiday still celebrates the common ground that often needs rebuilding after intense campaigns, while now serving roast beef instead of ox. As rivals parade together in antique cars or horse-drawn carriages and party leaders bury a hatchet together, literally, they act out a healing ritual we all could use.
Gracious concessions, even if insincere, also legitimize the results and our democracy. Stephen Douglas urged the South to accept Abraham Lincoln’s victory in 1860. William Jennings Bryan telegrammed William McKinley in 1896 acknowledging that the people’s “will is law.”
Al Smith delivered the first real presidential concession speech in 1928. Overlooking Republicans’ anti-Catholic bigotry, Smith respected majority rule, saying that Herbert Hoover would not be “the president of the Republican Party but the president of the United States.”
After close elections, losers have often made self-sacrificing calculations to concede for the sake of the nation. Perhaps surprisingly, Richard Nixon acted nobly in 1960. Republicans were so convinced that John Kennedy had won fraudulently that President Dwight Eisenhower offered to raise money for a recount. Nixon realized a “recount would require up to half a year,” undermining the “legitimacy of Kennedy’s election” in ways that “could be devastating to America’s foreign relations.” Refusing to “subject the country to such a situation,” Nixon gave the speech every candidate dreads delivering, promising Kennedy “my wholehearted support.”
After losing in 2008, John McCain graciously acknowledged “the special significance” of Barack Obama’s election. Days later, McCain quipped: “I’ve been sleeping like a baby. Sleep two hours, wake up and cry. Sleep two hours, wake up and cry.”
No one expects Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton to jaunt around together in some Delaware jalopy right after Election Day. Still, Americans need their leadership. Buried hatchets can be retrieved eventually: The main mission of American politics remains ensuring effective governance. Rather than undermining democracy by grumbling about rigged or stolen elections, the candidates must follow Delaware and apply the balm of patriotism to the wounds partisanship has gouged into the body politic.
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Gil Troy is a professor of history at McGill University and the editor, with Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Fred Israel, of “History of American Presidential Elections, 1789-2008.”