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January 16, 2021

Note to readers: During these difficult days for many people, Clare and I have been considering what we might do to help those in need. We have decided to continue our support for the charitable nonprofit organizations that are serving our community. Each week in this space, I will ask you to consider helping one charity. This week, please volunteer or donate, as you are able, to Angels Charge Ministry which helps women transition from incarceration to a new way of life, 95 Ashley Street, Spartanburg, South Carolina 29307, (864) 529-5472.

Scott Simon of National Public Radio closes his Saturday Morning Edition with a regular feature, “Simon Says.” I recall one of Simon’s commentaries from several years ago. This is what Scott Simon said.

“The American Revolution triumphed with General George Washington’s victory at Yorktown in 1781. Throughout history, many conquering heroes — Julius Caesar, Napoleon Bonaparte, Fidel Castro — have used great victories to seize power.

“But George Washington went home to Mount Vernon.

“He was drafted to return to preside over the Constitutional Convention of 1787. The Founders had sharp differences over how to balance states’ rights in a strong federal government that could stand against British, French, and Spanish imperial ambitions. But they all trusted Washington as the most balanced of men.

“As historian Joseph Ellis wrote, ‘Franklin was wiser than Washington, Hamilton was more brilliant, Jefferson was more intellectually sophisticated, Adams was more engaging …. Madison was more politically astute, but Washington was still the greatest. And they would all agree to that.’

“The Electoral College unanimously elected George Washington the first president of the United States. He ran for a second term, reluctantly, in 1792. And then, in 1796, Washington did something astonishing and, up to that time, unprecedented for a powerful, popular leader. He stepped down. He declined to run for a third term, and he returned to Mt. Vernon. [The Constitution did not limit the number of terms a President could serve until after the four-term administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.]

“There were people who believed that only a strong, longtime authoritarian ruler could keep a new country stable in a risky world governed by emperors, kings, and czars. They felt the United States deserved no less.

“But Washington remembered that he had asked his army to fight for a republic. And when he stepped down, he put his young country’s future into the hands of every man with a vote. [Women were given the right to vote with the passage of the 19th Amendment on August 26, 1920.]

“We’ve seen many countries rise up and hold free elections, only long enough for a charismatic, autocratic ruler to win them and hold on to power.

“We all know that democracy can be messy, corrupt, and disappointing. But every few years, an event like a revolution reminds us why people are willing to struggle and die for it.

“George Washington could have been a king. He decided to be a citizen. No crowds massed. No bands played. There is no statue or plaque to mark the spot. But it was as momentous a decision as any president — any ruler — has ever made.”

Scott Simon made these comments nearly ten years ago.

Now at the beginning of 2021, we have poignant examples of leaders who have seized power, sometimes even under the guise of democracy. Two especially come to mind for me. Both Vladimir Putin of Russia and Bashar al-Assad of Syria are well-known world leaders, and both have been in power for many years.

Putin is the current President of the Russian Federation. He was Prime Minister from 1999-2000. He was first elected President in 2000 and served until 2008. Because of term limits, he became Prime Minister again from 2008 to 2012. Then Mr. Putin was elected President again in 2012. He is also Chairman of the United Russia Party, the ruling party.

Bashar al-Assad is the current President of Syria, holding the office since 2000. He is also the commander in chief of the Syrian Armed Forces, General Secretary of the ruling Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party, and Regional Secretary of the party’s branch in Syria. He is the son of Hafez al-Assad, who was President of Syria from 1971 to 2000.

These two men have not done what George Washington did. Once in power, they kept it, even over the objections of many of the people they were elected to represent.

In our American democracy, we expect our outgoing President to step down just as the new President takes office. There have been times in our country when presidential transitions did not go so well. In 1800, John Adams left Washington in a snit before Thomas Jefferson took the oath of office.

Following the Watergate scandal and facing conviction on Articles of Impeachment by the Congress, Richard Nixon decided to resign as President of the United States at noon, August 9, 1974. Vice President Gerald Ford would become President. The formal Nixon-Ford transition began when Nixon informed Ford of his decision to resign at 11 A.M. on August 8, only a few hours before he told the nation. Ford had just 25 hours to prepare to assume office, making the Nixon-Ford transition the shortest of any that did not involve a President’s death.

On March 4, 1933, Franklin Delano Roosevelt became the 32nd President of the United States. Herbert Hoover was quoted as saying of the President-elect that he was “very badly informed and of comparatively little vision.” The two were photographed together even though Hoover had vowed never to have his picture made with his successor.

Professor Edward Ayers writes, “No transition from one living president to another was as dangerous as that between James Buchanan and Abraham Lincoln in 1861.” After Lincoln’s election and before his inauguration, seven Southern states seceded from the United States and formed a new government, the Confederate States of America. As Lincoln prepared to take office, eight other slave states debated whether they would join the Confederacy. Ayers concludes, “The greatest crisis in the nation’s history grew out of a distended transition between a lame-duck President who refused to act and an inexperienced President facing unprecedented challenges.”

According to H. W. Brands, the presidential transition that took place in 1829 was like no other in American history. Andrew Jackson’s inauguration was a hostile takeover of the government. Jackson had been denied victory in 1824 in what Jackson called a corrupt bargain between John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay. The 1828 election was bitter and dirty. Jackson verbally attacked Adams as a fraud and an aristocrat. The Adams side called Jackson an emperor and his wife, Rachel, a slut. Rachel died under the strain, magnifying Jackson’s anger at his opponents.

Jackson won handily, and his supporters surged to Washington. To the residents of the capital, these ruffians were little more than a horde of barbarians. They swarmed the White House with muddy boots at Jackson’s inauguration, spoiling the carpets, breaking the furniture, and smashing the china. Jackson fled the celebration to avoid personal injury.

So, the changing of Presidents, intended to be orderly transitions, have not always gone smoothly, including the Presidential transition this year. Still, our first president, George Washington, set an example for all who follow him in holding the office that is considered by many to be the most powerful position in the world.

In 1796, Washington did something astonishing and, up to that time, unprecedented for a strong, popular leader. He stepped down. He declined to run for a third term. He returned to his home and became a private citizen.

It was a great decision!

Many of us will watch the events of the coming week as they unfold. Monday, January 18, is Dr. Martin Luther King Day. It will be a time to remember the long, ongoing struggle for civil rights for many Americans. For many of our citizens, the National Holiday will be a day of service.

Wednesday, January 20, is Inauguration Day. According to tradition, President Trump is expected to leave the White House and depart Washington, D.C. At noon, President-elect Biden will take the oath of office administered by Chief Justice John Roberts.

My prayer will be for an orderly and peaceful transition of power. I will pray for Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden, for their families, and those who have served and will serve in their administrations. I will also pray for the House of Representatives and for the Senate, and for all who serve in the Judicial Branch. I will pray for our servicemen and women, for law enforcement officers, and for healing and peace throughout this land.

Saturday, March 4, 1865, in his second inaugural address, President Abraham Lincoln spoke just a little over a month before the end of the Civil War and his subsequent death.

This is what the President said. “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”  Please join me in that prayer for our country.

O, God grant that we may be “one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”  

Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, a teacher, a pastoral counselor, and a retired pastor.
He can be reached at

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