One of my children's history textbooks claimed that Adams' peaceful concession to Jefferson following the US election in 1800 was the first peaceful transfer of power between rival executives in written human history. I don't have the book at hand to quote exactly, due to a move of house, but does this claim (or a similar adjacent claim) have merit?

At the time of the US's founding it was generally true in Europe that the executive of a state was a hereditary monarch, and transitions between rival dynasties were violent. The governors of the colonies which became the states which became the United States were mostly appointed by the Crown before the revolution, though I vaguely recall that some governorships were locally elected. I am murky on the interval where the federal government was described by the Articles of Confederation.

I am aware (as were the Founders, whose classical education was stronger than mine) of the Roman Cincinnatus, who assumed dictatorial powers in a crisis and abdicated afterwards. But that seems materially different from Adams, who until the autumn of 1800 was campaigning vigorously to remain in power. I don't know as much about classical Greek democracy, but it seems to have emphasized the deliberative body and had a relatively weak executive.

  • 6
    The British executive changed between Whigs and Tory in 1763. I suspect other northern European powers might have as well. Kings got replaced by their sons etc when often the son disagreed with them e.g. George I-IV in Britain So the question needs to have more detail – mmmmmm Jan 11 at 19:19
  • 1
    @mmmmmm Those sound like plausible counterexamples. Could you elaborate in an answer? – rob Jan 11 at 19:36
  • 2
    Not really as those were obvious ones without research. But I expect there are many examples in at least the century before. Many dynasties died out and were replaced e.g. Hapsburgs gaining Flanders. I have no idea re Egypt Persia, India China I think you need to make it clearer what change in executive meanschange of executive – mmmmmm Jan 11 at 20:13
  • 9
    Nearly every change of Consuls in the Roman Republic prior to Sulla. Next we go back to Athens, Thebes, and Sparta. When does it stop? Only when written records fail us. – Pieter Geerkens Jan 11 at 20:57
  • 2
    @PieterGeerkens I'd like to agree to your comment 100%. On first reading of the Q at least. Alas, the concept/quote to examine is missing, and I wonder how much such words like "started", "globally", and "rival" feature in the original? Much like the musings about "weak Greek executive": how are they relevant to define the question? (at)rob: Please refine your question and elaborate on your priors & your prior research; currently it is too unclear what you want to know, as the face-value A to this would be just "no! (long list follows)" – LаngLаngС Jan 11 at 22:27

I think this is probably one of those things that is technically "true" as long as you very carefully define your terms. (I have seen a similar claim made which focused on the election rather than the executive power). Some counterexamples - and arguments why they might not be counterexamples - just thinking about say post-1400. (I don't know the classical period well enough to comment there)

  • British elections during the 18th century certainly changed the power in the legislature and governed who would be prime minister - North's faction came into power in 1768, and Pitt's in 1784, but the key question is "executive". Executive power wouldn't pass completely to the prime minister and cabinet for a while yet - it was still partly in the hands of the Crown. They were undeniably peaceful, at least by 18th-century standards.

  • Electoral monarchies - where the Crown does not pass by hereditary succession but is selected by a group of nobles - had certainly been in existence for a long time, and while some bitter wars happened as a result of these, there were certainly cases where it happened peacefully. However, these usually followed the death of the first monarch, and so might not count as a "transfer".

  • A number of monarchs have voluntarily and peacefully abdicated during their lifetimes, meaning a peaceful transfer to a new executive, but these abdications usually involved power passing to someone selected, nominated, or approved by the outgoing monarch, and so would not count as "rival".

  • There is also a question of scale. This sort of transfer almost certainly happened in smaller polities which were controlled by oligarchies, like the various free cities of the Holy Roman Empire, the Italian city-states, etc - there was an executive leader or small council of leaders, which periodically changed hands between factions or families. In Venice, for example, the Doge and Council of Ten were both elected. Not all will have been peaceful, of course, but no doubt many were. However, you might choose to discount these as they were "not countries" - although in the case of Venice, for example, that is certainly a bit shaky. Where oligarchic groups are involved, it might also be tricky to identify a single point where power was transferred.

So you can come up with reasons why any historical counterexample might not count for the question as defined. I suspect this shows up that it's not a very meaningful statement...

  • This is just the sort of analysis that I was looking for, and I thank you for it. – rob Jan 14 at 0:02

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.