In what immediately became the headline moment at the third and final presidential debate on Wednesday night, Republican candidate Donald Trump sparked widespread outrage by saying he would keep the nation "in suspense" about whether he will accept the results of the election next month.
"But, sir, there is a tradition in this country—in fact, one of the prides of this country is the peaceful transition of power and that no matter how hard-fought a campaign is, that at the end of the campaign that the loser concedes to the winner," said moderator Chris Wallace. "Not saying that you’re necessarily going to be the loser or the winner, but that the loser concedes to the winner and that the country comes together in part for the good of the country."
Indeed, the nation's ability to regularly and peacefully replace the President was, to the world of the 1700s, one of the most striking elements of the American experiment. As John Adams himself wrote to his wife upon his becoming the second president in 1797, the transfer of power was “the sublimest Thing ever exhibited in America."
But while Adams was the first to experience that transition, it wasn't until four years later that the principle was put to the test.
After all, George Washington didn't want to run again for the 1796 election and Adams kept power within the same party. In 1800, on the other hand, the United States saw its first hotly contested election and its first transfer of power between political parties. The result was close, and it also left Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr tied, with the House spending a week deciding who would be President. (At the time, the Vice President was whoever came in second.) It was easily conceivable that the entire system would fall apart, but instead Jefferson became President and his rivals—the incumbent Adams as well as Burr—accepted the result. As Jefferson would later write, the "revolution of 1800" was a big deal:
[It was] as real a revolution in the principles of our government as that of 1776 was in its form; not effected indeed by the sword, as that, but by the rational and peaceable instrument of reform, the suffrage of the people. The nation declared its will by dismissing functionaries of one principle, and electing those of another, in the two branches, executive and legislative, submitted to their election.
This principle—that the nation declares its will by voting, and the functionaries of government peacefully accept the choice—has even been upheld when perhaps the candidate might have wished to do otherwise.
For example, some believe that the 1960 presidential election was subject to substantial enough voting irregularities that Richard Nixon should have won. (In fact, there is no concrete evidence either way.) But, even though it was an extremely close race and some of his supporters urged him to fight the result, Nixon decided that, in keeping with tradition, it was better to accept the fact that early returns indicated John F Kennedy had won. In a late-night speech to supporters, he explained why:
As all of you in this room know, and as all of you millions who are listening on television and radio realize, it is normally the custom for a candidate for the Presidency…not to appear until after the decision is definitely known, and all the votes are counted beyond doubt. However, I have been keeping some pretty late hours recently as some of you have…I know too that many who are listening in the Eastern part of the United States will find that it is now about 3:15 in the morning…
I want to say that one of the great features of America is that we have political contests, that they are very hard fought, as this one was hard fought, and once the decision is made, we unite behind the man who is elected... I want Senator Kennedy to know, and I want all of you to know, that certainly if this trend continues, and if he does become our next President, he will have my whole-hearted support.
That tradition even held true in 2000. As TIME's David Von Drehle has pointed out, that year's concession from Al Gore to George W. Bush was a long time in coming not because Gore refused to accept the results of the vote, but because there was no result to accept yet. In fact, when it became clear what the result would be, Gore followed the precedent of hundreds of years' worth of elections, as he peacefully accepted the outcome of the vote. As he explained in his concession speech, that was what patriotism required:
Almost a century and a half ago, Senator Stephen Douglas told Abraham Lincoln, who had just defeated him for the presidency, ''Partisan feeling must yield to patriotism. I'm with you, Mr. President, and God bless you.'' Well, in that same spirit, I say to President-elect Bush that what remains of partisan rancor must now be put aside, and may God bless his stewardship of this country. Neither he nor I anticipated this long and difficult road. Certainly neither of us wanted it to happen. Yet it came, and now it has ended, resolved, as it must be resolved, through the honored institutions of our democracy.
That doesn't mean the tradition has always been honored by everyone. In 1860, after Abraham Lincoln was elected, Stephen Douglas (the runner-up for the popular vote) had cause to utter those words later quoted by Gore, as he conceded the result. But, even before the election took place, the South had already warned the nation that a victory by Lincoln and the Republican Party would be unacceptable in their eyes.
South Carolina seceded from the Union that December, declaring that the North was "united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery." Rather than accept the electoral result, the state convention announced that "public opinion at the North has invested a great political error" and that South Carolina would not go along with the outcome. The rest of the Confederacy would soon follow South Carolina's lead. By April, the Civil War had begun.