Power moves history. Core to our kind is that most of our noted and perhaps notable history is the result of the movement of power from one set of humans to another. From the printing press to Napoleon it is the movement of power which writes the memorable stories of our past. This is sharply illustrated in the turmoil cause by what would seem a simple problem to solve, succession.
The pages of our history are filled with turmoil caused by the transition of power and it’s a nearly unique occasion when those changes aren’t soaked in blood. Let’s look at a couple examples of succession.
Constantine is perhaps the most well know Roman emperor during the Byzantine age. He was the founder of the first Christian empire and shaped the resulting course of history so significantly that he certainly earned his title “The Great”. Constantine is a particularly interesting example of succession because the emperor before him, Diocletian, was a exception to the normal rule of bloody succession. Diocletian was neither overthrown nor did he die of natural causes while still emperor. In rare occasion, Diocletian, in an attempt to solve the problems of succession, retired, passing the empire to four men, Galarius in the east with a sub-emperor and in the west Constantine’s father, Constantius, also with a sub-emperor.
Unfortunately it didn’t take long for the bloodshed to return. Soon after his retirement the temptation of power ate through the thin peace Diocletian created in his empire and it fell into chaos. The resulting years of battle and betrayal saw Diocletian forced out of retirement, a period where none of the four legitimate emperors of the Roman empire controlled Rome, and finally ended with Constantine winning the battle of Milvian bridge and becoming the single ruler of the empire.
With sole control, Constantine succeed in restructuring the empire leaving it upon his death a prosperous ordered state. What he did not do was solve the problem of the transfer of power. Succeeded by three ambitious sons, the infighting started almost immediately resulting in none of his sons staying alive long enough to consolidate their power and Constantine’s nephew Julian eventually becoming sole emperor. Julian almost immediately set about reforming the empire back to Paganism undermining one of his uncle’s most notable accomplishments, an empire unified by a single religion.
As you can guess Julian didn’t solve the problem of succession either. In fact, take any point in history, if you see consolidated power, you’ll find bloody, chaotic power transfer. Rinse, Repeat and you have the fuel for the movement of human history.
So it is with this set of history glasses that we see a surprising anomaly that smacks us in the gob so hard we have to take notice.
John Adams was the first man in the history of the United States of America to peacefully receive the transfer of executive power. Interestingly the man he succeeded happened to be the first to hold the executive power of the United States. Washington, peacefully transfered his executive, military power, peacefully and with no bloodshed to John Adams, surprisingly Adams succeeded the same to Thomas Jefferson.
Since we’re talking about gob smackingly surprising, how about this? This peaceful transition has happened 44 times spanning more than 200 years of human history. We should note this isn’t some back water no name nation, it is THE most powerful, wealthiest nation in history. A nation that holds the military power to destroy the world and the wealth to feed it.
It begs we ask the question why? Why would the executive leader of this nation peacefully pass power from one person to the next 44 times, without bloodshed, when humans have proved for the last 5000 years we are incapable of such? Has our nature changed in the past 200 years? Of course not. No, the reason far simpler and easier to understand. It has to do with the concentration of power. Here is where we can begin to understand the genius of the founding US fathers and the expectations we should have if we allow power to concentrate in this nation.
The simple formula is this; the more concentrated the power of a people group, the bloodier the succession. In other words the fewer people who hold a nation’s power the greater the chaos as result of its transfer. It is the simplest economics, many grappling for a consolidated, rare resource and you get blood. The genius of the US founders was their deep insight into history and human nature. They understood this formula and structured the government to avoid this problem. Their solution was so simple it seems surprising. They structured the government to recognize every citizen’s sovereignty and made the leaders servants of those sovereigns. To further hinder the natural tendency for humans to consolidate power, they spread national power to sovereign states, and split the power of the central government to different branches.
In essence they made the resource of national power abundant to all by dispersing it to every citizen sovereign. This created a nation in which a person was empowered to pursue happiness as he/she saw fit and if someone tried to consolidate that power, it was so dispersed it would be difficult to accomplish. It took almost supernatural courage, sacrifice and unanimity for these men to avoid falling into the old temptations of history.
In the end they have gifted us with something completely unique in the history of the world. This same history should serve as a warning for us as well. If we allow power to be consolidated, step away from the structure of our founders and give up our individual sovereignty, we will suffer the same bloody fate humans have for thousands of years. The fate of a civil war every decade if we’re lucky, more often if we’re not, and the slow agonizing death of our nation.