A brief history of some of America’s most fraught presidential transitions

Far from “lame ducks,” these U.S. presidents served out the end of their terms grappling with economic disasters, international crises—and even states seceding from the Union.

President Donald Trump’s final days in office have been historically tumultuous. After Trump spent months attempting to overturn the election with baseless claims of voter fraud, an armed mob of his supporters overran the U.S. Capitol to disrupt the counting of electoral college votes. On January 13—a week before the end of his term—Trump was impeached (for a second time) in the House of Representatives for inciting that insurrection.

Outgoing U.S. presidents have long been called “lame ducks,” a comment on how they are rendered weak by their dwindling days in office. Lame-duck presidents are expected to spend their waning days quietly carrying out administrative business and aiding an orderly transition as the nation looks to its newly elected leader to set a policy agenda.

But the country has seen turbulent lame-duck periods before. From its earliest days, many U.S. presidents have worked up to the last minute to push their agendas. Others have sat on their hands while the economy tanked—and even as the nation broke apart. And for most of the country’s history, they had more time to do so because inauguration took place in March and was not moved to January until the 1930s.

Here are some of the most frenzied lame-duck presidencies in U.S. history.

John Adams and the ‘midnight judges’

In December 1800, Federalist President John Adams had just lost reelection when Supreme Court Chief Justice Oliver Ellsworth resigned his post. With the end of his term only three months away, Adams acted. “Adams did not think of himself as a ‘lame duck,’” writes historian Richard A. Samuelson. “He saw no reason why he should cease to exercise the powers of the office just because he would soon no longer hold them.”

Adams and his fellow lame-duck Federalist Congress moved swiftly both to replace the chief justice and reshape the judiciary in line with their vision to expand federal powers over the states. After confirming Secretary of State John Marshall to the Supreme Court, Congress passed the Judiciary Act of 1801 that reduced the Supreme Court from six seats to five and created 16 new federal judgeships. By February 24, Adams had submitted his nominations for those roles—then signed a few other judgeship commissions on March 3, his last day in office. (Why the Supreme Court ended up with nine justices.)

Democratic-Republicans, an early political party led by President-elect Thomas Jefferson, were outraged. Seeing these actions as a partisan attempt to pack the court and subvert their agenda, the lawmakers repealed the law before it could go into effect. In the years since, Adams’ last-minute appointments have become known as the “midnight judges”—and a prime example of lame-duck sabotage.

States secede on James Buchanan’s watch

The most consequential lame-duck term in U.S. history was that of President James Buchanan, who oversaw the country’s unraveling amid tensions between the North and South over slavery. During the final months of his presidency—and in response to the November 1860 election of anti-slavery Republican Abraham Lincoln—Southern states began to debate leaving the Union.

Although Buchanan spoke out against secession in his December 3 State of the Union address, he maintained that it was “beyond the power of any president” to do anything about it—and put the blame on Northern states for agitating against slavery in the South. Less than three weeks later, South Carolina became the first state to secede.

Buchanan did take a short-lived stand when South Carolinians demanded that federal forces withdraw from Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor. In early January, Buchanan sent a ship with reinforcements to the Carolina base. Yet when Southerners fired on the ship, Buchanan deferred to Congress to respond—and neither branch of government took action.

In the days that followed, several other states broke away from the Union. By Lincoln’s inauguration on March 4, 1861, a total of seven had seceded—with four more soon to follow, forming the Confederate States of America and igniting the Civil War. (Test your knowledge with U.S. presidential trivia.)

Benjamin Harrison drives the Panic of 1893

In the late 19th century, another lame-duck president’s refusal to act during a crisis contributed to a turbulent transition. In November 1892, Republican Benjamin Harrison lost reelection to Democrat Grover Cleveland—whom he had unseated from the presidency four years earlier. The rivalry between the two was so bitter that during the transition, “the Harrison administration deliberately ran the country into the ground,” as historian Heather Cox Richardson told Slate.

The two political parties had been fighting over the economy for years. Republicans favored tariffs that protected U.S. businesses from foreign competition and passed measures like the Silver Sherman Purchase Act of 1890, which required the U.S. Treasury to inflate the price of silver by buying 4.5 million ounces per month. This measure, which led to the decline of the Treasury’s gold reserves, combined with other factors to fuel the Panic of 1893.

But even as the economy was beginning to turn under Harrison’s administration, Cox Richardson says Republicans spent the lame-duck period warning Americans that the incoming Democratic administration was going to bankrupt the country, urging them to take their money out of the stock market. In February 1893—just 10 days before Cleveland’s inauguration—the stock market began to plummet. Rather than act, Harrison sat on his hands and let Cleveland take the blame for the economic depression that ensued.

Hostilities between Herbert Hoover and FDR

In 1932, the effects of the Great Depression were rippling across the country when Republican incumbent Herbert Hoover faced off against Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the presidential election. Roosevelt campaigned and won on “a new deal for the American people” that would ease suffering by expanding the role of the federal government and “distributing wealth and products more equitably.”

Hoover opposed these New Deal policies as a threat to individual liberty—and worked to undermine them before Roosevelt could take office. As historian Eric Rauchway writes, Hoover spent the months following the election trying to persuade Roosevelt to abandon the New Deal and issue public promises to balance the budget. Hoover even asked the President-elect to co-create an economic commission, a move that the New Yorker notes would have allowed Hoover to enact his own agenda before Roosevelt’s term began. Roosevelt declined.

Hoover and Roosevelt didn’t get along personally, either, and had several contentious meetings right up until Inauguration Day on March 4, 1933. But Roosevelt would be the last president to be forced to wait until March to take office: Earlier that year—having already decided that the lame-duck period was too long—the nation ratified the 20th Amendment that moved up Inauguration Day to January 20. (The U.S. has never delayed a presidential election. Here's why it's so tricky.)

Jimmy Carter and the Iran hostage crisis

Even with a shortened transition period, the final days of recent presidencies have seen their share of turmoil. In November 1980, Jimmy Carter lost reelection to Ronald Reagan—a loss that was largely attributed to his failure to end the Iran hostage crisis. Earlier that year, a militant mob invaded the U.S. embassy in Tehran, taking 66 Americans hostage. Carter’s attempts at negotiation had failed, as had a military rescue mission.

After conceding to Reagan, Carter continued negotiations to end the crisis. As the White House Historical Association writes, “in those last weeks, the return of the hostages was almost an obsession with him.” On January 18, 1981, Iran announced that it had accepted the Carter Administration’s proposed agreement for the release of the hostages. But financial complications held up the release—which didn’t take place until 12:33 p.m. on January 20, just a half hour after Reagan had been sworn into office.

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