Nothing Less Than a Miracle: The Challenge of Constitutional Transfer of Power

“To a few of us here today this is a solemn and most momentous occasion, and yet in the history of our nation it is a commonplace occurrence. The orderly transfer of authority as called for in the Constitution routinely takes place, as it has for almost two centuries, and few of us stop to think how unique we really are. In the eyes of many in the world, this every 4-year ceremony we accept as normal is nothing less than a miracle.”

– President Ronald Reagan, First Inaugural Address

On Wednesday, January 6, 2021, both houses of Congress met to perform what has historically been a routine Constitutional task: receive and count the certified electoral votes of the previous presidential election. Article 2, Section 1 of the United States Constitution spells out the simple process that has taken place peacefully every four years since George Washington was president: “The President of the Senate shall, in the Presence of the Senate and House of Representatives, open all the Certificates, and the Votes shall then be counted.” Each state’s electoral votes are certified, a process that remains a ceremonial formality at the Capitol Building for many decades. There have been several instances when presidential election results were contested or disputed, but the peaceful transition of power prevailed. We provide examples below for students to explore.

Until this week, the Electoral College count has stood, and the House and Senate have received and counted and confirmed its votes without disruption. For two months following the November 2020 election, President Trump and his supporters made multiple legal and rhetorical challenges to its outcome, all of which were dismissed by courts around the country for lack of evidence. This last week also revealed that the president attempted to interfere in the election results by pressuring state electoral officials in Georgia (as recorded phone calls showed). In the culmination of these efforts, President Trump called on thousands to gather in Washington DC on January 6, 2021, to challenge the Electoral College count. That morning, those who gathered listened to the president urge them to march on the Capitol, where the government’s legislative branch was meeting to count the electoral votes. Within hours, a violent mob broke into the Capitol Building and threatened the lives of members of the House, the Senate, and the Vice President of the United States. The attack led to the deaths of 5 people, including a Capitol Hill police officer who was attempting to defend the lives of Congress members.

After the violence, both houses of Congress returned to complete the count of the electoral votes to try to demonstrate that the constitutional process could not be ended violently. Even after these violent events, 147 Republican members of the House and 6 Republican members of the Senate still voted to overturn the democratic votes of Americans in the 2020 presidential election. In the aftermath of the attack, consequences for those who participated in and instigated and incited violence continue to unfold. In one week, a new president of the United States, Joe Biden, will be inaugurated. How, after the first violent attack on the transition of presidential power in this country’s history, do we as Americans process these events and consider the meaning of our role as citizens in a democracy that we want to endure? We’ll explore some of these questions below.


Essential Questions:

    • What is the history of contentious presidential transitions in the United States and how were they handled?
    • How does the Constitution help us respond to violent attempts to overturn election results?
    • What is our role as citizens to protect a democratic and nonviolent transition of power in our government?
    • What can we learn from this experience about how to discern false rhetoric and violence?


A Timeline of the U.S. Capitol Attack on January 6, 2021

Address by President-Elect Joe Biden on Jan. 6, 2021

Report on Jan. 6, 2021 by Rachel Scott, ABC White House Correspondent

Senator Mitt Romney addresses the Senate after violence on Jan. 6, 2021


Background & History of Contentious Presidential Elections:

The Constitution and the Peaceful Transition of Power – The Constitution Center

America’s History of Contested Elections – Time Magazine

Disputing Democracy: 5 Contentious Elections – Pioneer Institute

A history of contested presidential elections, from Samuel Tilden to Al Gore

The Presidential Election of 1800: A Story of Crisis, Controversy, and Change – Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

The Contested 1876 Election & 1877 Compromise – Robert McNamara

The Drama behind the 1960 Election – The Constitution Center

Was Nixon Robbed? The Legend of the 1960 Election – Slate Magazine

How the 2000 Election came down to a Supreme Court Decision –

When the 2000 election result was disputed, Al Gore put his country before himself – News & Observer


Recent Articles about the events of January 6, 2021:

Trump faces mounting pressure to leave office or face impeachment for inciting Capitol mob attackWashington Post, Jan. 9, 2021

Historians and academics warn that while the Capitol riot may be unprecedented, white extremist groups are growing – Boston Globe, Jan. 9, 2021

‘It Was No Accident’: Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal on surviving the siege. – The Cut, Jan. 8, 2021

Jan. 6, 2021: Another day that will live in infamy for AmericansDeseret News, Jan. 8, 2021

Extremists intensify calls for violence ahead of Inauguration DayCNN, Jan. 8, 2021

Capitol Rioters Planned for Weeks in Plain Sight. The Police Weren’t Ready.Frontline/PBS, Jan. 7, 2021


Recent Editorials in response to the events of January 6, 2021:

The day my ‘second home,’ the Capitol, was overtaken by mob – Andrew Taylor, Associated Press, Jan. 7, 2021

Donald Trump’s Final DaysWall Street Journal, Jan. 7, 2021

Editorial: An election myth becomes a violent mobThe Oregonian, Jan. 7, 2021

Assault on democracy: Sen. Josh Hawley has blood on his hands in Capitol coup attemptKansas City Star, Jan. 6, 2021


Primary Sources:

United States Constitution, Article 2, Section 1

George Washington’s Farewell Address

Federalist No.10: “The Union as a Safeguard Against Domestic Faction and Insurrection”

The contentious election of 1800 – primary documents


Maps & Timelines:

Visualizing a Riot: Where Today’s Attacks on the Capitol Played Out – New York Magazine

A pro-Trump mob stormed the Capitol in Washington. Here’s how it happened – Los Angeles Times

Timeline of events at the Capitol, 4 dead – Associated Press

How Jan. 6, 2021 events unfolded – WWLTV video

The History of Violent Attacks on the Capitol – Smithsonian

A History of Attacks on the U.S. Capitol –


Resources for using Political Cartoons in the Classroom: 


Lesson Plans:

The History of Attacks on the U.S. Capitol– National Geographic

Insurgency at the U.S. Capitol– Education Week

Front Pages From Around the Country – Newseum

Creating Civic Spaces in Troubling Times – Illinois

Discussing Political Violence and Extremism with Students– Anti-Defamation League

Attack on Capitol– Mikva

Teaching the Days AfterDr. Alyssa Hadley-Dunn, Associate Professor of Teacher Education at Michigan State University

Civic Disobedience – Teaching Tolerance

Structured Academic Controversy– PBS

Fostering Civil Discourse: How Do We Talk About Issues That Matter – Facing History and Ourselves


Lesson Plans regarding Media & News Literacy (general):

Media Literacy Resources – Newseum

News & Media Literacy Lessons – Common Sense

Media Misinformation, Viral Deception, and “Fake News” – University of Wyoming

Evaluating Sources in a ‘Post-Truth’ World: Ideas for Teaching and Learning About Fake News – New York Times Lessons