Was 1861 Really a Peaceful Transition of Power?

| Mon Jan. 21, 2013 5:20 PM EST

I wasn't going to bother blogging about Lamar Alexander's peculiar boast that today's "peaceful, orderly" transfer of power was uniquely American, figuring that it's just standard patriotic puffery and nothing to complain about. But Dylan Matthews reproduces the chart on the right to show that lots of countries have peaceful transfers of power, and that got my attention. I'm not sure where it came from, but the author appears to think the United States has had 43 peaceful transitions.

It's true that Barack Obama is the 44th president of the United States. But I'd say that 1861 was a decidedly non-peaceful transfer of power, leading as it did to a secession by half the country and four years of brutal civil war. Since then we've had 28 peaceful transfers—generously counting Andrew Johnson's takeover as "peaceful"—which puts us just ahead of Canada and a bit behind Australia.

Not bad, really. But as it turns out, even less out of the ordinary than it looks at first glance—though we might look better if we counted years instead of changes of government. After all, I'm not sure Italy should really get a lot of props just because their government changes every six months or so.

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