Today is the birthday of two previous U.S. presidents: James K. Polk (1795) and Warren G. Harding (1865). As is true for every date this week, it has also been a fairly frequent presidential Election Day. Franklin Pierce won on this date in 1852; the brilliant but ill-fated James A. Garfield was elected on Nov. 2, 1880.
Two 20th century presidents, Harry Truman and Jimmy Carter, were selected by voters on this date. Truman was already president, having been elevated to the Oval Office upon the death of Franklin Roosevelt, but 1948 was when he won in his own right. Jimmy Carter, by contrast, defeated a man who had inherited the presidency. He came to office on a pledge of never lying to the American people -- and pretty much kept it.
In 2004, George W. Bush, the first U.S. president of the 21st century, won reelection on a Nov. 2.
Incoming and outgoing presidents aren't always warm and fuzzy with each other, but they are civil (and usually more than that) while handing over the keys to the White House. Jimmy Carter and Gerald R. Ford, for instance, became close friends late in life, as did John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Perhaps our leaders are inspired by the spirit of the first U.S. president, who effected his leave-taking as a military man on this date.
Gen. George Washington said goodbye to his troops outside Princeton on Nov. 2, 1783, a moment I've covered before. To be honest, I often write about it on this date. It's certainly fitting this year: George Washington's grace and wisdom during a transition have rarely been as necessary to the civic life of the country as they are in 2020.
Pursuant to an act of Congress upon the completion of the Continental Army's mission, which was nothing less than a military victory over the British Empire, Gen. Washington painstakingly wrote out the orders to his men from his headquarters at Rocky Hill, N.J. Referring to himself as "commander-in-chief" -- his official title before the new nation ever had a president -- Washington said he was using the prerogatives of rank to wish them a "long" and "affectionate" farewell.
In his nearly 1,600-word order, George Washington sounded as though he could scarcely believe what he and his officers and troops had accomplished together. "The unparalleled perseverance of the armies of the United States through almost every possible suffering and discouragement for the space of eight long years," he told his troops, "was little short of a standing miracle."
Warming to his point, Washington then asked rhetorically: "Who has before seen a disciplined army formed at once from such raw materials? Who that was not a witness could imagine, that the most violent local prejudices would cease so soon, and that men who came from the different parts of the continent, strongly disposed by the habits of education to despise and quarrel with each other, would instantly become but one patriotic band of brothers?"
Washington was doing more than flattering his officers and soldiers. He was reminding them of the differences they had put aside, while imploring them to retain the spirit of unity that had made such disparate men into an effective fighting force. In this, he was foreshadowing his farewell address as president. Were his words all in vain? It's easy to make that argument: Civil war was in the new nation's future, over a profound issue the Founding Fathers had not confronted -- and neither Washington's foreboding, nor his impassioned entreaties, could forestall the fighting.
Yet he gave future generations a straightforward roadmap for avoiding such a terrible conflagration. It is up to us whether we follow it or not. Yes, putting aside regional, racial, ideological, and partisan differences is hard. This grim truth was underscored as recently as the aftermath of 9/11, when our national concord proved fleeting. It has proven difficult for many Americans to do in every year of Donald J. Trump's presidency as well. But George Washington's advice is as valid now as it was on Nov. 2, 1783, when he practically beseeched of his men -- and, by extension, the people of the United States of America -- "that with strong attachments to the Union, they should carry with them into civil society the most conciliating dispositions."
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.