It has been practised throughout the history of the republic, during which time it has revealed some of the most profound examples of humility and patriotism.
More often than not this process involves an outgoing president who is stepping down rather than having been voted out. One-term presidents are rare, only nine of the 45 holders of the office prior to November’s election served less than four years before being voted out.
One of these, the late George H W Bush, left a note on the Oval Office desk for his successor Bill Clinton on his final day as president. The short five-paragraph message stands as a monument to patriotism.
“You will be our president,” he wrote, underlining the word ‘our’. “Your success is now our country’s success. I am rooting hard for you.”
These words were directed at a politician who had humiliated him in an election, yet Bush’s grace and support typified his character and the nature of presidential succession.
Sixteen years later his son George W Bush, in the final days of his term, would enter negotiations over an historic bailout of the nation’s automotive sector and tell his economic team: “I told Barack Obama that I would not let the automakers fail. I will not dump this mess on him.”
These are but two recent examples of a proud tradition that his persisted uninterrupted for close to three centuries. That is until now.
As President Donald Trump leaves office today, this tradition is in tatters. He is the first president to refuse to concede an election defeat in American history.
Having lost last November’s election comfortably, he has propagated baseless conspiracy theories about widespread voter fraud, sentiments that have been lapped up by his passionate support base and which manifested themselves in the ugly scenes of violence witnessed earlier in the month with the storming of the Capitol. The violence, incited by Trump, left five people dead and struck a hammer blow to the unity of the nation.
Impeachment proceedings are under way against him and enjoy bipartisan support. If convicted, he could potentially go to prison. In any event he leaves office as he entered it – under a dense cloud of controversy.
However, President Trump is not the only holder of the presidency to leave office in disgrace and under the threat of legal action.
Forty six years ago Richard Nixon, under intense pressure from both Republicans and Democrats, resigned his office after the Press and the US Justice Department uncovered links between the burglary of Democratic offices at the Watergate Hotel in Washington to his own re-election campaign.
Having effectively ended the war in Vietnam, opened diplomatic relations with China and overseen an American become the first man in history to walk on the moon, he was forced to resign over a third-rate burglary.
Upon resigning, he told the nation: “I have never been a quitter. To leave office before my term is completed is abhorrent to every instinct of my body. But as president I must put the interests of America first.”
Nixon will forever be associated with Watergate, but his actions did attract respect among the public. Following his resignation, he was frequently called upon by his presidential successors for advice and spent his later years travelling the world as an elder statesman. Most notably, he formed an unlikely relationship with Bill Clinton, who sought the Californian’s counsel frequently.
There will, however, be no such scenario for Trump. Aside from his ever-dwindling circle of sycophants, it is hard to imagine anyone seeking his insights into anything other than real estate deals.
There will be no words of wisdom and encouragement left on the Oval Office desk this time around. Instead he leaves president-elect Joe Biden with an unenviable inheritance of a badly-damaged democracy, civil unrest, decreased respect on the international stage and a public health emergency that has killed more of his countrymen and women than any other nation in the world.
Indeed Trump has so polarised the nation that as Biden is sworn in armed troops will be deployed in Washington and every state capital for fear of more nationalist insurrection.
More than two centuries ago the second president of the United States, John Adams, in a letter to his wife, Abigail, wrote: “May none but the honest and wise men ever rule under this roof.”
While his successors may have enjoyed varying records of success, all in some way embodied this description, until Trump.
Let us hope when Biden is sworn in today, that mantra is restored to glory.