Madison and Me: Hamilton, Roosevelt and the 22nd Amendment

In Federalist Number 72, Alexander Hamilton makes a strong case against term limits for the president. These days, of course, we are used to the idea of a president serving only two terms, as limited by the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution. Why, then, did Hamilton argue in favor of essentially unlimited terms for the chief executive, and why did no president actually serve more than two, other than FDR?

Hamilton made essentially five arguments against term limits:

1. Less inducement to good behavior. If one knows one’s time is limited in the job, where’s the incentive to behave properly, not having to worry about getting re-elected?

2. A greater inducement to corruption. Again, knowing that one is going to lose one’s job anyway, why not take advantage of any “special favors” during the limited time in office?

3. Term limits would deprive the public of the very men who have the experience to lead best. Why replace the seasoned veteran with a relative newcomer, simply as a matter of procedure?

4. Continuity in crisis. Hamilton argued that replacing the president in times of crisis — especially in war — would be potentially disastrous. Crisis is no time for on-the-job training.

5. Term limits would serve as a destabilizing factor, artificially compelling a change in administration that the people may not necessarily want.

Near the end of the paper, Hamilton adds, in response to counter-arguments: “ …if he [the president] had been fortunate or adroit enough to conciliate the good-will of the people, he might induce them to consider as a very odious and unjustifiable restraint upon themselves, a provision which was calculated to debar them of the right of giving a fresh proof of their attachment to a favorite. There may be conceived circumstances in which this disgust of the people, seconding the thwarted ambition of such a favorite, might occasion greater danger to liberty, than could ever reasonably be dreaded from the possibility of a perpetuation in office, by the voluntary suffrages of the community, exercising a constitutional privilege.”

In other words, could the strong attachment of the people (or even a small number of the people) lead to civil unrest if their favorite was not re-elected simply because of term limits?

So, how has this worked in practice? Washington set an unofficial precedent by refusing a third term, which he would no doubt have won, though it was likely due to his age that he refused, rather than a more altruistic motive. In any case, Jefferson, Madison and Monroe all adhered to the two-term precedent, as well. A few presidents attempted to serve a third term — Grant, Cleveland, Theodore Roosevelt and Wilson — but all failed to do so. The only president to successfully be elected to more than two terms (ultimately winning four times) was Franklin Roosevelt.

Roughly two years after FDR’s death, the Congress proposed the 22nd Amendment, limiting the president to two full terms, or ten years in office, if he should serve less than two years of his predecessor’s term. The only presidents who could have served more than two full terms since the amendment was ratified in 1951 were Truman (who was president at the time and was specifically exempted from its provisions, yet chose to adhere to the two-term precedent, anyway) and Lyndon Johnson, who served the last 14 months of JFK’s term, but refused re-nomination in 1968. Ford, who took over from Nixon, served more than two years of Nixon’s term, and was therefore ineligible to be elected more than once (a moot point, as he lost in 1976).

So, was Hamilton’s warning about artificial term limits warranted? After all, no president for 150 years successfully ran more than twice. Those who tried all failed. On the other hand, was Hamilton right about not “changing horses in mid-stream”, as FDR was repeatedly elected during the Great Depression and World War II? If Hamilton was right and it was that important to keep a sitting, experienced president through a great crisis (or two, in FDR’s case), why was the country so eager to limit the presidential service so soon after FDR’s death?

There have been several attempts in Congress to repeal the 22nd Amendment, but none gained any traction. Why do you suppose this is? Are we, as Americans, perhaps still a little leery about long-serving chief executives, perhaps reminiscent of English kings? Are we “wired for change” and don’t like to see ourselves as a country (as represented by the president) as stuck in the mud, so to speak? But if that’s true, why do we allow members of Congress to serve in perpetuity? Why not terms limits for them, if it’s good enough for the president? Is there that much of a difference in the way we see the president and the way we see members of Congress? After all, no president but one ever successfully ran for more than two terms, yet members of Congress regularly serve for decades.

Discuss, as you make ready to vote this November…