Limitless Terms, Unlimited Power

Yeah, if I were in Congress, I’d like to be on the unlimited plan too.  But for me at the moment, it just costs too much….of my freedom.

“The service for 8. years with a power to remove at the end of the first four, comes nearly to my principle as corrected by experience. And it is in adherence to that that I determined to withdraw at the end of my second term. The danger is that the indulgence & attachments of the people will keep a man in the chair after he becomes a dotard, that reelection through life shall become habitual, & election for life follow that.  Genl. Washington set the example of voluntary retirement after 8. years. I shall follow it, and a few more precedents will oppose the obstacle of habit to anyone after a while who shall endeavor to extend his term. Perhaps it may beget a disposition to establish it by an amendment of the constitution.”

~ Thomas Jefferson, letter to John Taylor, 06 January 1805


Thank heaven for George Washington, because God only knows where we’d be now if he’d not been the type to readily relinquish power after two terms in office.  I mean, seriously, the Revolutionary generation probably would have happily elected Washington for the rest of his natural life.  Given our problems with the lack of rotation in political offices now, just think how much worse off we’d be if Washington hadn’t been the man he was.  But then, in his day, political service was just that – service to one’s country.  In the Revolutionary era and for some time afterward, being in public service was nearly as arduous as military service.  The pay was terrible, there were long periods away from families and home and businesses, and the job was frequently thankless despite being very important to the infant American nation.  Many Presidents would leave the Presidency infinitely poorer than they had entered it.  Jefferson and Madison were both nearly bankrupted by being unable to attend to their estates while serving.  Washington, who had desperately wanted to retire to his farm after the war (rather than be President) would die less than 2 years after leaving office.  Other Presidents would go on to be killed in office.  So the Presidency was not exactly the most glamorous or desirable job a century or two ago.

So for those of you really lost right now because you thought the two-term Presidency was an original part of the Constitution, let me remind you of your 9th grade government class.  The founding fathers wrote no term limits for anyone into the original Constitution.  Confused?  In your defense, unlike the rest of your historical memory lapses, this one is somewhat legitimate.  Our first President, George Washington, established the tradition that a President steps down after serving two terms.  That tradition was followed until the Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  Roosevelt was elected to an unprecedented four terms as President, though he died in office after serving only a few months of his fourth term.  Reacting to FDR’s long stint in office, the 22nd amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1951, made the tradition of two Presidential terms into law.  Why?  Well, simply put, having anyone control the highest office in the land for too long has always been understood to be a danger to our political system.  All the ancient models of democracies and republics in Greece and Rome had deteriorated into dictatorships.  Of course, the key reason for that is the elected bodies of officials became so cumbersome and ineffective that the people sought relief in popular, charismatic figures who could use the power of the executive to cut through the red tape of the entrenched political bureaucracy.  Sound familiar?

The founders sought to rectify this issue not with hard and fast term limits but with the intrinsic ideological belief that public service was in fact, service.  And they made the jobs undesirable in terms of pay and location.  They didn’t realize our system would become one where politicians remained in any political office indefinitely.  They also did not realize that the nature of the electoral cycle would demand constant reelection, and therefore constant pandering in order to continue to be reelected.  This is because they had envisioned citizen-politicians who stepped down after a term or two out of necessity (or desire) to return to their homes and lives, just as Washington had.  This also means the President and Congress actually got things done during their first terms because they were not worried about running for a second term (or a third….or a tenth).  But why should we expect public servants to actually be most concerned with serving the public rather than anything else, including their own reelection?  It is ridiculous that there are no lifetime limits on Congress.  But, heck, we tolerate it, we reelect them time and time again.  Do we honestly expect someone else will safeguard our rights more than we should as citizens?  Maybe once upon a time our public figures did, but then again, there aren’t any Washingtons in Washington today.  Which is why the founders left it for us to be the judge.  Now all I have to do is find another citizen who actually has some judgment.

Res Publica

Documentation without Representation:

Thomas Jefferson’s Papers, Letter to John Taylor 06 January 1805

Digital Copy Courtesy of the Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia Library

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