Franklin Roosevelt was elected president four times. In the elections of 1946, Republicans gained twelve seats in the Senate and fifty-five seats in the House to gain control of Congress, the first time this had occurred since FDR had taken office. They wasted little time in proposing an amendment to the Constitution limiting presidential tenure to two terms. No Republican voted against the amendment; the Democrats who voted for the amendment were largely conservative southerners.
In the debate in Congress, both supporters and opponents of the amendment argued that their respective positions were the better fit for constitutional tradition. Supporters argued that Roosevelt had violated the customary two-term limit that had existed going back to Washington and Jefferson, and opponents argued in response that the custom was actually to leave the option of multiple terms available. Most of the debate did not engage Hamilton’s argument against a term limit in Federalist 72.
Source: Congressional Record, 80th Congress, First Session, Volume 93, Part 1 (Washington D.C. : United States Government Printing Office, 1947), 842-43, 844, 853-54.
Mr. McCORMACK. Mr. Speaker, this is one of the most important questions that any Member of this body will have to pass upon and I hope each Member will determine the question in accordance with his conscience. It is not my purpose to discuss politics in connection with the proposed amendment to the Constitution, an amendment which will not have any effect upon you and me of this generation but which might have a very important effect upon generations to come after you and I are dead and gone. If this amendment is incorporated in the Constitution, it will make the Constitution rigid. It ties the hands of future generations of Americans and deprives them of the opportunity to meet any problem that might confront them.
Of course, we have lived through the experience ourselves, but I can picture two generations from now, or one or three generations from now, when Americans may be enveloped in a war with their back to the wall. We will not be here. We will have passed on. But we will have imposed this prohibition upon them. They may be with their back to the wall with a President approaching the end of his second term. Let us assume the people of that future generation have complete confidence in their President. I do not know what his party may be. I do not care. That future President will be compelled to terminate his service as President of the United States when he may be the best man qualified to lead the people of our country at that time in meeting the crisis that confronts them. I beg of you as we sit here today to realize just what we are doing. I believe in custom. A custom is one thing, but a rigid prohibition is another thing. If this amendment becomes a part of the Constitution – and you cannot say, “We are sending it to the several State legislatures”; that is not the question; that is not the answer – if this amendment becomes a part of the Constitution, it imposes upon Americans for all time until and unless that Constitution is reamended the rigid hand of a rigid prohibition that no matter what crisis may confront America in the future when a President’s second term is drawing to a close they cannot reelect him so that he may continue his service to the Nation which might be vitally necessary at that particular time.
I think it is too great a risk to take. For myself, I do not want to take it. Let us see what some of the eminent men of the past have said on this question. George Washington did not want a first term, even. He accepted it reluctantly as a patriotic duty. He expected to serve about two years. He reluctantly served a second term because of the conditions abroad. He withdrew voluntarily at the end of his second term. But what did Washington say? This is what he said in a letter to Marquis de Lafayette on April 28, 1788, in relation to the second term. This is probably the only quotation of George Washington in relation to this question which I think can be found. He said in discussing or writing about the limitation of the terms of a President: “Under an extended view of this part of the subject, I can see no propriety in precluding ourselves from the service of any man who on some great emergency shall be deemed universally most capable of serving the public.”
What about Thomas Jefferson? Thomas Jefferson, historically, is the father of the two-term custom. There is no question about that. Thomas Jefferson, however, only wanted one term. He served a second term because of the calumnies hurled upon him by the Federalist Party and the effect they were having abroad at the time. He served patriotically. He could have had a third term. As we look back in history, I think we would all agree as to that. Jefferson retired at the end of his second term, but back in the days of the Constitutional Convention he believed in rotation in office. That was the big issue then. But what did Jefferson say about this? Jefferson himself said: “There is, however, but one circumstance that could engage my acquiescence in another election; to wit, such division about a successor as might bring in a monarchist. But this circumstance is impossible.”
In other words, Jefferson himself recognized an emergency might exist where he would run for a third term, and in those days the emergency was the danger of a division existing that might establish a monarchy in our country. So Jefferson himself definitely saw that there was a distinction between custom and rigid prohibition. He recognized that in case of an emergency he might have been compelled, patriotically, to run for a third term, but he said this circumstance was impossible, because the danger of a monarchy did not exist at that time. But he said if there was such a danger he would have run for a third term.
John Quincy Adams said it should not be incorporated in the Constitution as a rigid prohibition. . . .
In no part of the Constitution will you find any limitation, any prohibition except against Congress itself: Congress shall pass no law abridging the right of free speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assemblage. You will find limitations in the Constitution, but they are limitations upon Congress; and those limitations were imposed to protect the rights of individuals to assure that the legislative body would not take away the fundamental rights that our people believe in and for which the framers of the Constitution fought. This amendment is a limitation upon the people. This is not a limitation upon Congress. It is a limitation upon the action of the people of the future, no matter what the danger may be, no matter how urgent it may be that the second-term President continue, he cannot if this amendment becomes a part of the Constitution. O Mr. Speaker, it is too grave a danger to take this step, too grave a danger for us who will be dead at that time in all probability, to impose such a limitation upon future generations of Americans. Let their hands remain unshackled. Let us not put them into a strait-jacket, a strait-jacket that might be the factor resulting in the destruction of our country at some time in the future. Leadership is important. Leadership is the big thing and a President in his second term in the future might be the leader who will bring our people to victory. His going out at such a time might be the difference between victory and defeat. We are tying the hands of Americans in the future from exercising in a grave emergency the judgment which they may deem is for the best interests of our country.
Mr. REED of Illinois. Mr. Chairman, the Presidential tenure of office is not a political question. It is a constitutional question of the highest order. In one form or another it occupied the attention of the Constitutional Convention from the introduction of Mr. Randolph’s resolutions on May 29, 1787, until the adoption of the report of the Committee on Style submitted on September 12, five days before final adjournment.
In one form or another it has been before the people or the Congress, or both, ever since 1803 – more than 140 years – when resolutions introduced after the election of 1800 came before the House of Representatives. Indeed, it has been calculated that between that date and 1889 more than 125 amendments were proposed to change the term of office of the President or to fix the period of eligibility; and it is estimated that almost as many have been introduced since.
It is hardly necessary to remind Members of Congress that when the matter of the Presidency was considered in the Convention the members of that body repeatedly expressed the importance of placing some limitation upon the tenure of the office. That was particularly so when it was contemplated that the Chief Executive was to be chosen by Congress and that long continuance in office would lead to autocracy, intrigue, or cabal. For a long time, the sentiment prevailed that the President should be limited to a single term of single years. When it became apparent that choice by the legislature would not be adopted, the plan of the Electoral College with a provision for a fixed term of four years was substituted.
Members of the Constitutional Convention feared autocracy. They feared perpetuation in the Executive Office. They had but emerged from war against a king with unlimited tenure of office. They had seen their State legislatures dissolved by royal governors appointed by a king. And they proposed that there should be no such usurpation of power in the Chief Executive they were about to create. And while they did not expressly prohibit reeligibility, they were not without the belief that the Electoral College, as they contemplated its operation, would provide an adequate check against perpetuation in office.
Regardless of the inadequacies of the Electoral College, however, the principle of a limitation upon the Presidential tenure came to develop by tradition. Even though it be contended that Mr. Washington’s refusal to accept a third term was based upon circumstances other than those intended to establish a precedent, the fact remains that his action was regarded as a precedent by his immediate successors, and the tradition of only two terms of 4 years each became attached to the Presidential office.
Jefferson expressed this sentiment in a letter dated January 1805, in which he wrote:
My opinion originally was that the President of the United States should have been elected for 7 years, and forever ineligible afterward. I have since become sensible that 7 years is too long to be irremovable, and that there should be a peaceable way of withdrawing a man in midway who is doing wrong. 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 determine to withdraw at the end of my second term. The danger is that the indulgence and attachments of the people will keep a man in the chair after he becomes a dotard, that reelection through life shall become habitual and election for life follow that. General 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.
In his first annual message, December 1829, President Jackson said:
I would therefore recommend such an amendment of the Constitution as may remove all intermediate agency in the election of the President and Vice President. . . . In connection with such an amendment it would seem advisable to limit the service of the Chief Magistrate to a single term of either 4 or 6 years.
And he repeated that recommendation in several succeeding messages.
In his letter of August 18, 1884, accepting the nomination for the Presidency, President Cleveland wrote:
When we consider the patronage of this great office, the allurements of power, the temptations to retain public place once gained, and, more than all, the availability a party finds in an incumbent whom a horde of officeholders, with a zeal born of benefits received and fostered by the hope of favors yet to come, stand ready to aid with money and trained political service, we recognize in the eligibility of the President for reelection a most serious danger to that calm, deliberate, and intelligent political action which must characterize a government by the people.
And I would recall to my friends on the other side of the aisle that the Democratic National Convention, held in Baltimore, Md., in 1912, adopted the following resolution:
We favor a single Presidential term and to that end urge the adoption of an amendment to the Constitution making the President of the United States ineligible for reelection, and we pledge the candidate of this convention to this principle.
This historical feeling and tradition against unlimited tenure in the Presidential office, Mr. Chairman, is not based upon idle fear. The power and prestige of the President of the United States has grown constantly and increasingly since the first inauguration of Mr. Washington. Today, the President of the United States is perhaps the most powerful individual in the world. It is within the spirit of democracy that proper constitutional restraints be placed upon his tenure of office.
A. What is argument for the amendment? What is the argument against it? Does either argument presuppose the existence of a modern presidency?
- John William McCormack (1891–1980) was a Democratic Representative from Massachusetts from 1928 to 1971. He was also Speaker of the House from 1962–1971.
- Chauncey William Reed (1890–1956) was a Republican Representative from Illinois, serving from 1935 to 1956.