Federalist 72; Opposing Term Limits in the Presidency

Federalist 72 is a fascinating read for us today. Here, Hamilton discusses the five main reasons why the Founders opposed term limits in the office of the Presidency. Actions such as the negotiation of treaties and managing of the country’s finances require some stability.

In particular, Hamilton points out the possible whipsaw of policy where a new President would want to undo every policy of the last President because “the less he resembles him, the more he will recommend himself to the favor of his constituents.[1] Every time there is a change in administration it will cause the “new President to promote a change of men to fill the subordinate stations”. Hamilton thought that this wholesale change in policy and staff would cause “ruinous mutability” that would be disruptive to the nation.

If there are no term limits, the President would be more inclined to perform his duties well because that would be key to him remaining in office, whereas a person who is term limited might be less inclined to perform his duties well. Even if the term limits enabled the President to run again after a period out of office, Hamilton argues that would “have nearly the same effects, and these effects would be for the most part rather pernicious than salutary.”

The first enumerated objection would be for the person of the President to have reduced “enhancements to good behavior”. Hamilton argues that it is the “MERITING” (emphasis in the original) of another term that encourages a person to perform to the best of their ability. If the personal interests of the President match the incentives of the office, human nature indicates that the outcome would be beneficial to both.

If the President saw that he would be unable to complete tasks in the time he was in office, he would be less inclined to pursue longer term projects. A just President will want to see their plans carried all the way to fruition. A shorter term will cause the President to view “the negative merit of not doing harm, instead of the positive merit of doing good.”

The second objection would be that a person who is term limited would be tempted to make the best of the position personally, rather than to take into account the needs of the country. With limited time he might make the “most corrupt expedients to make the harvest as abundant as it was transitory”. Human nature tells Hamilton that a person who might serve multiple terms would find his “avarice might be a guard upon his avarice.” His desire to attain another term would temper his desire to profit from his position. Human nature tells us that a person in power tends to want to retain it. Hamilton points out:

An ambitious man, too, when he found himself seated on the summit of his country’s honors, when he looked forward to the time at which he must descend from the exalted eminence for ever, and reflected that no exertion of merit on his part could save him from the unwelcome reverse; such a man, in such a situation, would be much more violently tempted to embrace a favorable conjuncture for attempting the prolongation of his power, at every personal hazard, than if he had the probability of answering the same end by doing his duty.

In such a man, says Hamilton, the possibility of prolonging his position of power through doing his duty is preferable to the alternative.

The third enumerated disadvantage would be to deprive the country of the experience of someone in that role. While it is perfectly reasonable for a President to be voted out of office by state electors who put him in that position, that is not the same thing as losing experience because of an arbitrary time limit.

Fourthly, there is the possibility of excluding a person during a time of crisis. If the nation were at war for instance, the arbitrary time limit for removing the President could result in a change of leadership at an extremely inopportune moment.

And lastly, term limits would result in instability in the office that most requires stability.

It is important to point out here that we tend to use the term Founding Fathers and to assume that there was miraculous unanimity in their thoughts on these subjects. That is absolutely untrue. The deliberations for the new constitution were held behind closed doors because the debate was very contentious and the Founders knew that leaked drafts would doom the project.

In the end, what we have are a series of compromises that reflect the best that they thought they could achieve, AND that which they thought the states would approve. Hamilton believed that the President should be elected for life. In this paper we see a compromise between that position, and those who feared the office of the President would morph into an unchecked executive with the power to act unilaterally.

Alas.

  1. All quotes are from https://guides.loc.gov/federalist-papers/text-71-80#s-lg-box-wrapper-25493464

 

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3 thoughts on “Federalist 72; Opposing Term Limits in the Presidency”

  1. It is true a term limit for President was not installed in the Constitution as first written. Of course, at the time, they were used to Kings and folks did not live as long as they do now. It was Roosevelt’s 4 elected terms that made folks reconsider this and which ultimately led to the 21st Amendment. I agree with that Amendment btw…. Can you imagine 4 terms of Clinton or Obama (both of which could have happened)?

    Reply
    • not much difference when you have 8 years of Bush/Cheney Repubicans who opposed Trump, followed by 8 years of Obama/Biden, and now Biden. Same cast of characters, or different characters who oppose the Trump voters, which is half of the voters.

      Reply
      • Twenty-eight years of Bush-Clinton-Bush-Obama. An entire generation WASTED.

        Here’s my modest proposal on TL’s, both individual and family…
        1. No officeholder shall be eligible for reelection to their current office if they have held it a number of years equal or greater to the current voting age, or if running and winning another term would result in exceeding this cap.
        2. No individual shall be eligible to run for an office previously held by that individual’s:
        A. Parent, step-parent or parent-in-law, whether by birth or adoption;
        B. Aunt or uncle, whether natural, step- or -in-law;
        C. Sibling, whether natural, step- or -in-law, by birth or adoption;
        D. Spouse, current or former;
        E. Child, step-child or child-in-law, whether by birth or adoption.

        Reply

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