Term Limits and the US Constitution

Term limits and the US Constitution. 

By Hugh Akston

The Founders of our nation did not include any term limits in the Federal Constitution. This is a question that has puzzled many people over the years. It is really strange when you consider that the Articles of Confederation and all State constitutions all had term limits in them. There were limitations on length of rule at the State level, especially for the executive. Often, the requirement was not a simple cap on the number of years in office, but rather a requirement that there be some rotation between administrations. In other cases, the constitutions prohibited an individual from serving more than a certain number of years. All told, it was common practice for officials to be required to vacate their office after a certain period of service. 

 

For example: 

  • The governor of Virginia “shall not continue in that office longer than three Years successively, nor be eligible until the expiration of four Years after he shall have been out of that office.” 
  • Delaware limited re-election of the executive “who shall continue in that office three years, and until the sitting of the next general assembly and no longer, nor be eligible until the expiration of three years after he shall have been out of that office.” 
  • Georgia limited the governor to hold office only one of every three years. 
  • New York senators were not eligible for two consecutive years.  
  • North Carolina’s governor could only serve three out of every six years. 
  • Pennsylvania required congressmen to only serve four out of every seven years. 
  • South Carolina a governor who served two years was ineligible for the next four. 

In many state Constitutions even the offices of “The sheriffs and coroners of the respective counties shall be chosen annually, as heretofore; and any person, having served three years as sheriff, shall be ineligible for three years after;” 

 

While exact requirements varied by state, the general sentiment was that, as the Massachusetts constitution put it, “In order to prevent those, who are vested with authority, from becoming oppressors, the people have a right, at such periods and in such manner as they shall establish by their frame of government, to cause their public officers to return to private life.” 

 

The Founding fathers understood the corrupt nature of men. They were students of Locke and Hume; it was the “Age of Enlightenment” they had decided to go to war to overthrow a hereditary monarchy; with a chief executive for life, A legislature of Nobility for life and a Representation of commoners who were elected but ineffective. They understood the problems of men holding power for long times and becoming removed from touch with the common man. 

 

Men of upright, benevolent tempers have too many opportunities of remarking, with horror, to what desperate lengths this disposition is sometimes carried, and how often the great interests of society are sacrificed to the vanity, to the conceit, and to the obstinacy of individuals, who have credit enough to make their passions and their caprices interesting to mankind.  Alexander Hamilton, “Federalist 70,”  

 

George Washington argued that federal powers “are likely, in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government.” “Washington’s Farewell Address,” 

 

Both the federalist and the Anti-Federalist agreed on the nature of man and that power corrupted men. Both sides agreed that men needed limits on the power they could wield.  

 

“By the confederation it is provided, that no delegate shall serve more than three years in any term of six years, and thus, by the forms of the government, a rotation of members is produced: a like principle has been adopted in some of the state governments, and also in some ancient and modern republics. Whether this exclusion of a man for a given period, after he shall have served a given time, ought to be ingraf[t]ed into a constitution or not, is a question, the proper decision materially depends upon the leading features of the government:…This is the case with our state governments, and in them a constitutional rotation is unimportant. But in a government consisting of but a few members, elected for long periods, and far removed from the observation of the people, but few changes in the ordinary course of elections take place among the members; they become in some measure a fixed body, and often inattentive to the public good, callous, selfish, and the fountain of corruption.” Letters from the Federal Farmer #11, Anti-Federalist Papers. 

 

Even the federal government as it stood limited the service of elected officials: the Articles of Confederation mandated, “no person shall be capable of being a delegate for more than three years in any term of six years.” 

 

The bulk of contemporary legislation in early America, then, favored at least some rotation within an office, if not strict limits on the length of time an individual could serve. The elimination of term limits in the Constitution, a departure from the common practice of the time, provoked an extraordinary outburst among the opponents of the new system. Already fearful of the greater powers the Constitution endowed to the federal government, anti-Federalists argued that the new system allowed long-serving officials to become a virtual aristocracy, divorced from the will of the masses. 

 

“But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary.” James Madison, “Federalist 51,” 

 

Anti-Federalists argued that, indeed, men were not angels, but the proposed Constitution’s functionality seemed to require elected officials to be abnormally upright men. 

 

“It is on a supposition that your American governors shall be honest, that all the good qualities of this government are founded; but its defective and imperfect construction puts it in their power to perpetrate the worst of mischiefs, should they be bad men.” Patrick Henry, June 5, Notes on the Debates in the Federal Convention. 

 

So if both sides saw the dangers of limitless power and lifetime positions of authority; why are there no Term limits in the constitution? Many saw that in times of trouble a highly competent man could continue through a crisis and be relived of office after the emergency was over, and that term limits should be an informed electorate and a ballot box. 

 

God Bless. 

 

Just my thoughts for today.

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Comment by John Tripp on August 26, 2012 at 5:09pm

JB - That is a great point about the potential down side of term limits and one I share.  We can easily end up throwing the baby out with the bathwater here.  I can see no problems in simply inserting a supermajority vote to re-elect someone for a third term or whatever limits would be put on a time in office.  60% popularity by their own constituents deserves a serious look.  I am considerably more concerned about this being applied to the POTUS elections.  Too much power in the urban areas for this idea to work on a national election.

Comment by JeansBrother on August 24, 2012 at 9:09pm

Joel,

I agree with your assessment about the need for an awake, informed and engaged electorate.  I adopt your assessment to further strengthen my opinion that we need to make our senators and representatives work from "home" and congress via secure communications with everything recorded and a matter of public record except those matters that are today routinely classified in the interests of national security.  Having our representatives in our districts on a daily basis would certainly provide a better opportunity for an awake, informed and engaged electorate: their accessibility would be greatly increased over what it is now.

Comment by Joel Williams on August 24, 2012 at 7:22pm

JeansBrother,

I have heard arguments on both sides of the term limits issue and I can agree with your point regarding "grooming" politicians because it seems to me that is what happens today.  Politicians on both sides of the isle engage in superficial partly line rhetoric so they can fly the liberal or conservative flag.  The outcome they desire is re-election at any cost so they can remain in power.  For all the jousting on the floor of either chamber, it is really a mutual back scratching that occurs.  Politicians make their way through the seniority levels serving on and eventually chairing this committee or that one and  major candidates are then chosen from the pool of the loyal and groomed to be the next Speaker, Majority Leader, President and so on.  I'm not sure what term limits could possibly bring about that would be different in a grooming sense than what we have today.  I think if we remove the lure of power we would have a better chance of having people go to Washington to serve the best interest of America.  I can also argue that if we were to have an awake, informed and engaged electorate, they would keep the process pure via the ballot box.  In that case we would not need term limits.  I don't hold much hope for that outcome.

Comment by JeansBrother on August 24, 2012 at 6:12pm

Joel,

I also believe in some form of term limits.  But, as I was reading your post, it occurred to me that term limits might actually have the unwanted consequence of expanding the politics of today.  My thought is that to preserve their power, the parties would actually expand their efforts to groom politicians by grooming more of them as replacement parts in their power machines.  It may be that the only real way to maintain control of our distant representatives is to make them work from home and congress via the technology we have today that makes it possible.  Our representatives get to see their constituents every day and it gets more expensive for the lobbyists to spread from Washington into 435 districts and 100 senate locations.

Comment by Joel Williams on August 24, 2012 at 10:27am

Hugh, great piece and very, very well done.  With regard to your response to your question in the last paragraph, it seems the founders never anticipated that the electorate could be as uninformed and unengaged as they are today.  I personally view term limits as the only sure way to correct the damage being done by career politicians.  I cannot find it written anywhere that the founders ever conceived of our having politicians go to Washington for life. They thought that people would come and serve a term or two and go back to their farms or businesses.  I read that Washington, DC, was built on a swamp to make it inhospitable for that reason.  Term limits would take away the politics of today, which is re-election at any cost, and then our elected officials would be there to do the people's work.

Comment by JeansBrother on August 17, 2012 at 5:28pm

As much as the morality and integrity of the founders was a strength that freed us from a king and provided a road map for future generations based in natural law, in the case of term limits, they may also have been a weakness.  Men of good moral character and integrity cannot always conceive that those who do not possess these qualities to the same degree as they do, might actually gain power and retain it for its own sake. Perhaps that is why our form of government is wholly unsuited to any but a moral and righteous people who know the people representing their interests in government.

Comment by John Tripp on August 17, 2012 at 1:12pm

Mangus - Jeferson wanted a mandate in the constitution itself,  calling for these conventions every twenty years.  I'll find the exact quote somewhere in this pile of books in front of me.  I beleive it is in the " Politically Incorrect Guide to the Constitution ".  I hope so,  the words are printed larger there !  :-)

Comment by John Tripp on August 16, 2012 at 8:29am

So much can be re-learned from the lessons taught by the Founding Fathers that it would be impossible to list even the general catagories in one post.  I know from previous attempts to list every intance of a leftist's treason,  I inevitably find a dozen or more after the fact in my memories.  The Founders got their knowledge by experience and closely examining seven thousand years of written history on the human condition and governance.  They realized the gift given them by God,  the last lands on this earth to start fresh and get it right this time.

The only thing I can add to the examples given in this essay is Jefferson's desire to keep all governance to the lowest levels possible.  He wrote about going all the way down to the individual townships as the most powerful government in that specific area,  having power over any county,  state or federal government organization.   A community's interests are generally the same,  and this attitude only makes sense.  The federal government would still have war powers and the power to put levies on foreign imports and make treaties.  And of course the term limits mentioned above included in the outline.   One of the great wrongs committed by the Framers of our constitution,  in my view, was Jefferson's "exile " to France as Emmissary to that country during a time the federalists knew the convention would be held,  and keeping his undeniable arguements off the floor at convention hall was the motive for his promotion to our man in France.  He was the worst diplomat imaginable,  just by way of his bluntness in telling exactly what was on his mind,  reguardless of consequences f hurt feelings.  His complete disgust of France itself completes the picture.  Getting him out of the debates was mandatory for the big government nabobs to get what they desired.   Most of us use his doctrine in arguements against policies made over the course of our short history.

Term limits also falls into the catagory of common sense,  and the lessons passed on over countless generations - all saying power corrupts.  When looking at the statistics on incumbants being re-elected,  and their accompanying pork brought home to their constituents,  it is clear beyond reason why limits have to be imposed.   A clear end to a representative's tenure would ensure his interests stayed with the country first.

Common sense also tells us that due to the prohibitive costs of elections,  it is not feasible to have them every year.  I would argue the representaives in the House make longer terms.  They are more in tune with the specific differences in local populations than a Senator would be.  Make each a four year term, IMO,  and the country and each state would benefit.

Just a thought from Jefferson which we can ponder - He thought a constitutional convention should be held every twenty years,  to fix all the imperfections made in haste in the original document and the wrongs committed over the course of every two decades.  He was talking about changing pieces of the foundation of the structure of the constitution,  not just making new Amendments,  but changing the power structures themselves if need be.   I would suggest making specific rules for the Senate and Executive Branch more explicit than the original words,  and making them binding for all time,  or at least until another convention.  The ability of the Senate to make inane rules as the majority at the time chooses is ludiacrous.  It is those same rules which allow one man,  Harry Reid,  to rule as a tyrant in his own world.  One of the reasons for this was also to compensate for the new technologies and sciences which history tell us is inevitable.   My question would be - could we even get enough consensus in today's population to ratify a single ruling document ? 

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