No person shall be elected to the office of the President more than twice, and no person who has held the office of President, or acted as President, for more than two years of a term to which some other person was elected President shall be elected to the office of the President more than once. But this Article shall not apply to any person holding the office of President when this Article was proposed by the Congress, and shall not prevent any person who may be holding the office of President, or acting as President, during the term within which this Article becomes operative from holding the office of President or acting as President during the remainder of such term. - The Twenty-Second Amendment, 1947
The Twenty-Second Amendment may seem like an “obvious” amendment. Of course we should put term limits on the President, the chief executive of the most powerful country in the world, but it wasn’t so obvious at the time of the founding.
During the Constitutional Convention in 1787, the framers debated vigorously about the role, powers and mode of election for the president. The position of the executive was steeped in controversy coming off the wretched experience Americans had had under King George. However, even with that bad taste in their mouths, the delegates introduced the idea of a lifetime appointment by Congress for the role of president and this proposal lost six states to four states, with James Madison and Alexander Hamilton supporting it.
Most Americans would look at this narrow miss today and balk. However, at the time, given the context and their theoretical understanding of human nature and government, their reasoning was sound. And, in the end, the sound reasoning of those who disagreed with them balanced out their concerns to create a hybrid system for the president.
One of the primary concerns that every framer shared was this: how to create an executive office, imbue it with power considered legitimate by the citizenry and then ensure that this power would be peacefully passed on to a successor. In other words, how could they create a system that would ensure peaceful transitions of power?
Historically speaking, peaceful transitions of executive power were and still are hard to come by. Maintaining liberty requires not only a limited government but it also requires stability in government. Maintaining stability is one of the greatest struggles free societies face. A strong dictatorship at least has that–stability and little to no chaos and anarchy. Of course, the price paid for stability is liberty.
So, how could the framers create an executive with enough power and longevity to preserve and promote stability while also ensuring that the role wouldn’t turn tyrannical? How could they ensure that when the President left his position, the citizenry wouldn’t riot and revolt in response to the incumbent’s successor?
The convention was a constant tug-of-war, full of men who feared the death of liberty by anarchy arguing with men who feared the death of liberty by tyranny.
So, the men fearing the death of liberty by anarchy believed that anarchy would be pacified by a life-time appointment for the President. Further, they saw no major threat to liberty by this life-time position because the role of president was significantly limited. The power and role of the federal government was also significantly limited, meaning the power of the chief executive of this limited federal government could only go so far. Why feel threatened by such a small role (albeit an important one for stability)?
Further, because these framers feared anarchy, they possessed a deeply held distrust of the citizenry. They feared the mob or “factions”, and given the issues they were facing under the Articles of Confederation, their fears were warranted. Thus, they believed that giving the citizenry–or mob–the ability to directly select their chief executive was dangerous to liberty and should, instead, be left to their direct representatives to decide. Hence, these founders proposed a life-time appointment by Congress.
Fortunately, the convention was full of numerous experiences, expertise, backgrounds, ideologies and government philosophies forcing everyone involved to give and take a little as they formed this new government. So, the fellow framers of these anarchy-fearing framers, the ones more afraid of the loss of liberty to tyranny than anarchy, were not pleased with this [life-time Congressional appointment] proposal and countered with their own. They feared that a president elected by Congress would end up bargaining with Congress or become beholden to Congress, especially if he were limited to a certain length of time in office per term. Further, they feared that any individual holding power for too long, in an executive position, would be apt to abuse it.
So, the framers compromised.
- Elect the president via the electoral college–giving the states, people and Congress a say.
- Limit his time in office to four years a term so that he can’t operate without the fear of repercussion in the next election cycle.
- Allow the people/states to decide if he gets to hold office for life by electing him indefinitely if they so please. Hence, no term limits and potential stability.
Well, their first President, George Washington, was a magnanimous man, commanding the respect of most Americans and bringing much needed legitimacy and respect to the position. And he stepped down after two terms.
I hope you, my readers, recognize the significance of this choice. How many chief executives in world history have ever volitionally relinquished their power before they had to? And then to be succeeded by another leader peacefully?
And yet, this convention that Washington established of leaving office after two terms was maintained for 150 years. Please let the magnitude of that reality sink in. For 150 years, men in power chose to give up that power to respect an unwritten political convention. And the country somehow maintained stability and peaceful transitions of power throughout most of that 150 years (The Civil War, of course, being the glaring exception).
Until a certain president named Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Until the horrors of the Great Depression and WWII slammed into the U.S. and fear drove the citizenry to find solace in a single figure of power. And FDR didn’t step down after two terms. No, he ran and was re-elected and then he ran again and was re-elected again.
During the panic of WWII, few in power batted an eye at the breaking of a previously held 150 year convention. However, once the dust settled, emotions calmed and reason re-asserted itself, politicians and citizens alike began to fear that mere convention was not enough to keep the power of the president in check–especially if he can keep running and win. What if another president, especially in time of crisis, continued to run and win? Would this elongated hold on power threaten liberty?
Some argued that the ability to be re-elected indefinitely was important for times like the 1940s. No one has time to worry about finding a new president in a time of crisis. And yet, the power and role, not only of the president, but of the federal government had grown immensely since the founding era. Allowing a president to possess such power, potentially indefinitely (which, of course, is a sad commentary on the lack of education, knowledge and investment the citizenry has in being term limits in and of itself), especially in a time of crisis, could result in major abuse of power.
But wouldn’t a president who can’t be re-elected act carelessly during his last term in office as opposed to a president who always has to think of pleasing the citizenry since he may want to run again?
And why two terms? What about three?
These were questions the citizens and state legislatures at the time–the 1940s–had to ponder. In the end, they chose to pass the amendment, limiting the president to two terms in office…ever. They turned political convention into Constitutional law.
The state legislatures and Congressional legislators of the time were handling a very different presidential “position” and federal government than the framers were creating in 1787. Americans in the 1940s were looking at the largest and most powerful federal government America had ever seen, with an executive who held an ever growing repertoire of almost limitless power. While the framers of the U.S. Constitution were staring down the barrel of anarchy under the Articles of Confederation, the framers of the Twenty-Second Amendment were staring down the barrel of tyranny after the federal government had inhaled a tidal-wave of powers as a result of the Great Depression and WWII.
The founders knew and deeply understood that the Constitution would need to be adapted and changed as life changed, as the country grew, and as future generations discovered the wrinkles in the document that needed ironing out.
There is perhaps no greater example of this than the Twenty-Second Amendment of the United States.
The Liberty Belle