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.
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.
Just my thoughts for today.