The Twenty-Second Amendment limits a President to no more than eight years in office. Mind you, that’s not what the Framers wanted, at their Convention in Philadelphia. One delegate even proposed a lifetime appointment for the President, and his motion was supported by James Madison’s Virginia, Gouverneur Morris’s Pennsylvania, John Dickinson’s Delaware, and New Jersey; and failed by only six states to four. It’s what Alexander Hamilton wanted. Thirty years later, an embarrassed Madison tried to explain away what might have seemed like monarchism to his new political allies, but his opposition to term limits in 1787 was likely sincere.
The delegates didn’t want term limits and did want a congressionally appointed President. But without term limits, and with Congress doing the appointing, they feared they’d see “corrupt bargains” of the kind that Jacksonians complained of in 1824. Before he was reappointed to a second term, a President would trade favors with Congressmen. And so the delegates abandoned a congressional appointment in favor of Article II’s complicated machinery for choosing a President. That was their way around the need for term limits.
Congress felt very differently about term limits 160 years later, in passing the Twenty-Second Amendment, and we’re bound to ask what changed. There was the recent example of FDR’s four terms, but that by itself wouldn’t have upset the Framers. When Congress proposed the Amendment in 1947, some might have recalled signs of senectitude in FDR’s last year, but regular elections can mostly take care of this, and in any event the Framers who backed a lifetime appointment for the President weren’t unduly worried about that. Something else had changed.
What that was, of course, was the enormous growth in the size of government, the concentration of political power in Washington, and within Washington in the presidency. We’ve seen the same growth of government everywhere, and the same concentration of power in the executive, but it’s especially worrisome in presidential regimes, which explains why subjects in parliamentary regimes enjoy more political freedom than citizens in presidential regimes. Today American presidents wield almost absolute power, and that almost corrupts absolutely, to paraphrase Lord Acton.
This in turn explains why term limits commend themselves in America, but not in Britain or Canada. The rigors of parliamentary debate, and the threat of non-confidence motions, are themselves a form of term limits, and recent presidents and prime ministers in America, Britain, and Canada have on average all served about the same five-year term. For parliamentary leaders, time has seemingly accelerated, with a burn out rate coming more quickly today than in the time of Pitt the Younger (18 years) or Sir John A. Macdonald (19 years). “The trouble,” said Harold Wilson (8 years) in 1974, “is that when old problems recur, I reach for the old solutions. I’ve nothing to offer any more.”
This essay is part of a discussion about the Twenty-Second Amendment with Gillian Metzger, Stanley H. Fuld Professor of Law at Columbia Law School. Read the full discussion here.
We pay a price for term limits, by sacrificing the benefit of experienced leaders, and were we to see ourselves faced again with the kind of choice Americans were given in 1940, I’d prefer to vote for an FDR than for an inexperienced Wendell Willkie. The question, then, is whether we’d gain more, in terms of political freedom, than we’d lose in terms of the loss of experienced leaders.
If that’s the choice, I’ll go with term limits and political freedom, but there’s a further reason for term limits with a leader so important as the American president, and that’s the need for a periodic shake-up. The Great Books people used to produce a yearly supplement with essays on all of the best and brightest ideas of the day. The books have mostly been pulped, but you might still find dusty copies in a used book store, and they’re an education in the banality of yesterday’s received ideas. You’d see essays on the promise of urban renewal, on the prospects for mass starvation in an over-crowded world, on the need for a planned economy. I have my own candidates for the popular idiocies of today, such as Al Gore’s predictions of immanent climate disasters, but the point is that it’s too easy to fall into a complacent belief in the rightness of one’s ideas. Term limits helps prevent that from happening.
I haven’t mentioned nature’s term limits, death—the last defense against presidents-for-life, whose dreams of conquest must at last come to an end. And shall I die, and this unconquered, says the dying Tamburlaine. We might want to live as long as Methuselah, but all our medical research has made only a little difference in our lifespan, and were it otherwise we might still be talking about Walter Pater and the aesthetic movement.
If only la jeunesse savait, we complain. But they don’t, and all in all that’s probably a good thing.
F.H. Buckley, The Once and Future King: The Rise of Crown Government in America (Encounter Books, 2015).
F.H. Buckley, The Republic of Virtue: How We Tried to Ban Corruption, Failed, And What We Can Do about It (forthcoming, Encounter Books).
Joe Haines, Glimmers of Twilight 110 (London: Politico, 2003).
William H. Riker, “The Heresthetics of Constitution-Making: The Presidency in 1787, with Comments on Determinism and Rational Choice,” 78 Am. Pol. Sc. Rev. 1 (1984).
F.H. Buckley Foundation Professor at the Antonin Scalia Law School, George Mason University