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FReeper Book Club: The Debate over the Constitution, Federalist #72
A Publius/Billthedrill Essay | 23 December 2010 | Publius & Billthedrill

Posted on 12/23/2010 8:04:53 AM PST by Publius

Hamilton Addresses Term Limits for the President

Hamilton looks at the issues that would arise from restricting the number of terms the President could serve.

Federalist #72

The Executive (Part 6 of 11)

Alexander Hamilton, 21 March 1788

1 To the People of the State of New York:


2 The administration of government in its largest sense comprehends all the operations of the body politic, whether legislative, executive, or judiciary, but in its most usual and perhaps its most precise signification. it is limited to executive details and falls peculiarly within the province of the executive department.

3 The actual conduct of foreign negotiations, the preparatory plans of finance, the application and disbursement of the public moneys in conformity to the general appropriations of the legislature, the arrangement of the army and navy, the directions of the operations of war – these and other matters of a like nature constitute what seems to be most properly understood by the administration of government.

4 The persons, therefore, to whose immediate management these different matters are committed ought to be considered as the assistants or deputies of the chief magistrate, and on this account they ought to derive their offices from his appointment, at least from his nomination, and ought to be subject to his superintendence.

5 This view of the subject will at once suggest to us the intimate connection between the duration of the executive magistrate in office and the stability of the system of administration.

6 To reverse and undo what has been done by a predecessor is very often considered by a successor as the best proof he can give of his own capacity and desert, and in addition to this propensity, where the alteration has been the result of public choice, the person substituted is warranted in supposing that the [dismissal] of his predecessor has proceeded from a dislike to his measures, and that the less he resembles him, the more he will recommend himself to the favor of his constituents.

7 These considerations, and the influence of personal confidences and attachments, would be likely to induce every new President to promote a change of men to fill the subordinate stations; and these causes together could not fail to occasion a disgraceful and ruinous mutability in the administration of the government.


8 With a positive duration of considerable extent, I connect the circumstance of re-eligibility.

9 The first is necessary to give to the officer himself the inclination and the resolution to act his part well, and to the community time and leisure to observe the tendency of his measures, and thence to form an experimental estimate of their merits.

10 The last is necessary to enable the people, when they see reason to approve of his conduct, to continue him in his station in order to prolong the utility of his talents and virtues, and to secure to the government the advantage of permanency in a wise system of administration.


11 Nothing appears more plausible at first sight, nor more ill founded upon close inspection, than a scheme which in relation to the present point has had some respectable advocates, I mean that of continuing the chief magistrate in office for a certain time and then excluding him from it, either for a limited period or forever after.

12 This exclusion, whether temporary or perpetual, would have nearly the same effects, and these effects would be for the most part rather pernicious than salutary.


13 One ill effect of the exclusion would be a diminution of the inducements to good behavior.

14 There are few men who would not feel much less zeal in the discharge of a duty when they were conscious that the advantages of the station with which it was connected must be relinquished at a determinate period, than when they were permitted to entertain a hope of obtaining, by meriting, a continuance of them.

15 This position will not be disputed so long as it is admitted that the desire of reward is one of the strongest incentives of human conduct, or that the best security for the fidelity of mankind is to make their interests coincide with their duty.

16 Even the love of fame, the ruling passion of the noblest minds, which would prompt a man to plan and undertake extensive and arduous enterprises for the public benefit, requiring considerable time to mature and perfect them, if he could flatter himself with the prospect of being allowed to finish what he had begun, would on the contrary deter him from the undertaking when he foresaw that he must quit the scene before he could accomplish the work, and must commit that, together with his own reputation, to hands which might be unequal or unfriendly to the task.

17 The most to be expected from the generality of men in such a situation is the negative merit of not doing harm, instead of the positive merit of doing good.


18 Another ill effect of the exclusion would be the temptation to sordid views, to peculation, and in some instances to usurpation.

19 An avaricious man who might happen to fill the office, looking forward to a time when he must at all events yield up the emoluments he enjoyed, would feel a propensity not easy to be resisted by such a man to make the best use of the opportunity he enjoyed while it lasted, and might not scruple to have recourse to the most corrupt expedients to make the harvest as abundant as it was transitory; though the same man, probably, with a different prospect before him, might content himself with the regular perquisites of his situation, and might even be unwilling to risk the consequences of an abuse of his opportunities.

20 His avarice might be a guard upon his avarice.

21 Add to this that the same man might be vain or ambitious, as well as avaricious.

22 And if he could expect to prolong his honors by his good conduct, he might hesitate to sacrifice his appetite for them to his appetite for gain.

23 But with the prospect before him of approaching an inevitable annihilation, his avarice would be likely to get the victory over his caution, his vanity, or his ambition.


24 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 forever, 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.

25 Would it promote the peace of the community or the stability of the government to have half a dozen men who had had credit enough to be raised to the seat of the supreme magistracy, wandering among the people like discontented ghosts and sighing for a place which they were destined never more to possess?


26 A third ill effect of the exclusion would be the depriving the community of the advantage of the experience gained by the chief magistrate in the exercise of his office.

27 That experience is the parent of wisdom is an adage the truth of which is recognized by the wisest as well as the simplest of mankind.

28 What more desirable or more essential than this quality in the governors of nations?

29 Where more desirable or more essential than in the first magistrate of a nation?

30 Can it be wise to put this desirable and essential quality under the ban of the Constitution and to declare that the moment it is acquired, its possessor shall be compelled to abandon the station in which it was acquired and to which it is adapted?

31 This, nevertheless, is the precise import of all those regulations which exclude men from serving their country by the choice of their fellow citizens after they have by a course of service fitted themselves for doing it with a greater degree of utility.


32 A fourth ill effect of the exclusion would be the banishing men from stations in which, in certain emergencies of the state, their presence might be of the greatest moment to the public interest or safety.

33 There is no nation which has not, at one period or another, experienced an absolute necessity of the services of particular men in particular situations, perhaps it would not be too strong to say to the preservation of its political existence.

34 How unwise, therefore, must be every such self-denying ordinance as serves to prohibit a nation from making use of its own citizens in the manner best suited to its exigencies and circumstances!

35 Without supposing the personal essentiality of the man, it is evident that a change of the chief magistrate at the breaking out of a war, or at any similar crisis, for another even of equal merit, would at all times be detrimental to the community inasmuch as it would substitute inexperience to experience, and would tend to unhinge and set afloat the already settled train of the administration.


36 A fifth ill effect of the exclusion would be that it would operate as a constitutional interdiction of stability in the administration.

37 By necessitating a change of men in the first office of the nation, it would necessitate a mutability of measures.

38 It is not generally to be expected that men will vary and measures remain uniform.

39 The contrary is the usual course of things.

40 And we need not be apprehensive that there will be too much stability while there is even the option of changing; nor need we desire to prohibit the people from continuing their confidence where they think it may be safely placed, and where by constancy on their part they may obviate the fatal inconveniences of fluctuating councils and a variable policy.


41 These are some of the disadvantages which would flow from the principle of exclusion.

42 They apply most forcibly to the scheme of a perpetual exclusion, but when we consider that even a partial exclusion would always render the readmission of the person a remote and precarious object, the observations which have been made will apply nearly as fully to one case as to the other.


43 What are the advantages promised to counterbalance these disadvantages?

44 They are represented to be: first, greater independence in the magistrate; second, greater security to the people.

45 Unless the exclusion be perpetual, there will be no pretense to infer the first advantage.

46 But even in that case, may he have no object beyond his present station to which he may sacrifice his independence?

47 May he have no connections, no friends, for whom he may sacrifice it?

48 May he not be less willing by a firm conduct to make personal enemies when he acts under the impression that a time is fast approaching on the arrival of which he not only may, but must, be exposed to their resentments upon an equal, perhaps upon an inferior, footing?

49 It is not an easy point to determine whether his independence would be most promoted or impaired by such an arrangement.


50 As to the second supposed advantage, there is still greater reason to entertain doubts concerning it.

51 If the exclusion were to be perpetual, a man of irregular ambition, of whom alone there could be reason in any case to entertain apprehension, would with infinite reluctance yield to the necessity of taking his leave forever of a post in which his passion for power and preeminence had acquired the force of habit.

52 And if he had been fortunate or adroit enough to conciliate the goodwill of the people, he might induce them to consider as a very odious and unjustifiable restraint upon themselves, a provision which was calculated to debar them of the right of giving a fresh proof of their attachment to a favorite.

53 There may be conceived circumstances in which this disgust of the people, seconding the thwarted ambition of such a favorite, might occasion greater danger to liberty than could ever reasonably be dreaded from the possibility of a perpetuation in office by the voluntary suffrages of the community exercising a constitutional privilege.


54 There is an excess of refinement in the idea of disabling the people to continue in office men who had entitled themselves in their opinion to approbation and confidence, the advantages of which are at best speculative and equivocal, and are overbalanced by disadvantages far more certain and decisive.

Hamilton’s Critique

Hamilton begins by making the point that much of what is considered the day-to-day administration of government falls under the Executive (2), and that it is advantageous in terms of the overall stability of the system to have the Chief Executive persist in office (5). For one thing, there is the perfectly natural tendency for major policy shifts between administrations.

6 To reverse and undo what has been done by a predecessor is very often considered by a successor as the best proof he can give of his own capacity and desert, and in addition…where the alteration has been the result of public choice, the person substituted is warranted in supposing that the [dismissal] of his predecessor has proceeded from a dislike to his measures, and that the less he resembles him, the more he will recommend himself to the favor of his constituents.

In short, each incoming administration may, by simple virtue of being elected, assume that it has a mandate for all of its policy preferences. Hamilton’s phrase “where the alteration has been the result of public choice” is an allusion to the proposed indirect election of the President through the state legislatures, a subtle reminder that such an arrangement will help guard against the President being subjected to the momentary passions of the mob. He recognizes that attempts to limit the number of terms served by the President have certain solid arguments in favor and proponents both respectable and sincere (11). Nevertheless, he feels on close inspection that they will be proven mistaken.

He has five broad objections: first, that tenure in office acts as an inducement to good behavior (13); second, a bar against the temptations of short-term gain in light of fading opportunity (18), as well the inevitable discontent of ex-Presidents, described in a formulation that will make the modern reader smile with recognition, if not in any particular sympathy.

25half a dozen men who had had credit enough to be raised to the seat of the supreme magistracy, wandering among the people like discontented ghosts and sighing for a place which they were destined never more to possess…

Few would forgive the reader, contemporary or modern, from a tart rejoinder to spare him the bathos and advance to the argument. Third, that such an exclusion would rob the nation of the services of a proven and experienced Magistrate (26); fourth, that such might be particularly unfortunate in time of war or other national stress (32). Fifth, and last of all, Hamilton returns to the overall argument of tenure equating to stability, a forced change in officeholder equating to forced change in policy (36). These are significant arguments, to be sure, but there are those in opposition, arguments in favor of term limitation, that Hamilton has already conceded are valid enough to demand an answer.

44 They are represented to be: first, greater independence in the magistrate; second, greater security to the people.

Hamilton proceeds to address them in a tone the reader is not accustomed to hearing from a man more inclined to polemic, even to the point of rough contumely when the opponent is Governor Clinton or Judge Yates. Why the sudden courtesy? It is because the opponent in this particular case is none other than his own co-author and close friend, James Madison, who has already raised the issue of term limits in another context in Federalist #57, basing his own arguments on principles as broad as Hamilton’s and arriving at the opposite conclusion.

57-6 The elective mode of obtaining rulers is the characteristic policy of republican government.

57-7 The means relied on in this form of government for preventing their degeneracy are numerous and various.

57-8 The most effectual one is such a limitation of the term of appointments as will maintain a proper responsibility to the people.

As far as independence in the Magistrate being a function of known term limits, Hamilton rightly points out that it will only be so if the exclusion is permanent after those limits are reached (45), and that even then, the President may well be willing to sacrifice independence to “connections” or “friends” (47), an allusion to faction and a presentiment to party. With regard to security of the people, Hamilton feels that known limits will act on a man of “irregular ambition” in a counterproductive manner, making it a priority in such a man’s mind to thwart them rather than to act in such a manner as to justify his continuance in office.

One might object that in #57, Madison was referring to term limits for Congress, and that Hamilton, who had already held different standards for the Executive and Legislative with regard to debate in times of national stress (Federalist #70-45), might well be arguing along similar lines. There is, however, no indication in the body of this essay that such a dichotomy is in order, nor was there any indication in Madison’s essay that his own principle was so divided. Moreover, Hamilton’s own formulation of that point in opposition contains no such indication. It could scarcely be clearer that the issue of term limits was as fresh and viable for Federalist and anti-Federalist as it is today, and not only with respect to the Presidency.

That argument would be settled by George Washington for nearly a century and a half, not through any act of legislation, adjudication, or executive fiat, but by sheer force of example, of a level of moral authority that no President since has come close to possessing. It is, in fact, a remarkable historical political anomaly given the arguments presented by Hamilton in this essay: impossible to predict, difficult to emulate, unlikely ever to repeat. In 1940 Franklin Roosevelt saw fit to discard that long-standing tradition for reasons he felt appropriate at the time. In 1951 Congress set that tradition into law in the form of the 22nd Amendment.

Discussion Topic

TOPICS: Constitution/Conservatism; Free Republic
KEYWORDS: federalistpapers; freeperbookclub

1 posted on 12/23/2010 8:04:56 AM PST by Publius
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To: 14themunny; 21stCenturion; 300magnum; A Strict Constructionist; abigail2; AdvisorB; Aggie Mama; ...
Ping! The thread has been posted.

Earlier threads:

FReeper Book Club: The Debate over the Constitution
5 Oct 1787, Centinel #1
6 Oct 1787, James Wilson’s Speech at the State House
8 Oct 1787, Federal Farmer #1
9 Oct 1787, Federal Farmer #2
18 Oct 1787, Brutus #1
22 Oct 1787, John DeWitt #1
27 Oct 1787, John DeWitt #2
27 Oct 1787, Federalist #1
31 Oct 1787, Federalist #2
3 Nov 1787, Federalist #3
5 Nov 1787, John DeWitt #3
7 Nov 1787, Federalist #4
10 Nov 1787, Federalist #5
14 Nov 1787, Federalist #6
15 Nov 1787, Federalist #7
20 Nov 1787, Federalist #8
21 Nov 1787, Federalist #9
23 Nov 1787, Federalist #10
24 Nov 1787, Federalist #11
27 Nov 1787, Federalist #12
27 Nov 1787, Cato #5
28 Nov 1787, Federalist #13
29 Nov 1787, Brutus #4
30 Nov 1787, Federalist #14
1 Dec 1787, Federalist #15
4 Dec 1787, Federalist #16
5 Dec 1787, Federalist #17
7 Dec 1787, Federalist #18
8 Dec 1787, Federalist #19
11 Dec 1787, Federalist #20
12 Dec 1787, Federalist #21
14 Dec 1787, Federalist #22
18 Dec 1787, Federalist #23
18 Dec 1787, Address of the Pennsylvania Minority
19 Dec 1787, Federalist #24
21 Dec 1787, Federalist #25
22 Dec 1787, Federalist #26
25 Dec 1787, Federalist #27
26 Dec 1787, Federalist #28
27 Dec 1787, Brutus #6
28 Dec 1787, Federalist #30
1 Jan 1788, Federalist #31
3 Jan 1788, Federalist #32
3 Jan 1788, Federalist #33
3 Jan 1788, Cato #7
4 Jan 1788, Federalist #34
5 Jan 1788, Federalist #35
8 Jan 1788, Federalist #36
10 Jan 1788, Federalist #29
11 Jan 1788, Federalist #37
15 Jan 1788, Federalist #38
16 Jan 1788, Federalist #39
18 Jan 1788, Federalist #40
19 Jan 1788, Federalist #41
22 Jan 1788, Federalist #42
23 Jan 1788, Federalist #43
24 Jan 1788, Brutus #10
25 Jan 1788, Federalist #44
26 Jan 1788, Federalist #45
29 Jan 1788, Federalist #46
31 Jan 1788, Brutus #11
1 Feb 1788, Federalist #47
1 Feb 1788, Federalist #48
5 Feb 1788, Federalist #49
5 Feb 1788, Federalist #50
7 Feb 1788, Brutus #12, Part 1
8 Feb 1788, Federalist #51
8 Feb 1788, Federalist #52
12 Feb 1788, Federalist #53
12 Feb 1788, Federalist #54
14 Feb 1788, Brutus #12, Part 2
15 Feb 1788, Federalist #55
19 Feb 1788, Federalist #56
19 Feb 1788, Federalist #57
20 Feb 1788, Federalist #58
22 Feb 1788, Federalist #59
26 Feb 1788, Federalist #60
26 Feb 1788, Federalist #61
27 Feb 1788, Federalist #62
1 Mar 1788, Federalist #63
7 Mar 1788, Federalist #64
7 Mar 1788, Federalist #65
11 Mar 1788, Federalist #66
11 Mar 1788, Federalist #67
14 Mar 1788, Federalist #68
14 Mar 1788, Federalist #69
15 Mar 1788, Federalist #70
18 Mar 1788, Federalist #71
20 Mar 1788, Brutus #15

2 posted on 12/23/2010 8:06:58 AM PST by Publius (No taxation without respiration.)
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To: Publius
"•The constitution of the Confederate States of America provided for a one-term president who served for six years. Would there be merit in amending the Constitution to provide for something like this, and why or why not?"

I think it would a bad idea. Would we want to be stuck with Obama for four more years, instead of just two? If a President governs well for four years, then he can be re-elected. Whereas if he is a bad president, and in for six years, he has more time to do more damage before he is done.

3 posted on 12/23/2010 8:12:48 AM PST by Celtic Cross (I AM the Impeccable Hat. (AKA The Pope's Hat))
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To: Celtic Cross; Publius

I think I’d have to agree with your assessment on that one. Six years is too long to be stuck with a inexperienced, incompetent, POS.

4 posted on 12/23/2010 8:57:52 AM PST by BuckeyeTexan (There are those that break and bend. I'm the other kind.)
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To: BuckeyeTexan

Four years is too long to be stuck with a inexperienced, incompetent, POS.

5 posted on 12/23/2010 9:11:17 AM PST by Forrestfire (("To educate a man in mind and not in morals is to educate a menace to society." Theodore Roosevelt))
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To: Publius

Kind of organizing my thoughts as I type so this is going to come out sort of stream of consciousness.

I don’t like one term limits. There’s no way to act differently in response to a good presidency than to a bad one. On the other hand, term limits with a cumulative time that’s a significant fraction of a lifetime could turn into a BDFL type scenario and feel creepy.

More frequent elections would allow earlier correction of a bad decision, but would probably put a lot of politicians in continuous campaign mode. I’m not sure that’s necessarily a bad thing. People criticized Clinton for governing by polls, but now Obama is marching to his own unpopular agenda the public opposes, couldn’t care less, and we know THAT’S not a good thing. I’m sure there’s a time to do what you think is right even if it’s not popular at the moment, but Democrats all seem to go to one extreme or the other.

Definitely should think about getting rid of lame duck periods, especially for Congress. (And I don’t mean “last term” lame duck sessions for the termed out, but additional real voting sessions after they’ve been actually defeated.)

6 posted on 12/23/2010 10:07:56 AM PST by Still Thinking (Freedom is NOT a loophole!)
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To: Forrestfire

Five minutes past noon January 20, 2009 was too long for this particular POS.

Can I get an “Amen!?”

7 posted on 12/23/2010 10:13:59 AM PST by BuckeyeTexan (There are those that break and bend. I'm the other kind.)
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