It is not strange that in the one hundred and twenty years that have elapsed since the National Constitution became effective, a considerable body of political tradition has accumulated. What has happened only once does not impress men's minds. If it happens twice they begin to take notice. There are men who discern an occult and invariable law in the sequence on three successive occasions of a certain event after another event which has no relation to the first, and which could not have caused it. No doubt the superstition that the fall of a mirror forecasts a death in the family arose from the fact that, on several occasions, a death did occur after the fall of a mirror.
It is the same way in politics. In general those who are engaged in the lower activities of campaigns do not take extremely broad views of public affairs, nor do they discern the meaning and foresee the consequences of great events. That which is insignificant, transitory, and local, affects their judgment more than that which is really important. It is easy for such men to see portents and to originate superstitions; and, when their imagination has created them, even men who would not be afraid to walk under a ladder sometimes find themselves unable to persuade themselves that they run no risk in so doing.
Prior to the reelection of General Grant in 1872, there was a superstition prevalent that no man possessed of a middle name could be elected President a second time. The notion was based upon the fact that every President so endowed, up to that time, had, for one reason or another, failed to be reelected: John Quincy Adams, Martin Van Buren—if his was a triple name,—William Henry Harrison, and James Knox Polk. Even since Grant, who may be said to have been exempt from all rules, the tradition has held good. Rutherford Birchard Hayes, James Abram Garfield, and Chester Allan Arthur, were not reelected; William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt were; also Grover Cleveland, after the lapse of an intermediate term,—who, it may be suggested, escaped the hoodoo by dropping his first name, Stephen, which his parents incautiously gave him.
How clear it is to a superstitious mind that there is a definite law! Some of those who think there is something in it may fancy that Mr. Bryan had the law in his mind when he assured the country during his last candidacy that if he should be elected he would not be a candidate for a second term,—his middle name, Jennings, barring his further ambition. Now are we to apprehend that the supposedly meagre chances of Mr. Taft in the present canvass are really a result of his father's indiscretion in inserting an ill-fated Howard into his name? Does an evil genius put it into parental hearts to over-name their infant sons and thus prevent them from attaining unto the presidential years of Washington and Lincoln?
There is another superstition, much more commonly held, which has not yet been falsified, that no senator can be elected President. Jackson was a senator when he was defeated in 1824. Clay was a senator when a candidate against Jackson in 1832. Hugh L. White, senator from Tennessee, was one of several Whig candidates against Van Buren in 1836. Douglas was a senator when he was one of the Democratic candidates in 1860. Cass was a senator from Michigan when he was nominated by the Democrats in 1848; and, although he resigned four days after his nomination,—it would be an insult to his memory to suggest that his action was due to a belief in the superstition,—he was defeated, nevertheless. Garfield had been chosen a senator from Ohio when he was nominated for the presidency in 1880, but his term was not to begin until the day when he took the oath as President. In addition to this list, mention might be made of other senators who have been candidates for nomination by national conventions, but have not been successful in that first step. To go no further back than 1860, there are Seward, Cameron, Jefferson Davis, R.M.T. Hunter, Conkling, Oliver P. Morton, Sherman, Edmunds, Bayard, Blaine, Thurman, Logan, Allison, Cockrell, Cummins, LaFollette, and others. This is all very queer, but so far as it is not merely a coincidence it can mean nothing more than that senators arouse a certain amount of antagonism against themselves, or do not arouse enthusiasm for themselves. It yet remains for some bold bad man in the Senate to defy the superstition, and by attaining preeminence in statesmanship, force his party to nominate him, and the people to elect him.
It has been unusual for the Vice President to succeed to the first place in the government. After Adams and Jefferson, no Vice President was elected President until Van Buren broke over the rule; and none since Van Buren until Roosevelt. But there has been no superstition about it. For most of the time in the last forty years, both parties have nominated, for the second place on the ticket, men whom the conventions would never have considered for the first place. It would be invidious to name them or the exceptions to the rule. Moreover, the position and duties of the Vice President are not such as to keep the incumbent of the office in the public eye.
It is a tradition as yet unbroken that no man is to serve a third term as President. It arose in a simple way. General Washington did not lay it down as a principle; there is no reason to suppose that he held the opinion that a President should not hold office more than eight years. He had originally accepted the office with reluctance, was full of honors, had reached an age when he felt the need of rest from public duties, had become a target for vituperative assaults, and believed that he should make way for others. His reasons for retiring were purely personal. But Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe each in turn gave place to a successor after eight years of service, willingly in all probability, in deference to the example of Washington; yet there is nothing in the political literature of the time to suggest that, with regard to any one of them, there was a movement to continue him in office beyond the two terms.
By the time Jackson became President the Constitution had been in operation forty years, and the tradition was established. Indeed, public opinion had gone even beyond it. There was a general feeling against a second term. Jackson recognized the sentiment, and in every one of his annual messages to Congress during his first term urged an amendment of the Constitution forbidding the reelection of a President. He was particularly emphatic in the second of those messages, December 6, 1830, in which, after arguing the matter, he said, 'I cannot too earnestly invite your attention to the propriety of promoting such an amendment of the Constitution as will render him [the President] ineligible after a single term of service.' His reiterated recommendations did not prevent him from accepting a second term, or from perpetuating his administration by dictating his successor.
After Jackson, no President was reelected until 1864, and Lincoln was assassinated six weeks after his second term began. Grant was elected in 1868 and reelected in 1872. As his second term was drawing to a close there were rumors that he was not disinclined to be a candidate for another term. A check upon his aspiration, if in truth he cherished it, was given by a resolution of the House of Representatives, in December, 1875, which declared that 'the precedent established by Washington and other Presidents of the United States in retiring from the presidential office after their second term, has become, by universal concurrence, a part of our republican system of government, and that any departure from this time-honored custom would be unwise, unpatriotic, and fraught with peril to our free institutions.' The resolution was Democratic in its origin, the Democratic party being then in control of the House, and it received the votes of all the member of that party who were present. Eighteen Republicans only opposed the declaration. The affirmative votes numbered 234. Not long afterward, in January, 1876, the House voted, yeas 148, nays 105, to submit to the State legislatures an amendment of the Constitution in these words:—
'No person who has held, or may hereafter hold, the office of President, shall ever again be eligible to said office.'
The resolution failed because it was not supported by a two-thirds vote; but inasmuch as most of the member who opposed it had just previously voted for a substitute, lengthening the term to six years and forbidding reelection, the House showed itself to be practically unanimous against a second term. It may be remarked in passing that no other proposition of amendment has been offered in Congress so many times as this forbidding the reelection of a President, sometimes with and sometimes without an extension of the single term to six years. The Constitution of the Confederate States limited the President to one term of six years.
The third-term question came up again in 1880, when Grant was really a candidate for a third term after the lapse of four years since his retirement. The prolonged contest in the Republican convention of that year, when Mr. Conkling was able to hold his 306 votes for Grant even on the ballot that nominated Garfield, is a part of our political history which is familiar to all. Grant was probably the only President who ever desired a third term. What might have happened in 1908 if Mr. Roosevelt had been willing to lend himself to the fiction that he was then serving his 'first elective term' must forever be left to conjecture. His extraordinary personal and political popularity, then and now, suggests that he might have broken the tradition,—a suggestion that acquires force from the present acquiescence of a great, but as yet unnumbered, body of the people in the theory that the word 'consecutive' should be inserted in this clause of our unwritten Constitution.
We come now to matters connected directly with the presidential canvass; and they may be considered in something like chronological order. It is needless to say that the following remarks do not fit in with anything that has taken place, or is likely to take place, in the present extraordinary canvass, in which conditions are absolutely as chaotic as they are unprecedented. But they are applicable to most of the presidential contests since the Civil War.
We are, let us say, at the beginning of the canvass, before the national conventions have been held. Politicians and political editors are studying tables of electoral votes and estimating results,—guessing how this State and that will cast its vote.