The Tradition Against the Third Term


ONE hundred and thirty-eight years have gone by since the first inauguration of Washington. During that time twenty-nine men have served as president of the United States. Eight of them have had two terms, four one term and part of another, nine one term, eight less than a term; two have declined and two sought a third. That the Constitution puts no limit to the number a chief magistrate may have is no oversight on the part of its framers, for every phase of the question, from a short term with eligibility to reëlection to a long term with no reëlection, was most carefully considered by them. There were those who favored a term of three years and reëlection any number of times; there were those who insisted on a term of seven years and no reëlection; and there was one who thought that triennial elections and never more than three terms was the best plan. The first decision reached was that Congress should choose the president; that he should serve one term of seven years and could not be elected to a second. But the delegates soon changed their minds and resolved that he might be reëlected, and then almost immediately again changed their minds and decided that he could not. This seemed final; but, when the Committee of Detail reported, so vigorous an effort was made to take the appointment of president away from Congress that the Convention, unable to come to a decision, sent the question and other troublesome matters to a committee of one from each of the eleven states. To that committee we owe the provisions as they stand today in the Constitution: a choice by the electoral colleges, a term of four years, and any number of reëlections.

From all this it seems quite certain that the intention of the Convention was that a president should hold his office on good behavior, an intention defended by Hamilton when, in The Federalist, he urged his fellow citizens in New York to ratify the Constitution.

‘It is,’ said he, ‘a general principle of human nature, that a man will be interested in whatever he possesses, in proportion to the firmness or precariousness of the tenure by which he holds it; will be less attached to what he holds by a momentary or uncertain title, than to what he enjoys by durable or certain title; and, of course, will be willing to risk more for the sake of the one, than for the sake of the other. This remark is not less applicable to a political privilege, or honor, or trust, than to any article of ordinary property. The inference from it is, that a man acting in the capacity of chief magistrate, under a consciousness that in a very short time he must lay down his office, will be apt to feel himself too little interested in it to hazard any material censure or perplexity.’

Nothing ‘appears more plausible at first sight, nor more ill-founded upon close inspection,’ than the idea of continuing the chief magistrate in office for a certain time, and then excluding him from it, either for a limited time or forever. Exclusion, Hamilton argued, would lessen the inducements to good behavior, deprive the community of the advantage of the experience gained by the chief magistrate while in office, banish men from stations in which, in certain emergencies of the State, their presence might be of the greatest value, and tend to produce fluctuating counsels and a variable policy. It was not to be expected that, while men changed, measures would not.


Such was the argument of one of the framers of the Constitution in defense of what he believed to be the intent of his colleagues: that the term of a president should depend on good behavior. If this be true, then their intent has been strangely confounded by the presidents and the people, for no task has proved so hopeless as the attempts to elect a president a third time, and only twelve have ever served twice. Washington, indeed, might have had as many terms as he would accept, but would not take more than two. To him, therefore, is ascribed the origin of the popular tradition that two are enough for any president. No such political maxim was ever asserted by him. To one who congratulated him on his reëlection he said: —

’To say I feel pleasure from the prospect of commencing another tour of duty would be a departure from truth; for, however it might savour of affectation in the opinion of the world (who, by the way, can only guess at my sentiments, as it never has been troubled with them) my particular and confidential friends well know, that it was after a long and painful conflict in my own breast, that I was withheld, by considerations which are not necessary to be mentioned, from requesting in time, that no vote might be thrown away upon me, it being my fixed determination to return to the walks of private life at the end of my term.’

Having accepted a second term, he positively refused a third and gave his reasons in the Farewell Address. ‘The acceptance and continuance in office, to which your suffrages have twice called me, have been a uniform sacrifice of inclination to the opinion of duty, and to a deference to what appeared to be your wishes. ... I rejoice that the state of your concerns, external as well as internal, no longer renders the pursuit of inclination incompatible with the pursuit of duty or propriety.’

He was troubled with no scruples as to how many terms it was proper for a president to accept. He said nothing concerning the wisdom of rotation in office, a favorite political doctrine in his day. He retired because he was weary of the cares of office and longed for the quiet life at Mount Vernon, and because the state of the country no longer required a sacrifice of ease and comfort to duty.

Mr. Jefferson was the first to find a political reason, the first to apply the doctrine of rotation in office and to attempt to limit the number of terms to two. When he came into office he was fully resolved to serve but once; that he served twice was the fault of the Federalists. ‘I sincerely regret,’ he said just after renomination by the congressional caucus of his party, ‘that the unbounded calumnies of the federalist party have obliged me to throw myself on the verdict of my country for trial, my great desire having been to retire at the end of the present term, to a life of tranquility; and it was my decided purpose when I entered into office. They force my continuance.’ ‘I should,’ he wrote another friend, ‘have retired at the end of the first four years, but that the immense load of tory calumnies which have been manufactured respecting me, and have filled the European market, have obliged me to appeal once more to my country for a justification.’ But he would not accept a third term. Once he was of the opinion ‘that the President of the United States should have been elected for seven years and be forever ineligible afterwards.’ But ‘service for eight years, with a power to remove at the end of the first four,’came nearer to his ‘principle as corrected by experience. General Washington set the example of retirement at the end of eight years. I shall follow it; and a few more precedents will oppose the obstacle of habit to any one after a while who shall endeavor to extend his term.’ Knowing nothing of this resolution, his fellow citizens, before his second term was half over, began to invite him to accept a third. The Legislature of Vermont led off in November 1806, and the great Democratic strongholds, Georgia, Maryland, Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, made haste to follow. But thirteen months passed before he answered the invitations of Vermont, New York, and Pennsylvania, saying: —

‘That I should lay down my charge at a proper period is as much a duty as to have borne it faithfully. If some termination to the services of the Chief Magistrate be not fixed by the Constitution, or supplied by practice, his office, nominally for years, will in fact become for life; and history shows how easily that degenerates into an Inheritance. Believing that a representative government responsible at short periods of election is that which produces the greatest sum of happiness to mankind.

I feel it a duty to do no act which shall essentially impair that principle; and I should unwillingly be the first person who, disregarding the sound precedent set by an illustrious predecessor, should furnish the first example of prolongation beyond the second term of office.’

The dangers of repeated reëlections having thus been pointed out, and the anti-third-term doctrine formally announced, the followers of Jefferson, the country over, made haste to assure him that they approved. A meeting of Democrats at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, admired ‘the manly and sublime effort which dictated your determination to retire from public life at the close’ of the second term. A meeting of delegates from the wards of Philadelphia, ‘in yielding homage to the motives which have induced your voluntary retirement from public fife, while surrounded by the warmest affections of the people,’ derived ‘ consolation from the consideration that your example may operate on all future Presidents to pursue a course which has added luster to your character, already dear to liberty and to your country.’ While we duly appreciate the motives, said the Legislature of Maryland, ‘ which induce you to decline being considered among the number of those out of whom the choice of our next President is to be made, and while we revere the patriotism which dictated those motives, permit us still to indulge the pleasing hope that when the next period of presidential election approximates (1812), should the united voice of your countrymen require it, those same motives and that same patriotism will induce you to sacrifice your private wishes and convenience to your country’s good.’ No votes for presidential electors could be cast in the far-away Territory of Orleans. Nevertheless his friends there assured him: ‘ However we may regret, in common with our fellow citizens of the United States, this determination to decline being a candidate for the highest office in the gift of the people, the motives which induce it afford another proof of your patriotism, and must command the approbation of the country.’ The Tammany Society in Philadelphia, when celebrating its anniversary in 1808, drank to the toast: ‘President Jefferson — Rotation in office is the bulwark of freedom. His precedent deserves our homage and our gratitude, and traitors would alone refuse them.’ When the Fourth of July came he was honored in many places with some such toast as: ‘Jefferson — May his successor imitate his virtues and follow his motto, rotation in office.’


Twenty years now passed away; four successors to Jefferson were elected and Jackson was in the White House before another president appeared who felt any concern whatever regarding the question of a third term. But it must not be supposed that the question was of no concern to anybody. Again and again it appeared in Congress in the form of a proposed amendment to the Constitution. Among the amendments demanded by New York when she ratified the Constitution was one limiting the number of terms to two. A Senate committee, in 1803, reported a resolution ‘ that no person who has been twice successively elected President shall be eligible as President until four years elapse, when he may be eligible to the office for four years, and no longer.’ The resolution was rejected by a vote of four to twenty-five. Massachusetts and Connecticut, after the Hartford Convention had done its work, proposed that the executive should have but one term, and that never should two presidents in succession come from the same state. Nine years later a Senator from New Jersey repeated the proposition to limit the terms to two, and the Senate in 1824, by a vote of thirty-six to three, and again in 1826, by a vote of thirty-two to seven, sent to the House joint resolutions providing that no man should be chosen president more than twice. No popular demand for such a restriction existed, so the House suffered the resolutions to die. The contested election of 1824, the defeat of Jackson and his prompt renomination, produced a crop of proposed amendments. Thirty-eight had to do with the choice of presidential electors. Ten were intended to limit the president to one term, some of four, some of six years.

Jackson came to the presidency an earnest advocate of one term, and never failed in any of his eight annual messages to ask that the Constitution be so altered as to provide for it. During his eight years of administration twentyone joint resolutions, providing some for one term of four years only, some for one of six years only, others for no third term, or one term and ineligibility to two in succession, or one term and ineligibility until four years had gone by, were laid before Congress; but, great as was his popularity, his party would approve none of them, and he went out of office leaving the issue just where he found it. Yet it would not down, and ten more one-term joint resolutions were moved in Congress before Van Buren gave way to ‘Tippecanoe and Tyler too.’

Harrison came to the presidency pledged to one term, a pledge which he reaffirmed in his inaugural speech. Republics, he said, could commit no ‘greater error than to adopt or continue any feature in their systems of governments which may be calculated to create or increase the love of power in the bosoms of those to whom necessity obliges them to commit the management of their affairs; and surely nothing is more likely to produce such a state of mind than long continuance in an office of high trust.’ Therefore ‘it is the part of wisdom for a republic to limit the service of that officer, at least, to whom she has intrusted the management of her foreign affairs, the execution of her laws, and the command of her armies and navies to a period so short as to prevent his forgetting that he is the accountable agent, not the principal; the servant, not the master. Until an amendment of the Constitution can be effected public opinion may secure the desired object. I give my aid to it by renewing the pledge heretofore given that under no circumstances will I consent to serve a second terme.’

A month later Harrison died, and the country, for the first time in its history, beheld the duties of the President ‘devolve’ on the Vice President. The situation was new, and for a while there was doubt as to just what he was. He had not been elected President. How, then, could he rightfully be called President? The Constitution provided that the duties of the President should pass to him, but said nothing about the title. The Secretaries, when officially announcing the death of Harrison, addressed him as Vice President; John Quincy Adams held that he should be called ‘Vice President acting as President’; Clay considered him nothing better than Regent; but the press and the people regarded him as President, and such he called himself.

And now a great political party took up the doctrine of one term for the president. The Whigs, when they read Tyler out of the party, asserted in their manifesto that it was good Whig doctrine and as such inserted it in their Baltimore platform in 1844. During 1841, when the quarrel with Tyler was at its height, the legislatures of eight states, Vermont, Indiana, Delaware, Maine, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and, in 1842, Kentucky, sent one-term amendments to Congress; but the day for such had gone, and for thirty years Congress almost ceased to be troubled with them. The men who nominated Frémont in 1864 declared in their platform, ‘That the one-term policy for the Presidency, adopted by the people, is strengthened by the force of the existing crisis, and should be maintained by constitutional amendments.’ Greeley, stating his reasons for opposing the renomination of Lincoln, said that it had been settled, and well settled, by the deliberate action of both parties that a president in office should not be reëlected save under the pressure of extraordinary circumstances. The Pomeroy circular, sent forth in behalf of the candidacy of Chase, declared that so great was the patronage due to war needs, and so loosely was it placed, that the one-term principle was absolutely necessary to the safety of republican institutions. The long fight with Johnson revived the old one-term issue, and twelve times during his administration joint resolutions of the old one-term type were moved in Congress. They were, as in Tyler’s day, but expressions of antipathy to the occupant of the White House by disgruntled politicians, and caused not a ripple.

With the retirement of Johnson just sixty years had elapsed since the retirement of Jefferson. Never in all that time had the question whether a particular man should or should not have a third term come before the country, for in three cases only could it have arisen, and in no one of these did it do so. In Grant’s second term, however, it did arise and become what was then considered a serious political issue. Scarcely was he reëlected in 1872 when the opposition press loudly proclaimed that our republican institutions were threatened with ruin by his probable reëlection in 1876, and raised the cry of Cæsarism, and No Third Term. He has, it was said, been given a second term. The great majority of the people think that is enough. But he declines to say what he thinks, and so long as he is silent the majority is in doubt whether he may not, by the use of his administrative machinery, procure his nomination by the Republican convention, and if so whether he would not have to be elected to save the country from the Democrats. One of those crises has arisen in which it seems possible for a man already in office to keep himself in office whether the voters want him or not. ‘We,’said the Republican State Convention of Pennsylvania, ‘declare a firm unqualified adherence to the unwritten law of the Republic, which wisely and under the sanction of the most venerable examples, limits the presidential service of any citizen to two terms; and we, the Republicans of Pennsylvania, in recognition of this law, are unalterably opposed to the election to the presidency of any person for a third term.’

To this Grant, who hitherto had paid no attention to the charge of Cæsarism, longing for a third term, longing for power, gave heed, and before the platform was three days old wrote to the chairman of the convention. Soon after the election of 1872, he said, a portion of the press hostile to the Administration raised the cry of Cæsarism and the question of a third term, and called lustily on him to state his position. He had not done so because it was beneath the dignity of the office to which he had twice been chosen to answer such a question until it was presented by an authority competent to make a nomination, ‘or of such dignity or authority as not to make a reply a fair subject of ridicule.’ He did not seek the office for cither the first or the second term, and did not want a third any more than he did a first. ‘I am not, nor have I ever been, a candidate for renomination. I would not accept a renomination if tendered, unless it should come under such circumstances as to make it an imperative duty — circumstances not likely to occur.’

The letter put an end to the possibility of a third term for Grant; but the popular dislike of a third term for anybody continued to find expression in the platforms adopted by party conventions in the states. Republicans in Ohio resolved that ‘the observance of Washington’s example in retiring at the close of a second presidential term will be, in the future as it has been in the past, regarded as a fundamental rule of the unwritten law of the Republic.’ Republicans in New York declared their ‘unalterable opposition to the election of any President for a third time.’ Democrats in Ohio gave it as their opinion that ‘ the President’s services should be limited to one term.’ Democrats in New York declared ‘the Presidency is a public trust, not a private perquisite — no third term.’ How fully these resolutions expressed the public sentiment of the day was still further shown when Congress met in December 1875, and Mr. Springer of Illinois moved this resolution in the House of Representatives: —

‘Resolved, That, in the opinion of this House, 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 rules were immediately suspended and the resolution adopted by a yea-and-nay vote of 234 to 18.

Hayes in his inaugural address asked for an amendment to the Constitution limiting the president to one term of six years; but the excitement over the third-term issue had gone down; there seemed to be no danger that it would arise again, at least in the near future, and nobody cared.

But the unexpected is always happening, and it did arise again very soon. In 1877 Grant set off on a tour of the world, and on his return landed in San Francisco in September 1879, just when his party was looking for a successor to Hayes. He met with such a reception, as he traveled about the country, as never before had been given to any citizen of the United States. Believing this outburst of popular favor to be a sure sign that the scandals of his second term were forgotten, that he was again the hero of the Civil War, that his countrymen were ready to see him once more their chief magistrate, the masters of the Republican Party, Conkling of New York, Cameron of Pennsylvania, Logan of Illinois, determined to renominate him. Grant consented, and for the first time since the office of president was created there was an avowed candidate for a third term. A storm of criticism followed. Pamphlets were written on both sides; his supporters were dubbed ‘Restorationists’ and ‘Imperialists’; No-ThirdTerm Leagues were formed; AntiThird-Term meetings were held; and an Anti-Third-Term mass convention met at St. Louis. Alarmed by the hostility aroused, Grant wished to have his name withdrawn, but Conkling refused; his name came before the convention and on thirty-six ballots never received less than 303 and once as many as 313 votes.

The attempt to nominate failed, the voters were not given a chance to express their opinions on the third-term issue, and thirty-two years elapsed before they ever were. Five times since 1841 presidents have died or been murdered while in office, and been succeeded by vice presidents; but none of them save Mr. Roosevelt — neither Tyler nor Fillmore, neither Johnson nor Arthur — was ever elected president, or so much as thought, of as his own successor. The reëlection of Mr. McKinley, in 1900, was soon followed by an innocent suggestion that it might be well to consider him as a candidate for another reëlection in 1904; that ‘the only objection which may be urged against his reëlection is the anti-third-term feeling, and that would amount to nothing where the candidate possesses the confidence of the country to the extent that Mr. McKinley does.’ The President did not think so, and immediately gave out a statement from the White House. ‘I regret,’ he said, ‘that the suggestion of a third term has been made. I doubt whether I am called upon to give it notice. But there are now questions of the gravest importance before the Administration and the country, and their just consideration should not be prejudiced in the public mind by even the suspicion of the thought of a third term. In view, therefore, of the reiteration of the suggestion of it, I will say now, once for all, expressing a long-settled conviction, that I not only am not and will not be a candidate for a third term, but would not accept a nomination for it, if it were tendered me.’

Mr. Roosevelt served the unfinished term of Mr. McKinley, and was elected president in 1904. On the night of election day, after the returns made it sure that he would be president, he too gave out an anti-third-term statement. ‘On the fourth of March next I shall have served three and a half years, and these three and a half years constitute my first term. The wise custom which limits the President to two terms regards the substance, and not the form, and under no circumstances will I be a candidate for, or accept another nomination.’ It is foolish for anyone to say what he will or will not do four years hence. Mr. McKinley was assassinated and never called on to stand by his pledge; Mr. Roosevelt, despite his pledge, became the candidate of the Progressive Party in 1912, and brought up the issue of a third term in a new form. Is he running for a third term? it was asked. May a vice president who comes to the presidency on the death of his chief be said to serve a term of his own? If so Mr. Roosevelt has had two terms; if not he has had but one, which is all he has had, for only once was he elected president. There were those who held that the number of terms was of no consequence whatever, was but an idle tradition which had arisen in times very unlike our own; that the fears of Jefferson never had been, and never could be, realized; that, in a country so vast as ours, sectional feeling, if nothing else, would prevent the reëlection of the same man for a long series of terms.

That the issue was not settled in 1912 is made certain by the fact that it is now again before us in identically the same form. That same year the Democratic National Convention put this plank in its platform; ’We favor the single presidential term and to that end urge the adoption of an amendment to the Constitution making the President of the United States ineligible for reelection, and we pledge the candidate of this Convention to this principle.’ There were those who saw in this ‘the fine hand of Mr, Bryan,’ who was determined, they said, to have Mr. Wilson out of the way when the time came to find a successor. Be this as it may, when that time did come round the candidate pledged to one term was renominated by the party which pledged him, for neither the party nor the candidate, nor anyone else, believed the pledge meant anything.


Thus has it come about that the idea of limiting the number of terms a president may have is as old as the Constitution ; that it was debated and rejected by the framers of that document, has since been approved by some presidents and disapproved by none, has been approved by political conventions, has found its way into national platforms, has been the subject of popular debate and the cause of the introduction into Congress of more than a hundred joint resolutions to amend the Constitution; yet nothing has been done, for it has never been put fairly and squarely before the voters. Grant’s desire for a third nomination was not gratified. The case of Mr. Roosevelt was complicated by the fact that he had been but once actually elected president, and so will that of Mr. Coolidge be should he be renominated. The prospect that he may be has again brought on a public debate and led to the introduction into the House of Representatives, during the last session of the last Congress, of the Springer resolution of 1875; but the House was afraid to bring it to a vote and suffered it to die in the hands of the Committee on the Judiciary. Should the time come when a president who has twice been elected to office seeks a third election, he will surely meet great opposition, for the no-third-term doctrine is still strong, and there are still a great many who believe, with Jefferson, that ‘in no office can rotation be more expedient.'