by Nick Tomboulides
One of the most common questions we’re asked here at U.S. Term Limits is, “how did America’s founding fathers feel about term limits?”
Though the Articles of Confederation — America’s first governing document — did include a provision for mandatory rotation (term limits), the idea was later voted down by delegates at the Philadelphia Convention of 1787.
Not surprisingly, an analysis of the Framers’ writings shows that what the term limits supporters among them lacked in collegial agreement, they more than made up for in an ability to predict the future. Those who called for rotation at the time of America’s founding have since been vindicated, as everything they cautioned against has now become reality.
Thomas Jefferson, a student of European history, did not attend the Constitutional Convention of 1787. But upon his return from France, he took one look at the proposed Constitution and spotted a key omission.
“The…feature I dislike, and greatly dislike, is the abandonment in every instance of the necessity of rotation in office, and most particularly in the case of the President,” he wrote.
He went on to describe the plight of Poland in the 16th-18th centuries, where a new system of election for monarchs was supposed to “exclude the idea of one continuable for life.” But, as Jefferson noted, that’s not how it worked out. Polish elections were a ruse — accessible only to members of rich and powerful dynasties — who would rarely leave office in spite of them. Sound familiar?
Jefferson’s skepticism of elections alone as a remedy to centralized power shows why he became known as the sage of Monticello. Nearly 200 years after his death, American journalists ask on a daily basis why elections can’t function as term limits. Jefferson knew the answer in 1787.
He remained a stalwart advocate for term limits for the rest of his life, speaking of the need for citizen legislators who could properly express the views of Americans in government. He decried “office-hunters,” the political animals who’d be subject to “degeneracy” after too much time in office.
As President, Jefferson followed George Washington’s precedent by serving only two four-year terms. In a letter penned during his second term, he hoped the precedent would one day lead to a constitutional amendment limiting presidents to eight years in office. This became a reality when the 22nd amendment to the Constitution was ratified in 1951.
“The Absence of Term Limits in the Constitution,” by Caitlin McLaughlin
“The Jeffersonian Perspective: Writings of Thomas Jefferson,” by Eyler Coates
Nick Tomboulides has been Executive Director of U.S. Term Limits since 2013.