On this day in 1788, Federalist Paper No. 71 is published. You may remember that the last paper outlined several ingredients needed for an energetic executive, and it addressed the first of these (“unity”—i.e. a single executive).
Alexander Hamilton (a.k.a. “Publius”) now tackles the second: “duration.” How long should the President’s term be?
Publius notes that the length of a President’s term affects two subjects: his “personal firmness” and the stability of policies enacted during his administration. A longer term, Publius notes, gives the President greater incentive to be firm in his positions. He has more at stake; he is willing to take risks. Shorter terms may cause Presidents to feel less interested. Moreover, the need to be re-elected quickly might cause the President’s “wishes, conspiring with his fears . . . still more powerfully to corrupt his integrity, or debase his fortitude.” The result is “feebleness and irresolution” in the executive. Not a good situation!
The Executive should not be malleable, bending to the “prevailing current, either in the community or in the legislature.” True, Publius acknowledges, a republic “demands that the deliberate sense of the community should govern the conduct” of elected officials. Yet it does not “require an unqualified complaisance to every sudden breeze of passion.” Moreover, even to the degree that an Executive should bend to the “inclinations of the people,” he should not show such pliability toward the legislature.
What good does it do to provide for a separation of powers among the branches of government “if both the executive and the judiciary are so constituted as to be at the absolute devotion of the legislative?” Such a separation would be “merely nominal, and incapable of producing the ends for which it was established.” The legislature already tends to be strong, on its own. This can make it “very difficult for the other members of the government to maintain the balance of the Constitution.”
Publius thinks four years does not “completely answer the end proposed,” but it will contribute towards it. In every term, there will be a period of time when the President’s re-election is approaching, and this uncertainty will affect his actions. However, Publius hopes that the President’s previous conduct will give him the opportunity to act “in proportion to the proofs he had given of his wisdom and integrity, and to the title he had acquired to the respect and attachment of his fellow-citizens.”
Publius does not believe that a four-year term is too long to endanger the public liberty. He notes that the British House of Commons has been able to take strides against its more powerful monarch. If the House of Commons has such power, what could “be feared from an elective magistrate of four years’ duration, with the confined authorities of a President of the United States?”
Perhaps the most important words in that sentence are “with the confined authorities . . . .” Publius is assuming a system of checks and balances in which each branch of government keeps the others accountable to stay within their constitutional boundaries.