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The Federalist Papers: No. 72

On this day in 1788, Federalist Paper No. 72 is published. Alexander Hamilton (a.k.a. “Publius”) is still discussing the duration of presidential terms and the manner in which these 4-year terms contribute to an “energetic executive.”

Publius reminds his readers that frequent presidential elections will not only result in frequent changes of the Executive, but it will also result in frequent changes of the subordinate officers who are running the various departments of government. To put this into modern terms, each President appoints his own cabinet, often completely replacing the prior President’s cabinet. Each of these cabinet members is in charge of one aspect of the government (e.g., the State Department or the Commerce Department). How can the government be stable if these men and women are constantly changing? Longer terms provides more stability.


Closely linked to this issue of duration is the issue of re-election. Before the 22nd Amendment, Presidents could be re-elected any number of times. Publius believes that this system of “re-eligibility” allows the people to maximize the benefits of a long presidential term.


When a President and his administration are doing well, the people can “prolong the utility of his talents and virtues” and they can “secure to the government the advantage of permanency in a wise system of administration.” Moreover, Presidents who have gained experience can continue. Why should the Constitution “declare that the moment [experience] is acquired, its possessor shall be compelled to abandon the station in which it was acquired, and to which it is adapted?” Or what if the nation is at war and wants to continue on with the same commander-in-chief? Why should the Constitution preclude that possibility?


If the President cannot run for another term in office, Publius believes that it diminishes the “inducements to good behavior.” Men have more zeal for properly discharging their duties when they are “permitted to entertain a hope of OBTAINING, by MERITING, a continuance of them.” After all, the “desire of reward is one of the strongest incentives of human conduct.”


Publius continues at length about the ill effects of having a President who cannot be re-elected. We have seen these and other problems in action, if we stop to think about it. We see them in lame duck Presidents: Either they misuse their powers on the way out the door (who is going to stop them?!) or they seem to lack authority to get anything done (no one cares what they think). In some ways, the country sits around and waits for the next administration to start.


By contrast, proponents of term limits on the President had promised two advantages: “1st, greater independence in the magistrate; 2d, greater security to the people.” Publius dismisses both of these advantages. He thinks they are “at best speculative.” In any event, they are outweighed by the disadvantages that he has listed.


His arguments carried the day for a while. But, of course, the 22nd Amendment changed that system to the one we have today. I wonder if hindsight would make Publius more favorable to our current 2-term limit on the presidency. I think most of us are pretty happy that we have it.

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