Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Hamilton, Roosevelt and the 22nd Amendment

In Federalist Number 72, Alexander Hamilton makes a strong case against term limits for the president.  These days, of course, we are used to the idea of a president serving only two terms, as limited by the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution.  Why, then, did Hamilton argue in favor of essentially unlimited terms for the chief executive, and why did no president actually serve more than two, other then FDR?

Hamilton made essentially five arguments against term limits:

1. Less inducement to good behavior.  If one knows one's time is limited in the job, where's the incentive to behave properly, not having to worry about getting re-elected?

2. A greater inducement to corruption.  Again, knowing that one is going to lose one's job anyway, why not take advantage of any "special favors" during the limited time in office?

3. Term limits would deprive the public of the very men who have the experience to lead best.  Why replace the seasoned veteran with a relative newcomer, simply as a matter of procedure?

4. Continuity in crisis.  Hamilton argued that replacing the president in times of crisis - especially in war - would be potentially disastrous.  Crisis is no time for on-the-job training.

5. Term limits would serve as a destabilizing factor, artificially compelling a change in administration that the people may not necessarily want.

Near the end of the paper, Hamilton adds, in response to counter-arguments:  " ...if he [the president] had been fortunate or adroit enough to conciliate the good-will of the people, he might induce them to consider as a very odious and unjustifiable restraint upon themselves, a provision which was calculated to debar them of the right of giving a fresh proof of their attachment to a favorite. There may be conceived circumstances in which this disgust of the people, seconding the thwarted ambition of such a favorite, might occasion greater danger to liberty, than could ever reasonably be dreaded from the possibility of a perpetuation in office, by the voluntary suffrages of the community, exercising a constitutional privilege."

In other words, could the strong attachment of the people (or even a small number of the people) lead to civil unrest if their favorite was not re-elected simply because of term limits? 

So, how has this worked in practice?  Washington set an unofficial precedent by refusing a third term, which he would no doubt have won, though it was likely due to his age that he refused, rather than a more altruistic motive.  In any case, Jefferson, Madison and Monroe all adhered to the two-term precedent, as well.  A few presidents attempted to serve a third term - Grant, Cleveland, Theodore Roosevelt and Wilson - but all failed to do so.  The only president to successfully be elected to more than two terms (ultimately winning four times) was Franklin Roosevelt.  

Roughly two years after FDR's death, the Congress proposed the 22nd Amendment, limiting the president to two full terms, or ten years in office, if he should serve less than two years of his predecessor's term.  The only presidents who could have served more than two full terms since the amendment was ratified in 1951 were Truman (who was president at the time and was specifically exempted from its provisions, yet chose to adhere to the two-term precedent, anyway) and  Lyndon Johnson, who served the last 14 months of JFK's term, but refused re-nomination in 1968.  Ford, who took over from Nixon, served more than two years of Nixon's term, and was therefore ineligible to be elected more than once (a moot point, as he lost in 1976).

So, was Hamilton's warning about artificial term limits warranted?  After all, no president for 150 years successfully ran more than twice.  Those who tried all failed.  On the other hand, was Hamilton right about not "changing horses in mid-stream", as FDR was repeatedly elected during the Great Depression and World War II?  If Hamilton was right and it was that important to keep a sitting, experienced president through a great crisis (or two, in FDR's case), why was the country so eager to limit the presidential service so soon after FDR's death?

There have been several attempts in Congress to repeal the 22nd Amendment, but none gained any traction. Why do you suppose this is?  Are we, as Americans, perhaps still a little leery about long-serving chief executives, perhaps reminiscent of English kings?  Are we "wired for change" and don't like to see ourselves as a country (as represented by the president) as stuck in the mud, so to speak?  But if that's true, why do we allow members of Congress to serve in perpetuity?  Why not terms limits for them, if it's good enough for the president?  Is there that much of a difference in the way we see the president and the way we see members of Congress?  After all, no president but one ever successfully ran for more than two terms, yet members of Congress regularly serve for decades.  

Discuss, as you make ready to vote this November...

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Hamilton Got It Wrong...Sort Of

In Federalist Number 68, Alexander Hamilton makes the case for the mode of election of the president - the Electoral College, as we know it.  Without going into great detail (you can read it for yourself here: http://www.constitution.org/fed/federa68.htm - it's a pretty short read), it makes the case for the College as a non-partisan means of election.

Electors were to be chosen in each state, and no provision was made or encouraged that any elector should be in favor of one candidate over another ahead of time.  The assumption was that a body of wise men (of course, all men at the time) would debate and make a wise, informed choice for the chief executive.  Electors were to be independent, not subject to or part of any elected legislative body, thus preserving the independence of the president, once elected.  It was a very high-minded and idealistic idea for the election of  the president, and one that had many merits.  One merit was that the electors would also be independent of the national mood, since communication between the states was fairly slow.  The idea was that each state would make its own judgment without competing (or corrupting) influences from other states.

Of course, two centuries hence, communication is nearly instantaneous, electors are by all means partisan and the national mood is felt across all state lines.  These are things Hamilton, Madison and Jay couldn't have imagined when the Constitution was being written and "marketed" by the Federalist Papers, but happily, many, if not most, modern inventions and conditions can still be covered by the Constitution.  Freedom of the press certainly covers more than just printing presses, for example.  And whether the Electoral College is still the best method for electing the president, versus a direct, popular election, well, that's a fair debate.

So, why did I title this entry "Hamilton Got It Wrong"?  It was not about the Electoral College or the method for selecting the president.  It was later in Federalist 68, when he wrote:

"The process of election affords a moral certainty, that the office of President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications. Talents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity, may alone suffice to elevate a man to the first honors in a single State; but it will require other talents, and a different kind of merit, to establish him in the esteem and confidence of the whole Union, or of so considerable a portion of it as would be necessary to make him a successful candidate for the distinguished office of President of the United States. It will not be too strong to say, that there will be a constant probability of seeing the station filled by characters pre-eminent for ability and virtue."

Read that again.  Hamilton was convinced that this electoral system would prevent people who are simply popular and masters of intrigue to ever elevate themselves to the presidency.  The wise, independent electors would never allow that to happen.  Our presidents would be nearly guaranteed to be "...characters pre-eminent for ability and virtue."  I admire the writers of our amazing Constitution for their wisdom and foresight.  But sadly, they seemed to have misjudged certain parts of human nature, especially the popularity of, well, popularity.

Discussion questions:

1. Was the Electoral College a good idea in the first place, given Hamilton's arguments? (Read the whole Federalist 68 prior to answering.)

2. Was Hamilton right that there is a "moral certainty" that "... that the office of President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications."?

3. If the office of the president is not held by  "...characters pre-eminent for ability and virtue", whose fault is it - the the Electoral College or the electorate in general?

Discuss amongst yourselves...