Essay Read by Constituting America Founder, Janine Turner
“There are however some things deducible from reason, and evidenced by experience, that serve to guide our decision upon the case. The one is never to invest any individual with extraordinary power; for besides his being tempted to misuse it, it will excite contention and commotion in the nation for the office. Secondly, never to invest power long in the hands of any number of individuals. The inconveniences that may be supposed to accompany frequent changes are less to be feared than the danger that arises from long continuance.” – Thomas Paine, Dissertation on First Principles of Government, 1795.
Advocates of republican systems long have insisted on certain features in a government to qualify it as a republic. Among those are the right to vote vested in a variable, yet sufficiently substantial, portion of adult residents, the election of the important figures in government, regular elections, short terms for those elected, rotation in office through restrictions on re-election, and the right of voters to recall elected officials. The objectives of these conditions are to keep the governing members responsive to the people’s wishes, to promote fresh blood in positions of authority, and to allow more persons to participate in governing, thereby bestowing legitimacy on the system even in the eyes of those who may lose a particular political contest.
The opponents of the United States Constitution found much to criticize in what they saw as the deficient republicanism of the proposed charter. Colonial practice had been annual or even semi-annual terms for legislators. Early state practice generally continued that tradition, although some permitted longer terms for the upper house of a bicameral legislature. Annual or biennial terms became the norm for governors. For example, the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780 provided that the governor, lieutenant governor, and senators and representatives in the state legislature be elected annually. The Virginia constitution of 1776 provided for annual election for the House of Delegates, the lower house of the state legislature, but allowed four-year terms for state senators, the terms ending on a rotating basis, with one-quarter of senate offices up for election each year. The governor was elected annually. He could be re-elected for three terms but then became ineligible for re-election for at least four years.
At the level of the national government, the Articles of Confederation left the precise mode of choosing delegates to the states, but limited their terms in Congress to three years in six. Virginia, for example, chose its delegates to the Confederation Congress anew annually. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787, enacted by the Confederation Congress to govern the Old Northwest territory also required annual election to the territorial legislature.
It is today taken for granted that only citizens might vote. But that was not always the American practice. The Constitution requires citizenship for those elected to either house of Congress and to the Presidency. But there is no similar qualification required for those doing the electing. The Constitution left it to the states to sort out. The Massachusetts Constitution of 1780, for example, discussed voting by “inhabitants” and imposed age, residency, and property qualifications, but not separate citizenship.
Nor was there a lack of awareness of the concept of citizenship versus residency. The Northwest Ordinance provided that voting for territorial representatives was open to two classes: those who were citizens of other states, had resided in the territory for one year, and owned a specified amount of property; and those who were not citizens, but had resided in the territory for three years, and owned the same specified amount of property. The Ordinance made a similar distinction between citizens and non-citizens for candidates for election to the territorial legislature.
States generally allowed non-citizens to vote well into the 19th century to attract immigrants. It is a common trope in historical accounts to write about urban political machines whose operatives at election time waited at the docks to welcome those fresh off the ships from Europe with job opportunities, a small gift, and a voting card filled out in favor of their benefactors. At the level of presidential elections, it was not until the election of 1928 that all states restricted voting to American citizens. Even today, about a dozen municipalities, mostly in Maryland, allow non-citizens to vote in local elections.
While there was no significant debate about citizenship for voting, the length of terms of office was a matter of significant contention at the convention in Philadelphia and in the state ratifying conventions. The Constitution’s supporters tried different approaches to blunt attacks. One was to cherry-pick the length of terms of particular state offices or offices in Great Britain. As to the two-year terms of the House of Representatives, James Madison in No. 53 of The Federalist agreed that there must be frequent elections, but “what particular degree of frequency may be absolutely necessary for the purpose, does not appear to be susceptible of any precise calculation,…” Thus, a range of terms of service reasonably would be sufficiently republican.
To illustrate his point, Madison contrasted the terms of the lower houses of various state legislatures:
“In Connecticut and Rhode Island, the periods are half-yearly. In the other states, South Carolina excepted, they are annual. In South Carolina they are biennial; as is proposed in the federal government. Here is the difference as four to one, between the longest and the shortest periods; and yet it would be not easy to show, that Connecticut or Rhode Island is better governed, or enjoys a greater share of rational liberty, than South Carolina;…”
If anything, shorter terms were undesirable, in that they encouraged electoral fraud, a concern not unheard of today: “[S]purious elections cannot be investigated and annulled in time for the decision to have its due effect….Hence a very pernicious encouragement is given to the use of unlawful means, for obtaining irregular returns.” It might be added that representatives complain that, even with modern transportation, two-year terms are burdensome because they need to spend so much time campaigning for re-election. It should be noted that these complaints have increased as the members of Congress have become full-time legislators and the size of the government has expanded.
Even if long terms of office might be undesirable as a matter of general consideration, there might be more justification for a longer term in Congress than in state or local legislative councils. National affairs regulated by Congress require greater acquisition of knowledge of complex policies and of the needs of other states. Hence, more time is needed to become sufficiently familiar with these complexities, whereas in a state the laws are uniform and the people and their needs are less diversified. In the end, Madison argued, “the business of federal legislation must continue so far to exceed, both in novelty and difficulty, the legislative business of a single state, as to justify the longer period of service assigned to those who are to transact it.”
The six-year terms for Senators came in for especially harsh criticism. Madison and other Federalists frequently defended the Senate’s long terms on two grounds, the need for a stabilizing influence over the popular passions likely to influence the short-term focus of the more democratic House of Representatives, and the Senate’s role in the potentially complex matters of foreign relations. After a brief attempt to analogize the terms of office of United States Senators to the five-year terms of senators in the state of Maryland, Madison in Essay No. 63 of The Federalist emphasized the role of the Senate as a stabilizing influence on the House of Representatives both by taking a “longer” view on policy and because of the “propensity of all single and numerous assemblies, to yield to the impulse of sudden and violent passions, and to be seduced by factious leaders into intemperate and pernicious resolutions.” As well, there was the Senate’s function in foreign affairs which required sophistication, wisdom, and knowledge. Moreover, longer terms gave that body the stability to provide a “national character” needed for the United States to be effective in dealings with foreign nations.
The critics were not convinced. Even moderate opponents saw the Senate’s terms as dangerous. In Essay of Brutus No. 16 of April 10, 1788, the New Yorker Robert Yates agreed that the Senate’s stabilizing role and its tasks in foreign affairs required longer terms than those of the typical state legislature or of the House of Representatives. Yates also agreed that the Senate was to represent the country’s “natural” aristocracy. But the danger to republicanism remained. “Men that hold office for long become detached from their constituents.” This is especially a problem with the Senate, as “they will for the most part of the time be absent from the state they represent, and associate with such company as will possess very little of the feelings of the middling class of people. For it is to be remembered that there is to be a federal city, and the inhabitants of it will be the great and the mighty of the earth.” [Emphasis in original.]
The solution for Yates and for his fellow New York Anti-federalist Melancton Smith, writing as The Federal Farmer, was to reduce the term to four years. In addition, there must be rotation in office—Yates proposed a limit of three terns for Senators—and recall as existed in the Articles of Confederation. Otherwise, the reality will be that Senators will be reelected over and over for life, due to the influence of their “friends.” “Everybody acquainted with public affairs knows how difficult it is to remove from office a person who is long been in it. It is seldom done except in cases of gross misconduct. It is rare that want of competent ability procures it.”
The concerns of the Constitution’s critics found their way into proposals for reform even as the states approved the new plan of government. Among the list of proposed amendments from the Virginia convention sent on June 27, 1788, was one that called for rotation in office as a very useful tool to limit the potential threat to the people’s liberty from an entrenched political class: So that members of legislative and executive branches “may be restrained from oppression by feeling and participating the public burdens, they should, at fixed periods, be reduced to a private station, return into the mass of the people, and the vacancies be supplied by certain and regular elections,…”
None of the proposals have been adopted. Senate terms are still six years. There is no rotation in office, and an attempt by the people of Arkansas to provide “term limits” for members of both houses of Congress elected in Arkansas was struck down as unconstitutional by the United States Supreme Court. Likewise, an attempt by people in New Jersey even to collect signatures to allow a recall vote for a Senator was blocked by the state supreme court as unconstitutional. Meanwhile, members of Congress, especially Senators, generally hold office for decades, often until death. It is common for them to be “absent from the state they represent.” They live in the “federal city,” returning to their states only at election time. The environs of the District of Columbia include the wealthiest areas of the United States, so it may also be rightly said that they associate with “the great and mighty of the earth,” who “possess very little of the feelings of the middling class of people.”
Joerg W. Knipprath is an expert on constitutional law, and member of the Southwestern Law School faculty. Professor Knipprath has been interviewed by print and broadcast media on a number of related topics ranging from recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions to presidential succession. He has written opinion pieces and articles on business and securities law as well as constitutional issues, and has focused his more recent research on the effect of judicial review on the evolution of constitutional law. He has also spoken on business law and contemporary constitutional issues before professional and community forums, and serves as a Constituting America Fellow.