Federalist #71 continues with a discussion of the President, particularly the length of the presidential term in office. Hamilton lays out the concerns over term length at the beginning: if the term is too long the President will not do what is best for the nation but what is best for himself, and if too short, the President will have no incentive to do the job well, but merely bide his time until the end of term, but he will also be susceptible to undue influence from the people and congress if his term is not long enough. What might be surprising to some readers is that the concern is over how long the term should be where the real discussion should be on term limits. With the ability of incumbents to entrench themselves in office, it might not matter if the term is 2 years or 8 years; if the President keeps getting reelected the term in office could go on indefinitely thus bringing about the first set of negative consequences established by Hamilton. Remember, it was not until 1951 with the ratification of the 22nd Amendment that the President was limited to two terms.
However narrow-sighted #71 might appear at first blush, we should always remember that Hamilton warned in #1 that in writing he will keep his motives within the “depository of his own breast,” which means we should always be on the lookout for multiple lessons. One lesson in particular I find fascinating in #71 is his criticism of democracy. #71 is not just about how long a President should serve before coming up for reelection, but rather the competing preferences of rule by the elite or rule by the people.
In the second paragraph Hamilton mocks those who suggest the President should be moved by popular opinion. “But such men entertain very crude notions, as well of the purposes for which government was instituted, as of the true means by which the public happiness may be promoted. The republican principle demands that the deliberate sense of the community should govern the conduct of those to whom they intrust the management of their affairs; but it does not require an unqualified complaisance to every sudden breeze of passion.” The President should strive for the public good while keeping in mind that the public may not always know what is in its own good.
Hamilton would be abhorred by Bill Clinton’s “governing by the polls” in which he would pursue policies based on their popularity. Hamilton would also find it comical that we judge the quality of a sitting President by how well he does in public opinion polls. Presidents should be above such matters. Whether it is going to war in Iraq or looking to reform healthcare, Hamilton suggests that the President should not be influenced by popular opinion. While he was a member of parliament, Edmund Burke held a similar position when he said, “It is his duty to sacrifice his repose, his pleasures, his satisfactions, to theirs; and above all, ever, and in all cases, to prefer their interest to his own. But his unbiased opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living.
These he does not derive from your pleasure; nor from the law and the constitution. They are a trust from Providence, for the abuse of which he is deeply answerable. Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”
The opinion of the people should not guide the elected President, thus, the President should have mechanisms in place to shield him from the public’s backlash, which is why the length of the term is so important to Hamilton. If the term is too short, the President would only do what was popular.
It was not just the people who the President should be insulated from, but congress as well. If he were in office for too short of a term, the President would fall to the whim of congress and thus violate the separation of powers model borrowed from Montesquieu. But, insulating the President from congress was another way of insulating the President from the undue influence—no matter how indirect—of the people.
We should not be shocked by what we read in #71, for it is well-established that Hamilton was in favor of a strong executive. But, Hamilton’s executive is not what the Constitution gave us, nor is Hamilton’s view the predominant view. Many of the Anti-Federalists, not to mention Madison and Jefferson, were in favor of a more populist position. #71, as much as any of the others, reinforces my claim that we cannot read the Federalist as authored by one Publius just as we cannot think of the founders as one group.
Hamilton recognized the capriciousness of the people. He recognized that the people could be petty and have a short-memory, thus something like presidential authority should be institutionally defined and insulated from popular influence. I do appreciate his suspicion of the popular opinion even if he did overestimate the wisdom of the President.
Wednesday, August 4th, 2010
Kyle Scott, PhD teaches in the Political Science Department and Honors College at the University of Houston. His published research deals with constitutional interpretation and its relevance for contemporary politics. His most recent book, The Price of Politics, critically assesses the Supreme Court’s eminent domain decisions and explains the importance of property rights.