Guest Essayist: James Legee, Graduate Fellow at the Matthew J. Ryan Center for the study of Free Institutions and the Public Good, Villanova University

Five years after the surrender at Yorktown, circumstances were all but calm for the young republic.  George Washington, retired to Mount Vernon, wrote a letter to the second Secretary of Foreign Affairs under the Articles of Confederation, John Jay, articulating his concerns over the state of events.  Washington began the letter disquieted by the divergent foreign policies the states pursued.  The focus of the letter quickly shifted from foreign policy, to alarm Read more

Washington writes here as a private citizen to Jay, who as Secretary of Foreign Affairs under the Articles of Confederation witnessed firsthand the Articles’ shortcomings, as each state pursued a different foreign policy.

August 15, 1786

Dear Sir:

I have to thank you very sincerely for your interesting letter of the twenty-seventh of June, as well as for the other communications you had the goodness to make at the same time. Read more

Greetings from Mt. Vernon, Virginia!

Once again, I write from ground that belonged to our first President of the United States, and once again, George Washington is a leader, by example, on the item under discussion!

Federalist Papers 71 and 72 deal with the President’s Term in Office, and the idea of Presidential Term Limits.

Through the four year Presidential term, the framers strike the perfect balance – enough time for a President to enact his priorities, yet not endanger the liberty of the people:

“As, on the one hand, a duration of four years will contribute to the firmness of the Executive in a sufficient degree to render it a very valuable ingredient in the composition; so, on the other, it is not enough to justify any alarm for the public liberty.”

The debate about Presidential term limits in Federalist No. 72 is a serious one, and one in which the brilliant amendment process ultimately prevailed.  Hamilton argues that the imposition of term limits takes away the incentive for the President to do his or her best for the people:

“One ill effect of the exclusion would be a diminution of the inducements to good behavior. There are few men who would not feel much less zeal in the discharge of a duty when they were conscious that the advantages of the station with which it was connected must be relinquished at a determinate period, than when they were permitted to entertain a hope of OBTAINING, by MERITING, a continuance of them.”

For many years, tradition began by President Washington held that Presidents stepped down after two terms.  Once this tradition was broken by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, momentum gathered to codify what had previously been informally honored.

Eight years is a very long time for an individual to be subject to the stresses and daily intensity of the office of President of the United States. Even though the world moved at a slower pace two centuries ago, the stress of the office was and still is, immense.  We have all observed the photos of the youthful President on inauguration day, and eight years later, wondered at the grey hair and added lines on his face.

In the book, The Real George Washington, by Parry Allison Skousen (a present given to me by my friend and Constituting America Co-Chair Janine Turner), President Washington is quoted at the end of his eight years in a letter to John Jay:

“Indeed, the troubles and perplexities, ….added to the weight of years which have passed over me, have worn away my mind more than my body.”

An observer is quoted in the book as describing Washington after eight years in office this way, “The innumerable vexations he has met with….have very sensibly impaired the vigor of his constitution and given him an aged appearance.”

Since the ratification of the 22cnd amendment, Presidents Eisenhower, Nixon, Reagan, Clinton and George W. Bush were all elected for two terms, and limited by the 22cnd amendment from running for a third. The above description of President Washington after eight years in office could have easily applied to any of these Presidents.  The office of the Presidency has a way of aging its occupant, and eight years is a sufficient time for any man or woman to bear the responsibility.

Hamilton had also worried that too many ex-Presidents would be a distraction to the country:

“Would it promote the peace of the community, or the stability of the government to have half a dozen men who had had credit enough to be raised to the seat of the supreme magistracy, wandering among the people like discontented ghosts, and sighing for a place which they were destined never more to possess?”

Contrary to Hamilton’s prediction, in modern times, our country and world have benefitted from the wisdom and stature of ex-Presidents. Former Presidents George H.W. Bush and Clinton headed a Tsunami Relief Fund, President Clinton champions many humanitarian efforts and charities, Former Presidents George W. Bush and Clinton head a Haiti Relief Fund, and Former President Jimmy Carter has greatly raised the profile and success of Habit for Humanity, among other causes.

However, no former President has conducted himself with more dignity, grace and class than Former President George W. Bush.  Former President Bush, referenced almost daily by the current White House as the source of all the country’s problems, has quietly and respectfully stood by, and let our current President lead.  He has refrained from criticism of any elected officials, all the while working steadily to develop the Bush Institute, the arm of his Presidential Library dedicated to the promotion of freedom throughout the world.

Term limits for Presidents have ensured that our country not fall into a “monarchy mentality,” and that at least every eight years, those at the highest levels of government leave to make way for new leaders to serve.

Despite Hamilton’s ominous warnings, term limits for Presidents finally came to the United States Constitution through the process set up by the framers for change: the amendment process.  The founding fathers were brilliant men, whose insights continue to light our path today, but they knew they were not perfect, and could not always predict the future.

That is the beauty of our United States Constitution. When the people see a need for change, the demand is urgent enough, and felt commonly enough to bring about the 2/3’s for proposal and 3 /4’s necessary for ratification, there is a structure and process in place to legitimately and peacefully make a change.   The 22cnd Amendment is one of those changes that has bettered our system of government.

Thursday, August 5th, 2010