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ArtII.S1.C1.9 Term of the President

Article II, Section 1, Clause 1:

The executive Power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America. He shall hold his Office during the Term of four Years, and, together with the Vice President, chosen for the same Term, be elected, as follows.

Article II, Section 1, Clause 1, provides for the President and Vice President to serve four-year terms. The Framers generally appear to have contemplated that, under the Constitution, the President, like Representatives and Senators, would not be subject to term limits but could run for office “as often as the people of the United States shall think him worthy of their confidence.” 1 However, there was much debate and concern that the Constitution might grant the President too much power and that, as Thomas Jefferson observed, “the perpetual re-eligibility of the President” could produce “cruel distress to our country even in your day and mine.” 2 Following precedent established by George Washington, the idea that no President would hold office for more than two terms was generally regarded as a fixed tradition until President Franklin Delano Roosevelt sought and won reelection for a third and fourth term in 1940 and 1944, respectively. In 1951, the states ratified the Twenty-Second Amendment limiting the President to two terms in office.3

When considering the term of the President during the Constitutional Convention, the Framers weighed how the President would be selected, whether a President should serve multiple times, and how to mitigate the danger that the Presidency might evolve into a “hereditary Monarchy” 4 or become the “mere creature” of Congress.5 On June 1, 1787, James Wilson of Pennsylvania proposed to the Committee of the Whole that the term of the President be three years, “on the supposition that a re-eligibility would be provided for,” 6 while Charles Pinckney of South Carolina proposed a term of seven years.7 George Mason of Virginia urged a term of “seven years at least, and for prohibiting a re-eligibility as the best expedient both for preventing the effect of a false complaisance on the side of the Legislature towards unfit characters; and a temptation on the side of the Executive to intrigue with the Legislature for a re-appointment.” 8

Although the Committee of the Whole voted for a seven-year term,9 debate continued over how to select the President and whether he should be eligible for reelection. Efforts to offset the longer seven-year term with a bar on re-eligibility were met by concerns that prohibiting reelection would, among other things, “destroy the great motive to good behavior, the hope of being rewarded by a re-appointment.” 10 Revisiting the appropriate term of office for the President in conjunction with whether the President should be eligible for reelection,11 the Convention considered proposals for, among other things, fifteen-year, eleven-year, eight-year, six-year, and three-year terms,12 as well as an indefinite term during Good Behavior.13 In late August 1787, the Convention referred the matter to the Committee of Eleven, which, in turn, proposed a term of four years without a bar to reelection.14

While the four-year term was shorter than the originally contemplated seven-year term, critics of the Constitution maintained that it would still allow the President to establish a dangerous influence over the United States.15 Responding to such concerns in the Federalist Papers, Alexander Hamilton explained the advantages of a four-year term as striking a balance between the “personal firmness of the executive magistrate, in the employment of his constitutional powers; and to the stability of the system of administration which may have been adopted under his auspices.” 16 He stated:

Between the commencement and termination of such a [four-year] period, there would always be a considerable interval, in which the prospect of annihilation would be sufficiently remote, not to have an improper effect upon the conduct of a man endued with a tolerable portion of fortitude. . . . [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.17

Hamilton also cited the three-year New York gubernatorial term to support that the President would be unlikely to acquire undue power across the entirety of the United States over four years when the Governor of New York had not done so over the much smaller state of New York over three years.18

In his Commentaries of the Constitution of the United States, Justice Joseph Story observed that the four-year term the Framers adopted for the President is “intermediate between the term of office of the senate, and that of the house of representatives” and, as a result, “[i]n the course of one presidential term, the house is, or may be twice recomposed; and two-thirds of the senate changed, or re-elected.” 19 Because the President’s four-year term is between the two- and six-year terms of the House and Senate, the President is subject to pressures that drive the House’s need to respond to the people’s immediate demands, even though such demands may be short-lived, and those that facilitate the Senate’s greater focus on long-term objectives because its six-year term provides some insulation from political winds.20

The Federalist No. 69 (Alexander Hamilton). back
Letter from Thomas Jefferson to Alexander Donald (Feb. 7, 1788), reprinted in 3 The Founders’ Constitution 505 (Philip B. Kurland & Ralph Lerner eds., 2000). back
U.S. Const. amend XXII. The Twenty-Second Amendment was adopted largely in response to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt seeking and winning reelection for an unprecedented third and fourth terms in 1940 and 1944, respectively. The Twenty-Second Amendment became a part of the Constitution on February 27, 1951, after it was adopted by Minnesota, which provided the thirty-sixth state that was necessary for adoption of the Amendment. 2 Grossman, Constitutional Amendments 758–759 (2012). For additional discussion on the Twenty-Second Amendment, see Amdt22.1 Overview of Twenty-Second Amendment, Presidential Term Limits. back
2 The Records of the Federal Constitution 35 (Max Farrand, ed. 1911) (statement of George Mason of Virginia)[hereinafter Farrand’s Records]. back
Id. at 103 (statement of Gouveneur Morris of Pennsylvania); see also Max Farrand, The Framing of the Constitution 117–118 (1913). back
1 Farrand’s Records, supra note 5, 68. back
Id. back
Id. back
Id. at 69. back
2 Farrand Records, supra note 5, at 33 (statement of Gouverneur Morris of Pennsylvania in support of motion made by William Churchill Houston of New Jersey on July 17, 1787, to strike the bar to reelection). back
See id. back
See, e.g., 1 Farrand Records, supra note 5,; 2 Farrand Records, supra note 5, at 102 (Rufus King of Massachusetts also suggested a twenty-year term. However, given that King’s proposal was “twenty years . . . [which is] the medium life of princes ” , Max Farrand, the editor of the Records of the Constitution, observes that this was likely meant to be ironic, stating, “This might possibly be meant as a caricature of the previous motions in order to defeat the object of them.” ). See also id. at 100, 112. back
Id. at 33–35. back
Id. at 497. back
See, e.g., The Anti-Federalist Papers, No. 67 (Cato/George Clinton), reprinted in The Complete Federalist and Anti-Federalist Papers 709 (2014) ( “It is remarked by Montesquieu, in treating of republics, that in all magistracies, the greatness of the power must be compensated by the brevity of the duration, and that a longer time than a year would be dangerous. The deposit of vast trusts in the hands of a single magistrate enables him in their exercise to create a numerous train of dependents. This tempts his ambition, which in a republican magistrate is also remarked to be pernicious, and the duration of his office for any considerable time favors his views, gives him the means and time to perfect and execute his designs; he therefore fancies that he may be great and glorious by oppressing his fellow citizens, and raising himself to permanent grandeur on the ruins of his country.” ). back
The Federalist No. 71 (Alexander Hamilton). back
Id. back
The Federalist No. 69 (Alexander Hamilton). See also The Federalist No. 72 (Alexander Hamilton) (describing five “ill effect[s]” of excluding the President either temporarily or permanently from subsequent terms of office). back
3 Joseph Story, Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States §1432 (1833). back
See generally id. back