Term Limits & Citizen Legislators
Was Congress and the Office of President intended to be in the hands of professional politicians, or did the Founding Fathers mean for private citizens to become involved in politics, to hold office for a few terms, and then to return to private life?
Clearly, Jefferson considered the ultimate source of governmental power to rest in the people themselves.
"[If the] representative houses [are dissolved,]... the legislative powers, incapable of annihilation, [return] to the people at large for their exercise." --Thomas Jefferson: Declaration of Independence, 1776.
The people perform whatever functions of government they are competent to perform and delegate to persons of their choice those functions for which they are not competent.
"We think experience has proved it safer for the mass of individuals composing the society to reserve to themselves personally the exercise of all rightful powers to which they are competent and to delegate those to which they are not competent to deputies named and removable for unfaithful conduct by themselves immediately." --Thomas Jefferson to P. Dupont, 1816.
The government of the United States, then, is essentially a people's government. It was to be run by people who were from their number and closely associated with their interests.
"All [reforms] can be... [achieved] peaceably by the people confining their choice of Representatives and Senators to persons attached to republican government and the principles of 1776; not office-hunters, but farmers whose interests are entirely agricultural. Such men are the true representatives of the great American interest and are alone to be relied on for expressing the proper American sentiments." --Thomas Jefferson to A. Campbell, 1797.
Farming was, of course, the principle occupation of that day. Most of Jefferson's writings that concerned the term of office spoke of the need for having short terms so that the people's will may be exercised over their representatives more directly. In fact, he considered very short terms to be the ideal:
"A government by representatives elected by the people at short periods was our object, and our maxim... was, 'where annual election ends, tyranny begins;' nor have our departures from it been sanctioned by the happiness of their effects." --Thomas Jefferson to S. Adams, 1800.
The idea was that the people would keep watch over their representatives and through their votes, make needed corrections.
"Should things go wrong at any time, the people will set them to rights by the peaceable exercise of their elective rights." --Thomas Jefferson to W. Nicholas, 1806.
Public office was to be a public service, not a means for self-enrichment.
"Our public economy is such as to offer drudgery and subsistence only to those entrusted with its administration--a wise and necessary precaution against the degeneracy of the public servants." --Thomas Jefferson to M. de Meunier, 1795.
In contrast to some of our "public servants" of today who manage to become quite wealthy while in office, Jefferson himself deliberately avoided such use of the public trust.
"I have the consolation of having added nothing to my private fortune during my public service and of retiring with hands as clean as they are empty." --Thomas Jefferson to Diodati, 1807.
That attitude contrasts greatly with today's representatives, who have voted themselves not only handsome salaries, but generous retirement benefits. But in Jefferson's view, whenever officers of government look upon their office for the benefits they can gain from it, this longing contributes to corruption in high office.
"Whenever a man has cast a longing eye on [offices] a rottenness begins in his conduct." --Thomas Jefferson to T. Coxe, 1799.
When writing about a proposed Constitution for the State of Virginia, Jefferson suggested a single long term for Senators. This would have several salutary effects: it would prevent Senators from conducting their office so as to promote their own careers, and it would keep their perspective focused on the people whom they were to represent.
"I proposed the representatives (and not the people) should choose the [State] Senate... To make them independent I had proposed that they should hold their places for nine years and then go out (one third every three years) and be incapable forever of being re-elected to that house. My idea was that if they might be re-elected, they would be casting their eye forward to the period of election (however distant) and be currying favor with the electors and consequently dependent on them. My reason for fixing them in office for a term of years rather than for life was that they might have an idea that they were at a certain period to return into the mass of the people and become the governed instead of the governor, which might still keep alive that regard to the public good that otherwise they might perhaps be induced by their independence to forget." --Thomas Jefferson to E. Pendleton, 1776.
Throughout his writings, Jefferson was more concerned with rotation in office the higher the office held. Here, he speaks of the need for limited terms in the office of President and Senator.
"I apprehend that the total abandonment of the principle of rotation in the offices of President and Senator will end in abuse." --Thomas Jefferson to E. Rutledge, 1788.
The fears that Jefferson held of monarchy led him to express his reservations in terms of an executive office becoming hereditary. But the principle of an executive seizing too much power and the fear of his using his power to remain in office was surely a valid one.
"If some period be not fixed, either by the Constitution or by practice, to the services of the First Magistrate, his office, though nominally elective, will in fact be for life; and that will soon degenerate into an inheritance." --Thomas Jefferson to Weaver, 1807.
Jefferson was especially troubled by the possibility of the President becoming through custom an office for life, and sought himself to establish the precedent of holding the office for only two terms, which did indeed prevail until Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected to a third and a fourth term, which, in fact, turned out to be "for life."
"General Washington set the example of voluntary retirement after eight years. I shall follow it, and a few more precedents will oppose the obstacle of habit to anyone after a while who shall endeavor to extend his term. Perhaps it may beget a disposition to establish it by an amendment of the Constitution." --Thomas Jefferson to J. Taylor, 1805.
After President Roosevelt's election to a fourth term, Congress finally passed and sent to the states the 22nd Amendment limiting the President to two terms of office. Roosevelt had been re-elected to a 3rd and 4th term because of the threat and then the reality of World War II. As Jefferson had noted back then, however, there will always be an excuse for the President seeking more than two terms.
"If the principle of rotation be a sound one, as I conscientiously believe it to be with respect to this office, no pretext should ever be permitted to dispense with it, because there never will be a time when real difficulties will not exist and furnish a plausible pretext for dispensation." --Thomas Jefferson to H. Guest, 1809.
Jefferson never specifically mentioned rotation of office in the House of Representatives, though that, too, may be assumed to be included in the following more general statement with regard to the proposed Federal Constitution:
"I dislike, and greatly dislike, the abandonment in every instance of the necessity of rotation in office and most particularly in the case of the President." --Thomas Jefferson to J. Madison, 1787.
Given the evolution of our country, the greater power appended to every office and the tendency for even the office of Representative to become perpetual, one suspects that he would include that also along with other elected offices as requiring rotation. Moreover, one would think that those who agree with Jefferson today and believe that there should be term limits, would have the integrity that he displayed and begin the practice themselves, perhaps even making it a point of honor for other Senators and Representatives to follow suit. That argument is countered with the opinion that such a voluntary act would be to the detriment of the representative's political party, and therefore that is sufficient reason for dispensing with such a proposal. But is our government organized for the benefit of the people, or for the benefit of the legislators and their political parties? As Jefferson would say, "there never will be a time when real difficulties will not exist and furnish a plausible pretext for dispensation."
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