The Jeffersonian Perspective

Commentary on Today's Social and Political Issues
Based on the Writings of Thomas Jefferson


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.

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.

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.

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:

The idea was that the people would keep watch over their representatives and through their votes, make needed corrections.

Public office was to be a public service, not a means for self-enrichment.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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."

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.

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:

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."

Cross References

To other essays in The Jeffersonian Perspective

To Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government

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Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government: Table of Contents

© 1996 by Eyler Robert Coates, Sr.

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