Sep 262013

Thomas Jefferson would have approved of the 22nd Amendment. Ratified in 1951, the 22nd Amendment prohibits any person from serving as President of the United States for more than two terms. Although the Presidential term of four years was set forth in Article 2 of the Constitution, there was no limit set as to how many times one person could occupy the office. 

How do I know that Thomas Jefferson would have approved of the 22nd Amendment? In a letter written to John Adams on November 13th, 1787, Jefferson commented: “I confess there are things in it which stagger all my dispositions to subscribe to what such an assembly has proposed.…Their President seems a bad edition of a Polish king. He may be reelected from 4 years to 4 years for life. Reason and experience prove to us that a chief magistrate, so continuable, is an officer for life. When one or two generations shall have proved that this is an office for life, it becomes on every succession worthy of intrigue, of bribery, of force, and even of foreign interference. It will be of great consequence to France and England to have America governed by a Galloman or Angloman. Once in office, and possessing the military force of the union, without either the aid or check of a council, he would not be easily dethroned, even if the people could be induced to withdraw their votes from him. I wish that at the end of the 4 years they had made him for ever ineligible a second time. Indeed I think all the good of this new constitution might have been couched in three or four new articles added to the good, old, and venerable fabrick, which should have been preserved even as a religious relique.”

Jefferson was known to have reservations about the proposed Constitution. He vehemently objected to the fact that there was no Bill of Rights included in the proposed articles. However, he was also concerned that the presidency would transform itself over time into something akin to an institutional monarchy. That concern was, in fact, the second critique he listed about the document in a letter to James Madison on December 20, 1787. “The second feature I dislike, and greatly dislike, is the abandonment in every instance of the necessity of rotation in office, and most particularly in the case of the President. Experience concurs with reason in concluding that the first magistrate will always be re-elected if the Constitution permits it. He is then an officer for life. This once observed, it becomes of so much consequence to certain nations to have a friend or a foe at the head of our affairs that they will interfere with money & with arms. A Galloman or an Angloman will be supported by the nation he befriends. If once elected, and at a second or third election out voted by one or two votes, he will pretend false votes, foul play, hold possession of the reins of government, be supported by the States voting for him, especially if they are the central ones lying in a compact body themselves & separating their opponents: and they will be aided by one nation of Europe, while the majority are aided by another. The election of a President of America some years hence will be much more interesting to certain nations of Europe than ever the election of a king of Poland was. Reflect on all the instances in history antient & modern, of elective monarchies, and say if they do not give foundation for my fears. The Roman emperors, the popes, while they were of any importance, the German emperors till they became hereditary in practice, the kings of Poland, the Deys of the Ottoman dependances. It may be said that if elections are to be attended with these disorders, the seldomer they are renewed the better. But experience shews that the only way to prevent disorder is to render them uninteresting by frequent changes. An incapacity to be elected a second time would have been the only effectual preventative. The power of removing him every fourth year by the vote of the people is a power which will not be exercised. The king of Poland is removeable every day by the Diet, yet he is never removed.” 
Somewhat humorously, the attached image is an 1812 political cartoon depicting Jefferson behaving in a somewhat imperial manner. It even has Napoleon crouching behind him promising him: “You shall be King hereafter.” 

The concerns that Jefferson raised in his letters to Adams and Madison were validated by the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt. That presidency led to the 22nd Amendment which was indeed passed and later ratified in 1951. 

A postscript in Jefferson’s letter to Madison confirms for me the wisdom that the words of the Founding Fathers can still impart to us today. “The instability of our laws is really an immense evil. I think it would be well to provide in our constitutions that there shall always be a twelve-month between the ingross-ing a bill & passing it: that it should then be offered to it’s passage without changing a word: and that if circum-stances should be thought to require a speedier passage, it should take two thirds of both houses instead of a bare majority.” What we still have to learn from this Founding Father, whether it be his fear that the presidency might evolve into an institutionalized monarchy or that quickly passed legislation should require a supermajority in Congress, is decidedly What IS Right With America. 

Read the full text of Jefferson’s letter to Madison at: 

Read the full text of Thomas Jefferson’s letter to John Adams at:

Now for my own postscript: P.S., The first entry in the What IS Right With America Primer focused on how an Amendment to the Constitution is ratified. Can you recall the details of that process? If not, return to the page, and read all about it! 


Susan C. Rempel, Ph.D.


[suffusion-the-author display='description']

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.