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Presidential Term Limits in American History

Power, Principles, and Politics

By Michael J. Korzi

Publication Year: 2011

This study explains the importance of presidential tenure to the development of the American exclusive and political history and considers its saliency today. In it Michael Korzi lays out the major theoretical issues that frame the history and debates on this issue and traces them forward from the perspective of the founding generation, examining the tenures of royal governors and state governors after them, and then the debates over tenure at the Constitutional Convention. It is common knowledge that the decisions of Washington and especially Jefferson to step down after serving two terms as president, established the "two term" tradition. Korzi looks behind those decisions to consider the challenges to that tradition by those, on the one hand, who preferred a one term presidency and those, on the other, who advocated presidents serving more than two terms. He then recounts the "perfect storm" that allowed Franklin Roosevelt to shatter the two-term tradition in 1940. This election is critical not just because the two term tradition falls but because the arguments surrounding FDR’s election to a third term would reinforce tensions within the American political value system that have been prevalent since the founding. The Hamiltonian argument for leadership in a time of crisis would prevail, but Jeffersonian concerns about a consolidation of executive power would also strongly resonate. Korzi shows that in their quest to keep Roosevelt in office, FDR and his supporters made critical errors of judgment in 1943–44. Not only did Roosevelt pursue a fourth term against long odds that he would survive it, but he put little effort into the selection and policy education of Vice President Truman, who by his own admission was woefully unprepared to assume the presidency when the president died in April 1945. Korzi's analysis offers a strong challenge to Roosevelt biographers who have generally whitewashed this aspect of his presidency and decision making. In an extended analysis of one of the least-discussed amendments to the Constitution, Korzi situates the 22nd Amendment within the long history of debates and reservations about executive tenure. He shows that, while the amendment was indeed partly vindictive and political, Republicans were at the same time making arguments in keeping with a strong theoretical strain in American political thought, one to which they, as a party, had largely subscribed throughout their history. Finally, Korzi considers the implications of the 22nd Amendment for contemporary politics, addressing the conventional wisdom that presidents become "lame ducks" upon winning a second term, key reform proposals such as a six-year, one-term presidency, and the proposal for "rotation" (that is, a president being eligible to serve only two out of any four terms). The study concludes with an affirmation of the two-term rule, arguing that, despite some serious drawbacks, it offers a fitting balance for a nation with a conflicted history of restraining as well as enabling executive power.

Published by: Texas A&M University Press

Series: Joseph V. Hughes Jr. and Holly O. Hughes Series on the Presidency and Leadership


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Title Page, Copyright Page

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p. vii

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pp. ix-x

This book got its start a decade ago. Griffin Hathaway, a friend and colleague—not to mention a strong supporter of President Clinton—was trying to divine ways for the president to remain in office beyond the two terms allowed by the Twenty-second Amendment. We discussed some of the possible loopholes and technicalities ...

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Chapter 1 Introduction: Democracy, Power, and Presidential Tenure

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pp. 1-12

In late 2000, soon-to-be-retired President Bill Clinton confessed to what most political observers already knew: that if he were eligible he would have sought a third term as president. Despite losing Democratic control of Congress, jousting with Republicans, and facing an impeachment trial during his two terms in office, Clinton relished ...

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Chapter 2 Executive Tenure in Early American History

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pp. 13-42

Debates over executive tenure in general revolve around concerns over power and democracy and the perceived relationship of tenure to these values. Prior to the debate at the Constitutional Convention in 1787, it was standard to assume that long tenure in an executive office without “rotation” or term limits was inconsistent ...

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Chapter 3 “Sound Precedent”: The Development of the Two-term Tradition

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pp. 43-78

Despite the decision of the convention delegates in favor of unlimited reeligibility, the Whig preference for executive restraint proved resilient, and by the early nineteenth century the two-term tradition would be established. In fact, by the middle of the nineteenth century, the main political parties ...

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Chapter 4 The Tradition Falls: Roosevelt’s Third Term

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pp. 79-100

With the exception of the framers’ original decision against presidential term limitations, the most significant event in the history of the presidential tenure debate is naturally the election of 1940, the first successful challenge to the two-term tradition. Not only was the tradition shattered, but the wheels were set in motion ...

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Chapter 5 The Troubling Case of FDR’s Fourth Term

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pp. 101-123

FDR’s successful reelection of 1944 is often treated almost as an afterthought, unworthy of serious scholarly or critical scrutiny. Indeed, on the surface it is simply an extension of the election of 1940: the country needed Roosevelt in 1940 with war in Europe on the horizon and needed him perhaps even more with the war still on in 1944. ...

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Chapter 6 Tradition Resurgent: The Twenty-second Amendment

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pp. 124-142

The Twenty-second Amendment to the Constitution is among the least discussed of all of our amendments. A simple look at any number of American government or even presidency textbooks reveals little in the way of discussion—or even mention—of the Twenty-second Amendment and its meaning and implications. ...

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Chapter 7 Ambition, Democracyx, and Constitutional Balance

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pp. 143-170

Since the passage of the Twenty-second Amendment, conventional wisdom has held that presidents become lame ducks in their second terms. This wisdom seemed to hold an especially prominent place during the second term of George W. Bush. For instance, in early 2007 Newsweek reported a poll showing that ...


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pp. 171-208


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pp. 209-218

Other Titles in the Joseph V. Hughes Jr. and Holly O. Hughes Series on the Presidency and Leadership:

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pp. 219-220

E-ISBN-13: 9781603442800
E-ISBN-10: 1603442804
Print-ISBN-13: 9781603442312
Print-ISBN-10: 1603442316

Page Count: 192
Illustrations: 2 tables. 2 line art.
Publication Year: 2011

Series Title: Joseph V. Hughes Jr. and Holly O. Hughes Series on the Presidency and Leadership
Series Editor Byline: Pfiffner, James P. See more Books in this Series

OCLC Number: 723107334
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Presidential Term Limits in American History

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Subject Headings

  • Executive power -- United States -- History.
  • Presidents -- Term of office -- United States -- History.
  • Roosevelt, Franklin D. (Franklin Delano), 1882-1945.
  • United States. Constitution. 22nd Amendment.
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