Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

George Washington, Presidential Term Limits, and the Problem of Reluctant Political Leadership

Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

George Washington, Presidential Term Limits, and the Problem of Reluctant Political Leadership

Article excerpt

Every tradition grows ever more venerable--the more remote is its origin, the more confused that origin is. The reverence due to it increases from generation to generation. The tradition finally becomes holy and inspires awe.

--Nietzsche ([1878] 1986, 96)

Two hundred years after his death, George Washington continues to hold a privileged place in the crowded iconography of American politics--revered as solider, statesman, and purported founder of a number of venerable traditions.(1) Prominent among the numerous legacies ascribed to Washington is his association with a custom of limited presidential service. The conventional account of this tradition, provided by politicians, scholars, and pundits, describes Washington's refusal to seek the presidency following his second elected term as giving birth to a convention restricting the chief executive to two terms in office. Washington, wary of the dangers posed by an individual's becoming entrenched in the presidency, created a "two-term tradition" that remained intact until Franklin Delano Roosevelt's third consecutive election in 1940.

But, according to this view, even Roosevelt's extraordinary political legacy and unprecedented third and fourth presidential terms could not undo Washington's example of more limited presidential service. In 1951, therefore, the two-term tradition was repaired and codified with the ratification of the Twenty-Second Amendment--which defines constitutional limits on the number of times a person can be elected to the presidency (see Peabody and Gant 1999). In this way, Washington's retirement decision in 1796, setting a discrete limit to a person's service as president, was transformed from hallowed tradition to supreme law.

This article suggests that this widespread view of the relationship between Washington and the two-term tradition is misconceived. Conventional popular and even scholarly accounts of the two-term tradition confuse both Washington's position on presidential term limits and the historical contours of this practice--muddling our assessment of our first president's political legacy. The tradition of limited presidential service was not simply an extension of Washington's preferences gradually adopted as a norm of American politics. Instead, a variety of factors--and none of them arising from his opposition to continued service per se--combined to induce the president to retire. Thus, the two-term tradition was only partly and somewhat indirectly given life by the specific example of Washington. Indeed, the two-term tradition was actually born out of deep-seated American anxieties about centralized governing power (and specifically executive power--worries in considerable conflict with the strongly federalist views of governance that Washington favored and that are embodied in our constitutional text.

This observation might be seen as marginalizing the enduring significance of Washington's views about executive service and, therefore, the focus of this article. Since there is a powerful American tradition of limited presidential leadership (see, e.g., Kyvig 1996, 325), Washington's particular understanding of presidential service may be of relatively little importance in analyzing the two-term tradition that emerged from his (seemingly inadvertent) example. As Sidney Milkis and Michael Nelson (1994, 90) noted, "although Washington did not intend that it do so, his voluntary retirement set a precedent for limiting presidents to two terms." (See also Wright 1969.)

But revisiting the relationship between Washington and the two-term tradition is instructive in at least two ways. To begin with, a more nuanced view of the origins of the two-term tradition helps us to understand better its complex historical development. By conceptualizing the tradition as an outgrowth of a fundamental fear of centralized and executive power--a perspective essentially at odds with the constitutional views of Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and other supporters of the Constitution--we can more thoroughly account for the history of presidential term limits. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.