THE DECISION of George Washington to refuse a third term as President of the United States started a precedent that persisted stubbornly until 1940. While he was President of the Constitutional Convention he said nothing about his views on presidential tenure. Later on he wrote to Lafayette that he could not see how a President could continue in office, let alone perpetuate himself in it, without the consent of the electorate unless, he said, the country was already "in a state of political depravity." It would be wrong, he stated further, to deprive the republic of a man who could serve his country best in an emergency simply because he was not eligible to run for office again. Although Washington did not accept the Presidency after two terms, there is no evidence that he had changed his mind.
Actually, Washington wanted to retire from public life after his first term. The protestations of his friends that the infant nation needed him to establish stability and prestige finally made him consent to postpone his return to Mount Vernon. But by 1796 George Washington was sixty-five years old, in poor health and in poor spir-