America Needs Term Limits

America Needs Term Limits

The following historical information about the use of term limits in government is taken from

Historical background

Term limits, or rotation in office, date back to the American Revolution, and prior to that to the democracies and republics of antiquity. The council of 500 in ancient Athens rotated its entire membership annually, as did the ephorate in ancient Sparta. The ancient Roman Republic featured a system of elected magistrates—tribunes of the plebs, aediles, quaestors, praetors, and consuls—who served a single term of one year, with reelection to the same magistracy forbidden for ten years. (See Cursus honorum) Many of the founders of the United States were educated in the classics, and quite familiar with rotation in office during antiquity. The debates of that day reveal a desire to study and profit from the object lessons offered by ancient democracy.

In 1776, rotation experiments were taking place at the state level. The Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776 set maximum service in the Pennsylvania General Assembly at “four years in seven.”[1] Benjamin Franklin’s influence is seen not only in that he chaired the constitutional convention which drafted the Pennsylvania constitution, but also because it included, virtually unchanged, Franklin’s earlier proposals on executive rotation. Pennsylvania’s plural executive was composed of twelve citizens elected for the term of three years, followed by a mandatory vacation of four years.[2]

In 2 October 1789, the Continental Congress appointed a committee of thirteen to examine forms of government for the impending union of the states. Among the proposals was that from the State of Virginia, written by Thomas Jefferson, urging a limitation of tenure, “to prevent every danger which might arise to American freedom by continuing too long in office the members of the Continental Congress….”[3] The committee made recommendations, which as regards congressional term-limits were incorporated unchanged into the Articles of Confederation (1781-1789]). The fifth Article stated that “no person shall be capable of being a delegate [to the continental congress] for more than three years in any term of six years.”[4]

In contrast to the Articles of Confederation, the federal constitution convention at Philadelphia omitted mandatory term-limits from the second national frame of government, i.e. the U.S. Constitution of 1787 to the present. Nonetheless, due largely to grass roots support for the principle of rotation, rapid turnover in Congress prevailed by extra-constitutional means. Also George Washington set the precedent for a two-term tradition that prevailed (with the exception of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s four terms) until the 22nd Amendment of 1951.

However, when the states ratified the Constitution (1787-88), several leading statesmen regarded the lack of mandatory limits to tenure as a dangerous defect, especially, they thought, as regards the Presidency and the Senate. Richard Henry Lee viewed the absence of legal limits to tenure, together with certain other features of the Constitution, as “most highly and dangerously oligarchic.”[5] Both Jefferson[6] and George Mason[7] advised limits on reelection to the Senate and to the Presidency, because said Mason, “nothing is so essential to the preservation of a Republican government as a periodic rotation.” The historian Mercy Otis Warren, warned that “there is no provision for a rotation, nor anything to prevent the perpetuity of office in the same hands for life; which by a little well timed bribery, will probably be done….”[8]

The fact that “perpetuity in office” was not approached until the 20th century is due in part to the influence of rotation in office as a popular 19th century concept. “Ideas are, in truth, forces,” and rotation in office enjoyed such normative support, especially at the local level, that it altered political reality.[9] For a detailed study of the 19th century concepts of rotation let the reader consult Political Science Quarterly, vol. 94, “House Turnover and the Principle of Rotation,” by Robert Struble, Jr. See also his Treatise on Twelve Lights,[10] chapter six, “Rotation in History”. Consult also, James Young’s The Washington Community, 1800-1828.

According to Young, the tendency to look with mistrust upon political power was so ingrained into American culture that even the officeholders themselves perceived their occupations in a disparaging light.[11] James Fennimore Cooper, the novelist, described the common view that “contact with the affairs of state is one of the most corrupting of the influences to which men are exposed.”[12] An article in the Richmond Enquirer (1822) noted that the “long cherished” principle of rotation in office had been impressed on the republican mind “by a kind of intuitive impulse, unassailable to argument or authority.”[13]

Beginning about the 1830s, Jacksonian democracy introduced a less idealistic twist to the practice of limiting terms. Rotation in office came to mean taking turns in the distribution of political prizes.[14] Rotation of nominations to the U.S. House of Representatives – the prizes – became a key element of payoffs to the party faithful. The leading lights in the local party machinery came to regard a nomination for the House as “salary” for political services rendered. A new code of political ethics evolved, based on the proposition that “turnabout is fair play.”[15] In short, rotation of nominations was intertwined with the spoils system.

In district nominating conventions local leaders could negotiate and enforce agreements to pass the nominations around among themselves. Abraham Lincoln was elected to the United States House of Representatives in 1846 under such a bargain, and he returned home to Springfield after a single congressional term because, he wrote, “to enter myself as a competitor of another, or to authorize anyone so to enter me, is what my word and honor forbid.”[16]

During the Civil War, the Confederate States constitution limited its president to a single six-year term.

The practice of nomination rotation for the House of Representatives began to decline after the Civil War. It took a generation or so before the direct primary system, civil service reforms, and the ethic of professionalism worked to eliminate rotation in office as a common political practice. By the turn of the 20th century the era of incumbency was coming into full swing.

A total of 8 presidents served two full terms and declined a third and three presidents served one full term and refused a second. After World War II, however, an officeholder class had developed to the point that congressional tenure rivaled that of the U.S. Supreme Court, where tenure is for life. “Homesteading” in Congress, made possible by reelection rates that approached 100% by the end of the 20th century, brought about a popular insurgency known as the “term-limits movement”


There is much more to the term limit discussion. For those who want to read on Please see the rest of this quote and much more in

V. Thomas Mawhinney, Ph.D.

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8 Responses to “America Needs Term Limits”

  1. Sharleena Says:

    Enhneltgiing the world, one helpful article at a time.


  2. vtmawhinney Says:

    Thanks for your thoughts, Pete

    I cannot simply endorse more variety as a main goal in our elected officials.
    I wish it were as easy as voting for the third name on the ballot.

    It seems to me that operant conditioners, above all others, should appreciate the power of contingencies of reinforcement. Therefore, I would wish to arrange such contingencies to fall upon that which I believe to be good behavior. So, how would one go about defining good behavior—in any context?

    To me good behavior is that which will lead to a reduction in what I define as social entropy. In several of my publications, I define social entropy as that proportion of human behavioral energy, within a population, which is not available to build and maintain the Socioculture—but functions as a drain upon it. I realize this is an abstract idea…but it is better than no idea…which is what we have now. I have explained this concept as clearly as I know how in my publications.

    Quickly, here, a history of honest behavior is critical (all societies with political corruption loose efficiency and economic power..this is an increase in social entropy). However, corrupting contingencies that hit our politicians once they are in office need to be dramatically reduced. Hence my concern for term limits and curtailing corporate and union payoffs. And hence my concern for the application of powerful punishers for corrupted or corrupting behavior.

    I think the reason why people don’t vote for independents, or start a third party, is because it simply has not worked. However, when our society continues its precipitous decline, these alternatives may become more attractive to the voters. That is my hope, cuz neither of our two parties have not stopped the decline since the 1960’s.

    There are many more ideas that I will put forward on this blog.

    Always, my concern is how do my thoughts square with elementary principles of behavior. Look back through my past blogs and see what you think.

    I hope you will feel free to share your thoughts in the future, pro or con. Also, please share my blog site with other fellow colleagues, if you think it merits their attention.

    Regarding your question about my having any sagacious ideas: I certainly have plenty of ideas, but it is for others to determine if they are sagacious our not. 😉

    Warm regards, Tom


    • Pete Stucke Says:


      I’m sorry to hear your discouragement about third parties. However, I agree that people such as Ron Paul — or the more potent Ross Perot — are mere flashes in the pan. It’s also too bad that so many people are resigned to think that it simply won’t work. Governor Jessie Ventura has been quoted for saying (and I’m paraphrasing), “we have two parties in this country; that’s one more than communist China.” I tend to believe that blurring the very diversity that made this country so great into two choices is stifling.

      As for contingencies of reinforcement, well, there simply aren’t any to speak of in our political system. As long as officials the likes of Jay Bibey, John Yoo, New York Governor David Patterson, Congressman Charlie Rangle, and our very own state Representative Ray Sansom are held to account by their peers, and not by an independent investigator (or having the forthright investigation turned over by a peer, as was recently the case with Bibey and Yoo), the stewards of our taxpaying dollar will always be held to a different standard. Too many bad people in political and corporate power positions escape the equalizing effects of punishment.

      I’m beyond listening to people tell me it cannot be done. I’m only voting for independents from now on. I’ll be the change that I wish to see in the world, to borrow a phrase from Ghandi.

      I had the pleasure of your company for breakfast at the 1998 (or 1999?) ABA convention in Chicago with Darrel B. And although my professional career veered away from psychology to education, I am always interested in thoughtful discussions about behavior analysis, operant conditioning, and life, in general. I look forward to future discussions with you, sir.



      • vtmawhinney Says:

        Thank you kindly, Pete.

        I respect your thoughtful views. You opinions are always welcome, for or against my own. Glad to know you are in education. We need men of strong principle there, like yourself. I still am in touch with my dear friend Darrel and glad to be in touch with you.

        Also, under the right conditions I would be happy to vote for an independent. I like your phrase from ghandi.



      • Keydren Says:

        Super inamioftrve writing; keep it up.


  3. Pete Stucke Says:

    Hi Tom,

    This great problem of term limits in our electorate, along with campaign finance reform, can be resolved by voters following one simple rule: vote for the third name on the ballot. Vote for anybody but the top two names, which are usually occupied by the “Coke” and “Pepsi” duopoly that is our pair of dysfunctional political party options. Unlike Brice’s thinking, my solution requires no amendment. It simply requires that voters realize just how powerful their vote can be toward changing the status quo.

    It burns me up when I hear professional politicians speak as though only THEY are qualified to hold office — as if working at a real job all of one’s life somehow renders one incapable of the same. We need more variety, more representation than the current cadre of plutocratic oligarchs.

    As a fellow operant conditioner, I often cogitate on ways to evoke a behavioral change that encourages voters to get excited about voting for a third party, for example. The biggest hurdle I’ve noticed is the common response, “I’ll throw away my vote if I’m not voting red or blue” or “my party won’t be happy if I vote for an independent.”

    Got any sagacious ideas?


  4. vtmawhinney Says:

    Thanks Brice,

    I agree with all that you say with one exception. Even with this exception, I share your frustration. The citizenry does abdicate its responsibility, and that is a problem. But it is a problem with no end in sight and the problem appears to be made worse by the fact that incombents in current times are virtually certain to win elections, for reasons of finances, patronage, and more. The term limit appears of remove these impediments to a more repredsentational goverment. So I would vote for term limits.

    Take care and be well. Tom


  5. Brice Petgen Says:

    I truly understand the ideal of term limits. I agree in principle, however to enact such a concept would require a constitutional amendment. My bias is to leave the Constitution as it is. What gets me about term limits though is that it is a way for the citizenry to yet again abdicate responsibility. If more Americans paid attention and took their vote as the solemn duty that it is, remember plenty of lives were lost to gain this duty, I feel term limits would become a thing of the past because there would be a greater turnover rate in D.C.

    This also touches on another issue with the electorate, the lack of education and the ego-centrism we see evidenced. Many voters see elections as what can the government do for me. Hardly a republican ideal (not party governing concept). Franklin (paraphrased by this lowly grad student) stated that liberty dies when voters realize they can vote to take from one and give to themselves. Welcome to America 2010 where legislation is wholly based on this liberty destroying concept.

    In the first days of the republic there were criteria that needed to be met before one could vote. Granted at the time it was class, race, and gender based. I wonder, is it time for a test for voting eligibility based on knowledge? I wager Jefferson, Franklin, and Madison would agree.


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