President Taft on “the Danger of a Third Presidential Term.”

After serving two terms in office, with some reluctance, President Theodore Roosevelt decided not to run for an unprecedented third term, keeping with the tradition started by George Washington. Though, that decision was not an easy one. He stepped aside for two main reasons: first, he had (begrudgingly) made a pledge not to run for a third term, and second, he personally selected William Howard Taft, his longtime friend and confidant, as his successor with the understanding that Taft would continue his progressive policies. Even until the Republican Convention, Teddy considered throwing his hat into the ring, but stood by his pledge.

Alas, after the election, Taft deviated from Roosevelt’s policies, and members of Roosevelt’s inner team were fired. Roosevelt soon became incensed that his hand-picked successor was abandoning his policies (imagine that!?), and decided to run for re-election against Taft, first as a Republican, and then when he lost the nomination, on the Bull Moose ticket.

In a speech in Boston, Taft discussed why Washington’s tradition of only running for office twice was so important to our freedom.

Nearly two hours had passed before Taft reached his peroration, which included “a solemn warning to the American people” regarding “the danger of a third presidential term.” Mr. Roosevelt, he stated, “is convinced that the American people think that he is the only one to do the job.” Though Roosevelt had never articulated “exactly” what that job entailed, the ambitious plans outlined in his Columbus platform could not possibly be completed in four years. “We are left to infer, therefore, that ‘the job’ which Mr. Roosevelt is to perform is one that may take a long time, perhaps the rest of his natural life. There is not the slightest reason why, if he secures a third term, and the limitation of the Washington, Jefferson, and Jackson tradition is broken down, he should not have as many terms as his natural life will permit.” Taft concluded with an ominous question, implying the full danger of granting Roosevelt an unprecedented third term: “If he is necessary now to the Government, why not later?”

Goodwin, Doris Kearns (2013-11-05). The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism (p. 694). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

Many of us take for granted that a President will step down after two turns, in light of the 22nd Amendment. But we should assess what would drive a person to run, in the absence of that constitutional prohibition. For Teddy Roosevelt, he felt that he was the only person for the job. Would such a sentiment ever dissipate?  Why stop at 2 terms? Why not, as Taft suggests, 3, 4, or 5, or life?

On President’s Day, I stressed to my constitutional law students how significant it was that Washington, like Cincinnatus before him, was able to relinquish power at his zenith. General Washington also resigned his commission at Annapolis following the conclusion of the Revolutionary War. America was so fortunate to have him at the helm at the dawn of our Republic.

In his constitutional law class a century earlier, Justice John Marshall Harlan ascribed such great fortune to American exceptionalism, and what he labelled “providence.”

That we were blessed with such a sterling first leader, in the words of Justice John Marshall Harlan I, was “providence.”

We are apt to think, and very rightly, that if it had not been for George Washington, we would not have had the country we now have. We style him “The Father of the Country,” and he was. I believe we owe more to him for the adoption of the present form of government than any man of his day. He was not trained in statesmanship, but he had what we may call saving common sense. He was raised up, if there is such a thing as a special providence, to save this country. So far as we now see and can judge, there was no other man of that day that could have led our armies and kept up their courage to the spirit of independence that he did . . . [W]henever a great crisis came upon any people, Providence was kind enough to raise up the man to meet the emergency.

I couldn’t agree more with Justice Harlan.

Of course, the contest between Roosevelt and Taft split the Republican vote, paving the way for the election of Woodrow Wilson. Though, one of the few silver linings of Woodrow Wilson’s presidency is that it denied a third term for President Roosevelt. Until 1941 at least.

Josh Blackman

Josh Blackman is an Assistant Professor of Law at the South Texas College of Law who specializes in constitutional law, the United States Supreme Court, and the intersection of law and technology. He is the author of Unprecedented: The Constitutional Challenge to Obamacare and also blogs at JoshBlackman.com.

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Comments

  1. Rudy Hernandez says

    While it was certainly a moment of presidential greatness when Washington stepped down after two terms, the Framers gave us a government where there were no terms limits for Presidents. According to Federalist 72, this was so Presidents would “undertake extensive and arduous enterprises for the public benefit.” They also thought there would be a temptation to take advantage of the office while one still can in a final term and eligibility for re-election would temper that. One also wonders if long term spending problems and massive deficits would continue in the same way if Presidents could imagine themselves remaining in office.

    • gabe says

      Yes, but one may also want to look at what some of the Anti-
      federalists such as Cato and federal Farmer had to say about extended terms in office. Bear in mind in most instances State legislatures were elected on a yearly basis and there was great trepidation on the part of many at that time about extended terms isolating legislators from their people. I think the Anti-Federalists were correct.

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