apply to many offices at both the
federal and state level in the United States
U.S. term limits date back to
Term limits, or rotation in
, date back to the American Revolution, and prior to that
to the democracies and republics of antiquity. The council of 500 in
Athens rotated its entire membership annually, as did the
ephorate in ancient Sparta.
ancient Roman Republic
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 2 October 1789, the Continental
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...."
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."
In 1776, rotation experiments also took place at the state level.
Constitution of 1776
set maximum service in the Pennsylvania General Assembly
at "four years in seven." Benjamin
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
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
terms) until the 22nd Amendment
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
viewed the absence of legal limits to tenure,
together with certain other features of the Constitution, as "most
highly and dangerously oligarchic." Both Jefferson and George Mason
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...."
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. 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
, 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. 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." 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."
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. 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." 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
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
During the Civil War
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
A total of 8 presidents served two full terms and declined a third
and three presidents served one full term and refused a second.
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.
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?
Federal term limits
Reformers during the early 1990s used the initiative and referendum
to put congressional term limits on the ballot in 23 states. Voters
in every one of these states approved the congressional term limits
by an average electoral margin of two to one.
In May 1995, the United States Supreme Court ruled
5-4 in U.S. Term Limits, Inc. v.
states cannot impose term limits upon their federal Representatives
Earlier that Spring, the U.S. Congress
had given the Court assurance that
the Justices would be acting only against state statutes, not
overturning an act of Congress. For the hopes of some that Congress
would self-impose term limits had abruptly come to an end.
Congressional term limits had been featured prominently in the
Contract with America
campaign, and may well have contributed to the Republican Revolution
, as the
Republicans wrested control of the House of Representatives from
for the first time since the 1952 elections
Republican leadership brought to the floor of the House a constitutional amendment
limit House members to six two-year terms and members of the
to two six-year terms. However, this rate of rotation was so slow
(the life-tenured Supreme Court averages in the vicinity of twelve
years) that the congressional version of term-limits garnered
little support among the populist backers of term limits, including
U.S. Term Limits
, the largest private
organization pushing for Congressional term limits. (U.S. Term
Limits wanted House members to be limited to three
two-year terms.) With the Republicans holding 230 seats in the
House, three versions of the amendment got well under 200 votes,
while the 12 year term-limits which overrode all the more stringent
state measures managed a bare majority in the House of 227-204,
well short of the requisite two-thirds majority (290 votes)
required to pass a constitutional amendment. Defeated in Congress
and overridden by the Supreme Court, this populist uprising was
brought to a halt for the purpose of reforming the federal
government. The term limits intended simultaneously to reform
legislatures (as distinguished from the congressional delegations)
remain in force, however, in fifteen states
Nearly half a century prior to the term limits movement of the
1990s, the election of Franklin
to a fourth
consecutive term, and his sudden death a few months later, gave
rise to a successful move in Congress to restore the two-term
tradition in the Presidency. As ratified in 1951, the Twenty-Second Amendment
"no person shall be elected to the office of President more than
President George Washington
originally started the tradition of informal Presidential term
limits by refusing to run for a third term. The short-lived
Confederate States of
adopted a six-year term for their President and
Vice-President, and barred the President from seeking re-election.
This innovation was endorsed by many American politicians after the
war, most notably by Rutherford
in his inaugural
address. Franklin D. Roosevelt
was the first and only
American President to successfully break Washington's tradition,
and he died in office while serving his fourth term (which he had
As of 2007, term limits at the federal level are restricted to the
executive branch and some agencies. Judicial appointments at the
federal level are made for life, and are not subject to election or
term limits. The U.S. Congress remains (since the Thornton decision
of 1995) without electoral limits.
In 2007, Professor Larry J. Sabato
revived the debate over term limits
by arguing in A More Perfect
that the success and popularity of term limits at
the state level suggests that they should be adopted at the federal
level as well. He specifically put forth the idea of congressional
term limits and suggested a national constitutional convention
to accomplish the amendment, since the Congress would be unlikely
to propose and adopt any amendment that limits its own power.
State term limits
Term limits for state officials have existed since colonial times.
The Pennsylvania Charter of Liberties of 1682, and the colonial
frame of government of the same year, both authored by William
Penn, provided for triennial rotation of the provincial council
upper house of the colonial legislature. The Delaware Constitution of 1776
limited the governor
single three-year term; currently, the governor of Delaware can
serve two 4-year terms.
At present, 36 states
have term limits of various types for
their governors. To circumvent the term limit in Alabama incumbent
governor George Wallace pushed
through the nomination of his wife Lurleen, in the Democratic primary which
was, in those days, the real contest in Alabama.
generally understood that Ms. Wallace would only be a titular
governor while her husband continued to hold
the real power. She won the election, but only served 17 months
before dying in 1968.
As indicated above, in fifteen state legislatures the members serve
in rotation, i.e., under term limits enacted during the reforms of
the early 1990s. In another six states, however, state legislatures
have either overturned their own limits or state supreme courts
have ruled such
limits unconstitutional. In 2002 the Idaho Legislature
became the first
legislature of its kind to repeal its own term limits, enacted by a
public vote in 1994, ostensibly because it applied to local
officials along with the legislature.
Gubernatorial term limits
[[File:US Governor Term Limits.svg|right|400px|thumb|United States
Governor term limits as of 2009
]]Governors of 36 states and 4 territories are subject to various
term limits, while the governors of 14 states, Puerto Rico, and the
Mayor of Washington, D.C. may serve an unlimited number of times.
Each state's gubernatorial term limits are prescribed by its
, with the exception of Wyoming
, whose limits are found in
its statutes. Territorial term limits are prescribed by its
constitution in the Northern Mariana Islands, the Organic Acts
in Guam and the U.S. Virgin
Islands, and by statute in American Samoa.
Unique in its restriction, the Governor of Virginia
is limited to one term, but is
re-eligible after four years out of office.
The governors of the following states and territories are limited
to two terms, but are re-eligible after four years out of office:
, New Jersey
, New Mexico
, North Carolina
, Rhode Island
, South Carolina
, South Dakota
, West Virginia
,, American Samoa
, and the U.S. Virgin Islands
Equivalently, the Governors of Indiana
are limited to serving 8 out of
any 12 years. Conversely, the Governors of Montana
are restricted to two terms,
limited to serving 8 out of any 16 years. Finally, the governors of
the following states and territory are absolutely limited (for
life) to two terms: Arkansas
, and the Northern Mariana
The Governors of New
serve unlimited two year terms. The chief executives in the
following states, district, and territory may serve unlimited four
year terms: Connecticut
, New York
, North Dakota
, District of Columbia
, and Puerto Rico
. The Governor of Utah
was formerly limited to serving three terms, but all term limit
laws were later repealed by the legislature.
State legislatures with term limits
The following 15 legislatures have term limits:
Overturned or repealed state legislative term limits
The following six legislatures have had their term limits
Municipal term limits
have term limits. In Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the mayor cannot be elected three consecutive
times, but there is no limit on how long any individual can serve
as mayor. Frank Rizzo
mayor in 1971 and 1975; he attempted to repeal the term limit, but
failed and could not run in 1979. He ran unsuccessfully for the
Democratic nomination for mayor in 1983 but he lost to Wilson
Goode. In 1986, he switched to the Republican Party, and ran as a
Republican in the mayoral elections of 1987 and 1991.
two-term limit was imposed on New
York City Council members and citywide elected officials
(except for district attorneys) in
City after a 1993 referendum
(see the Charter of the City of New York, §1138).
November 3, 2008, however, mayor Michael Bloomberg
signed a bill extending
the two-term limit to a three-term limit and has now been elected
to an unprecedented third term (This change is currently under
review in the courts and also by the US Department of
Ohio, the term limit for mayor is two successive
Council members are limited to four
successive two-year terms. There is no limit to total terms that
may be served, just a limit on successive terms.
- Thomas Jefferson, The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, ed.
Julian F. Boyd, et al., (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University
Press, 1950-), 1:411.
- Also, article IX, paragraph 5, of the Articles of Confederation
provided that, "no person be allowed to serve in the office of
president more than one year in any term of three years."
- Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776, section 8.
- Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776, section 19. On Franklin's
plan of 1775 see, Benjamin Franklin, The Writings of Benjamin
Franklin, ed., Albert Henry Smyth, 10 vols. (New York: The
Macmillan Co., 1907), 6:423, article 9.
- R.H. Lee, Letter to Edmund Randolph dated 16 October 1787, in
Richard Henry Lee, The Letters of Richard Henry Lee, ed.
James C. Ballagh, 2 vols. (New York: Macmillan Co., 1911), 2:450,
455. See also 1:191, letter to Edmund Pendleton dated 12 May 1776,
and Letters from the Federal Farmer to the Republican, ed.
Walter H. Bennett (University, Alabama: The University of Alabama
Press, 1978), pp. 72-75, 86.
- Jefferson, Papers, Boyd, ed., 12:440, 13:490. See also 15:25
for Jefferson's definition of rotation in office.
- Mason in Jonathan Eliot, ed., The Debates in the Several
State Conventions on Adoption of the Federal Constitution, 5
vols. (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1836),
- Mercy Otis Warren, Observations on the new Constitution, and on
the Federal and State Conventions 9, in Herbert J. Staring, ed.,
The Complete Anti-Federalist, 6 vols. (Chicago: University of
Chicago Press, 1981) 4:270, 278.
- Robert Struble, Jr., " House Turnover and the Principle of Rotation,"
Political Science Quarterly 94 (Winter 1979-80): p. 650,
and fn. 6. The quotation is from Henry James, the biographer.
- Robert Struble, Jr., Treatise on
Twelve Lights, chapter six, Rotation in Office, and other democratic
- James S. Young, The Washington Community, 1800-1828
(New York: Columbia University Press, 1966), pp. 51-52, 55-57,
59-61, 64, 145.
- James Fenimore Cooper, The American Democrat (New York: Alfred
A. Knopf, 1931), p. 52;
- Richmond Enquirer, 8 November 1822, p. 3; Struble,
supra., p. 653.
- One can still detect the idealism of the Revolutionary period
echoed by President Andrew Jackson in his address to Congress,
1829: "There are, perhaps, few
men who can for any great length of time enjoy office and power
without being more or less under the influence of feelings
unfavorable to the faithful discharge of their public duties. Their
integrity may be proof against improper considerations immediately
addressed to themselves, but they are apt to acquire a habit of
looking with indifference upon the public interests and of
tolerating conduct from which an unpracticed man would revolt.
Office is considered as a species of property, and government
rather as a means of promoting individual interests than as an
instrument created solely for the service of the people. Corruption
in some and in others a perversion of correct feelings and
principles divert government from its legitimate ends and make it
an engine for the support of the few at the expense of the
many."... [James D. Richardson, ed., A Compilation of the
Messages and Papers of the Presidents, 10 vols. (Washington,
D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1896-99), 2:448-49].
- Struble, supra, pp. 661-62.
- Struble, ibid, pp. 659-60; Lincoln's letter to William
Herndon, 8 January 1848, in Abraham Lincoln, The Collected
Works of Abraham Lincoln, ed. Roy P. Basler, 10 vols. (New
Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1953), 1:430-31.
- The four constitutional amendments on term limits which the
House rejected 29 March 1995 were sponsored by: Democrat
[12/12 retroactive], rejected 135-297; Republican Bob Inglis [6/12,
un-retroactive], rejected 114-316; Republican Van Hilleary [12/12,
unretroactive, but defers to more stringent state imposed limits],
rejected 164-265; Republican Bill McCollum [12/12 unretroactive and would
override more stringent state limits]; approved by less than the
requisite 2/3, 227-204; on February 12, 1997 Congress did likewise by a margin of 217-211
- Neil Pinney, George Serra, and Dalene Sprick, "The costs of
reform: consequences of limiting legislative terms of service,"
Party Politics, 10:69-84
- Francis N. Thorpe, ed., The Federal and State
Constitutions, Colonial Charters, and other Organic Laws..., 7
vols. (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1909) 5:3048,