Presidential Term

The Heritage Guide to the Constitution

Presidential Term

Article II, Section 1, Clause 1

[The President] shall hold his Office during the Term of four Years....

Before deciding on the length of the term of office for the president, the Framers of the Constitution debated whether, after a first term, the president was to be reappointed by the legislature or by the people. James Madison vehemently opposed reappointment by the legislature, arguing that the separation of powers was essential to the preservation of liberty: “The Executive could not be independent of the Legislature, if dependent on the pleasure of that branch for a re-appointment.” If the president were thus beholden to the legislature, “tyrannical laws may be made that they may be executed in a tyrannical manner.”

On the other hand, the proposal to allow “re-appointment by Legislature for good-behavior” struck George Mason as allowing for too long a tenure. The phrase “good behavior” indicated protected life tenure for judges. Thus, Mason worried, “An Executive during good behavior [is] a softer name only for an executive for life.”

While debating whether the president should be reappointed by the Legislature, the Framers also discussed whether a president should be eligible for a second term at all. George Mason wanted a single term of seven years in order to avoid “a temptation on the side of the executive to intrigue with the Legislature for a re-appointment.” Some feared foreign intrigue in the reappointment of a president. But other Framers supported eligibility for more than one term. As Roger Sherman reasoned, there was no need of “throwing out of office the men best qualified to execute its duties.” Gouverneur Morris argued that eligibility for more than one term would incite a president to merit public esteem with the hopes of reelection and would eliminate the risk of having a president use his short time in office to garner wealth and provide for friends. Alexander Hamilton adamantly argued that one of the keys to a successful executive is administrative stability, which would be best supported by a longer duration in office and would encourage a president to “act his part well.”

After removing the exclusion from more than a single term, the Framers turned to deter-mine how many years a given term would be (proposals ranged from three to twenty). Eventually, the Framers settled on four years. According to Justice Joseph Story in his Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States (1833), the period of four years is not long enough to risk any harm to the public safety. Although some Anti-Federalists thought that four years was sufficient time for a president “to ruin his country,” Hamilton wrote in The Federalist No. 71 that duration in office is “requisite to the energy of the executive authority” and that a four-year term struck the proper balance, giving a president enough time “to make the community sensible of the propriety of the measures he might incline to pursue” and to not “justify any alarm for the public liberty.

It should be noted that the four-year limitation is absolute, and every president (no matter how disputed the election results may have been) has always turned the office over to his successor on the appointed day (January 20, after the ratification of the Twentieth Amendment). Nor has any president sought to have the election postponed because of a crisis. The election of 1864 went forward despite the Civil War, as did the election of 1944 despite World War II.

David F. Forte

Professor, Cleveland-Marshall College of Law

Jack M. Beerman & William P. Marshall, The Constitutional Law of Presidential Transitions, 84 N.C. L. REV. 1253 (2006)