Presidential Term

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

Article II, Section 1, Clause 1

Before deciding on the length of the term of office for the President, the Framers 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. "An Executive during good behavior is a softer name only for an executive for life." Others wanted 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.

After deciding that a President would not be reappointed by the Legislature, the Framers debated whether a President should be eligible for a second term at all. Several of the Framers were in support of reeligibility after a first 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 reeligibility 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 to reeligibility after a first term, the Framers turned to determine 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, 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 "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."

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David F. Forte
Professor of Law
Cleveland-Marshall College of Law