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Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government

26. Presidential Elections

The Constitution created a strong presidency, but the fear was that it might become an office for life, or even hereditary. Jefferson's recommendation that the President be limited to two terms in office was not implemented until the ratification of the 22nd Amendment in 1951. The executive department should be subject to change by the people on short intervals, and this may require not only the replacement of the President himself, but also the subordinate office holders in the government.

"The people... are not qualified to exercise themselves the Executive department; but they are qualified to name the person who shall exercise it. With us, therefore, they choose this officer every four years." --Thomas Jefferson to Abbe Arnoux, 1789. ME 7:422, Papers 15:283

"I have ever considered the constitutional mode of election ultimately by the Legislature voting by States as the most dangerous blot in our Constitution, and one which some unlucky chance will some day hit and give us a pope and antipope." --Thomas Jefferson to George Hay, 1823. FE 10:264

"While the Presidential election was in suspense in Congress,... [I believed] it to be my duty to be passive and silent during the present scene; that I should certainly make no terms; should never go into the office of President by capitulation, nor with my hands tied by any conditions which should hinder me from pursuing the measures which I should deem for the public good." --Thomas Jefferson: The Anas, 1806. ME 1:451

26.1 The Principle of Rotation in Office

"I apprehend... that the total abandonment of the principle of rotation in the offices of President and Senator will end in abuse." --Thomas Jefferson to Edward Rutledge, 1788. ME 7:81

"My fears of [the re-eligibility of the President] were founded on the importance of the office, on the fierce contentions it might excite among ourselves if continuable for life, and the dangers of interference, either with money or arms, by foreign nations to whom the choice of an American President might become interesting." --Thomas Jefferson: Autobiography, 1821. ME 1:118

"I dislike, and strongly dislike... the abandonment in every instance of the principle of rotation in office and most particularly in the case of the President. Reason and experience tell us that the first magistrate will always be re-elected if he may be re-elected. He is then an officer for life. This once observed, it becomes of so much consequence to certain nations to have a friend or a foe at the head of our affairs that they will interfere with money and with arms. A Galloman or an Angloman will be supported by the nation he befriends. If once elected, and at a second or third election outvoted by one or two votes, he will pretend false votes, foul play, hold possession of the reins of government, be supported by the States voting for him, especially if they are the central ones lying in a compact body themselves and separating their opponents; and they will be aided by one nation of Europe while the majority are aided by another... It may be said that if elections are to be attended with these disorders, the less frequently they are repeated the better. But experience says that to free them from disorder, they must be rendered less interesting by a necessity of change. No foreign power, nor domestic party, will waste their blood and money to elect a person who must go out at the end of a short period. The power of removing every fourth year by the vote of the people is a power which will not be exercised, and if they were disposed to exercise it, they would not be permitted." --Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1787. (Forrest version) ME 6:389

"What we have lately read, in the history of Holland, in the chapter on the Stadtholder, would have sufficed to set me against a chief magistrate, eligible for a long duration, if I had ever been disposed towards one; and what we have always read of the elections of Polish Kings should have forever excluded the idea of one continuable for life." --Thomas Jefferson to William S. Smith, 1787. ME 6:372

"[The] President seems a bad edition of a Polish King. He may be elected from four years to four years, for life. Reason and experience prove to us, that a chief magistrate, so continuable, is an office for life. When one or two generations shall have proved that this is an office for life, it becomes, on every occasion, worthy of intrigue, of bribery, of force, and even of foreign interference. It will be of great consequence to France and England to have America governed by a Galloman or Angloman. Once in office, and possessing the military force of the Union, without the aid or check of a council, he would not be easily dethroned, even if the people could be induced to withdraw their votes from him. I wish that at the end of the four years, they had made him forever ineligible a second time." --Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 1787. ME 6:370

"The perpetual re-eligibility of the President... will be productive of cruel distress to our country... The importance to France and England, to have our government in the hands of a friend or foe, will occasion their interference by money, and even by arms. Our President will be of much more consequence to them than a King of Poland." --Thomas Jefferson to Alexander Donald, 1788. ME 6:426

"If the principle of rotation be a sound one, as I conscientiously believe it to be with respect to this office, no pretext should ever be permitted to dispense with it, because there never will be a time when real difficulties will not exist and furnish a plausible pretext for dispensation." --Thomas Jefferson to Henry Guest, 1809. ME 12:224

26.2 A Limited Term of Office

"I own I should like better... that [the President] should be elected for seven years, and incapable for ever after." --Thomas Jefferson to William Short, 1788. ME 7:145

"My opinion originally was that the President of the United States should have been elected for seven years, and forever ineligible afterwards. I have since become sensible that seven years is too long to be irremovable, and that there should be a peaceable way of withdrawing a man in midway who is doing wrong. The service for eight years, with a power to remove at the end of the first four, comes nearly to my principle as corrected by experience." --Thomas Jefferson to John Taylor, 1805. ME 11:56

"I prefer the Presidential term of four years, to that of seven years, which I myself had at first suggested, annexing to it, however, ineligibility forever after; and I wish it were now annexed to the second quadrennial election of President." --Thomas Jefferson to James Martin, 1813. ME 13:381

26.3 Danger of an Hereditary Presidency

"[Some] apprehend that a single Executive with eminence of talent and destitution of principle equal to the object might, by usurpation, render his powers hereditary." --Thomas Jefferson to A. L. C. Destutt de Tracy, 1811. ME 13:18

"If some period be not fixed, either by the Constitution or by practice, to the services of the First Magistrate, his office, though nominally elective, will in fact be for life; and that will soon degenerate into an inheritance." --Thomas Jefferson to Isaac Weaver, Jr., 1807. ME 11:220

"The danger is that the indulgence and attachments of the people will keep a man in the chair after he becomes a dotard, that reelection through life shall become habitual and election for life follow that." --Thomas Jefferson to John Taylor, 1805. ME 10:77

"In no office can rotation be more expedient; and none less admits the indulgence of age." --Thomas Jefferson: Reply to Philadelphia Citizens, 1809. ME 16:329

"I am opposed to the monarchising [the federal Constitution's] features by the forms of its administration, with a view to conciliate a first transition to a President and Senate for life, and from that to an hereditary tenure of these offices, and thus to worm out the elective principle." --Thomas Jefferson to Elbridge Gerry, 1799. ME 10:77

"If some termination to the services of the chief magistrate be not fixed by the Constitution or supplied in practice, his office, nominally for years, will in fact become for life; and history shows how easily that degenerates into an inheritance. Believing that a representative government, responsible at short periods of election, is that which produces the greatest sum of happiness to mankind, I feel it a duty to do no act which shall essentially impair that principle; and I should unwillingly be the person who, disregarding the sound precedent set by an illustrious predecessor, should furnish the first example of prolongation beyond the second term of office." --Thomas Jefferson: Reply to the Legislature of Vermont, 1807. ME 16:293

26.4 Duty to Vacate the Office

"That I should lay down my charge at a proper period is as much a duty as to have borne it faithfully." --Thomas Jefferson: Reply to the Legislature of Vermont, 1807. ME 16:293

"[Some] suppose I am [at age 65] 'in the prime of life for rule.' I am sensible I am not; and before I am so far declined as to become insensible of it, I think it right to put it out of my own power." --Thomas Jefferson to Henry Guest, 1809. ME 12:224

"It is a duty, as well as the strongest of my desires, to relinquish to younger hands the government of our bark and resign myself as I do willingly to their care." --Thomas Jefferson to Joseph C. Cabell, 1817. ME 19:251

"General Washington set the example of voluntary retirement after eight years. I shall follow it, and a few more precedents will oppose the obstacle of habit to anyone after a while who shall endeavor to extend his term. Perhaps it may beget a disposition to establish it by an amendment of the Constitution." --Thomas Jefferson to John Taylor, 1805. ME 11:57

"Believing that a definite period of retiring from this station [i.e., the Presidency] will tend materially to secure our elective form of government; and sensible, too, of that decline which advancing years bring on, I have felt it a duty to withdraw at the close of my [second] term of office; and to strengthen by practice a principle which I deem salutary." --Thomas Jefferson: Reply to Appomattox Baptists, 1807. ME 16:298

"I had determined to declare my intention [not to extend my term], but I have consented to be silent on the opinion of friends, who think it best not to put a continuance out of my power in defiance of all circumstances. There is, however, but one circumstance which could engage my acquiescence in another election; to wit, such a division about a successor, as might bring in a monarchist. But that circumstance is impossible." --Thomas Jefferson to John Taylor, 1805. ME 11:57

"The example of four Presidents voluntarily retiring at the end of their eighth year, and the progress of public opinion that the principle is salutary, have given it in practice the force of precedent and usage; insomuch, that, should a President consent to be a candidate for a third election, I trust he would be rejected on this demonstration of ambitious views." --Thomas Jefferson: Autobiography, 1821. ME 1:119

26.5 A Change of Administration

"To insure the safety of the public liberty, its depository should be subject to be changed with the greatest ease possible, and without suspending or disturbing for a moment the movements of the machine of government." --Thomas Jefferson to A. L. C. Destutt de Tracy, 1811. ME 13:18

"If the will of the nation, manifested by their various elections, calls for an administration of government according with the opinions of those elected; if, for the fulfilment of that will, displacements are necessary, with whom can they so justly begin as with persons appointed in the last moments of an administration, not for its own aid, but to begin a career at the same time with their successors, by whom they had never been approved and who could scarcely expect from them a cordial co-operation?... If a due participation of office is a matter or right, how are vacancies to be obtained? Those by death are few; by resignation, none. Can any other mode than that of removal be proposed? This is a painful office, but it is made my duty, and I meet it as such. I proceed in the operation with deliberation and inquiry, that it may injure the best men least and effect the purposes of justice and public utility with the least private distress; that it may be thrown as much as possible on delinquency, on oppression, on intolerance, on incompetence, on anti-revolutionary adherence to our enemies." --Thomas Jefferson to Elias Shipman, 1801. ME 10:271

"If a monarchist be in office anywhere and it be known to the President, the oath he has taken to support the Constitution imperiously requires the instantaneous dismission of such officer; and I should hold the President criminal if he permitted such to remain. To appoint a monarchist to conduct the affairs of a republic is like appointing an atheist to the priesthood." --Thomas Jefferson: Newspaper letter, 1803. FE 8:237

"Our principles render [members of the opposition] in office safe if they do not employ their influence in opposing the government, but only give their own vote according to their conscience. And this principle we act on as well with those put in office by others as by ourselves." --Thomas Jefferson to Levi Lincoln, 1808. (*) ME 12:20

"Opinion, and the just maintenance of it, shall never be a crime in my view: nor bring injury on the individual." --Thomas Jefferson to Samuel Adams, 1801. ME 10:251

"Good men, to whom there is no objection but a difference of political principle, practised on only as far as the right of a private citizen will justify, are not proper subjects of removal, except in the case of attorneys and marshals. The courts being so decidedly federal and irremovable, it is believed that republican attorneys and marshals, being the doors of entrance into the courts, are indispensably necessary as a shield to the republican part of our fellow-citizens, which, I believe, is the main body of the people." --Thomas Jefferson to William B. Giles, 1801. ME 10:239

"Every officer of the government may vote at elections according to his conscience; but we should betray the cause committed to our care, were we to permit the influence of official patronage to be used to overthrow that cause." --Thomas Jefferson to Levi Lincoln, 1802. ME 10:340

"I believe with others, that deprivations of office, if made on the ground of political principles alone, would revolt our new converts, and give a body to leaders who now stand alone. Some, I know, must be made. They must be as few as possible, done gradually, and bottomed on some malversation or inherent disqualification." --Thomas Jefferson to James Monroe, 1801. ME 10:220

"The great stumbling block will be removals, which though made on those just principles only on which my predecessor ought to have removed the same persons, will nevertheless be ascribed to removal on party principles." --Thomas Jefferson to Benjamin Rush, 1801. ME 10:242

"I still think our original idea as to office is best: that is, to depend, for the obtaining a just participation, on deaths, resignations, and delinquencies. This will least affect the tranquility of the people, and prevent their giving into the suggestion of our enemies, that ours has been a contest for office, not for principle." --Thomas Jefferson to Levi Lincoln, 1802. ME 10:339

"No man who has conducted himself according to his duties would have anything to fear from me, as those who have done ill would have nothing to hope, be their political principles what they might." --Thomas Jefferson to Benjamin S. Barton, 1801. ME 10:199

"The right of opinion shall suffer no invasion from me. Those who have acted well have nothing to fear, however they may have differed from me in opinion: those who have done ill, however, have nothing to hope; nor shall I fail to do justice lest it should be ascribed to that difference of opinion." --Thomas Jefferson to Elbridge Gerry, 1801. ME 10:254

"I think it not amiss that it should be known that we are determined to remove officers who are active or open-mouthed against the government, by which I mean the legislature as well as the executive." --Thomas Jefferson to Levi Lincoln, 1802. ME 10:340

"The patronage of public office should no longer be confided to one who uses it for active opposition to the national will." --Thomas Jefferson to Albert Gallatin, 1804. ME 11:26

"I have never removed a man merely because he was a federalist; I have never wished them to give a vote at an election, but according to their own wishes. But as no government could discharge its duties to the best advantage of its citizens, if its agents were in a regular course of thwarting instead of executing all its measures, and were employing the patronage and influence of their offices against the government and its measures, I have only requested they would be quiet, and they should be safe; that if their conscience urges them to take an active and zealous part in opposition, it ought also to urge them to retire from a post which they could not conscientiously conduct with fidelity to the trust reposed in them; and on failure to retire, I have removed them; that is to say, those who maintained an active and zealous opposition to the government." --Thomas Jefferson to John Page, 1807. ME 11:286

26.6 Termination of An Administration

"I have thought it right to take no part myself in proposing measures, the execution of which will devolve on my successor. I am therefore chiefly an unmeddling listener to what others say. On the same ground, I shall make no new appointments which can be deferred... thinking it fair to leave to my successor to select the agents for his own administration." --Thomas Jefferson to George Logan, 1808. ME 12:219

"I should not feel justified in directing measures which those who are to execute them would disapprove." --Thomas Jefferson to Levi Lincoln, 1808. ME 12:195

"[My predecessor in the office of the President made several] last appointments to office... [which] were among my most ardent political enemies, from whom no faithful cooperation could ever be expected, and laid me under the embarrassment of acting through men whose views were to defeat mine, or to encounter the odium of putting others in their places. It seems but common justice to leave a successor free to act by instruments of his own choice." --Thomas Jefferson to Abigail Adams, 1804. ME 11:29

"It would be with extreme reluctance that, so near the time of my own retirement, I should proceed to name any high officer, especially one who must be of the intimate councils of my successor, and who ought of course to be in his unreserved confidence." --Thomas Jefferson to Henry Dearborn, 1808. ME 12:64

"It is but common decency to leave to my successor the moulding of his own business." --Thomas Jefferson to William Short, 1793. ME 9:12

ME, FE = Memorial Edition, Ford Edition.   See Sources.

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