The Presidency of the United States


By JOHN W. DAVIS, Former President of the American Bar Association and Presidential

Candidate of the Democratic Party in 1924

Delivered to the U. S. Senate Sub-Committee, September 19, 1940

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VI, pp. 745-747

MR. CHAIRMAN and Gentlemen of the Committee: I welcome the opportunity which the committee has given me to appear in support of one or either of the Constitutional amendments which you have before you with reference to the Presidential term. I say one or either because, as I shall point out later on, I would find either form acceptable, although I personally prefer S. J. Res. 15 providing for the single term of six years. The underlying principle is the same in both, namely, that a period shall be set beyond which re-election is impossible.

No doubt before these hearings are concluded the committee will have repeated to it what the founders and statesmen of the country have been saying on the subject for the last century and a half. I should suppose that there is no other single topic on which responsible opinion in America has been so nearly unanimous up to this time as on the absolute necessity for rotation in the office of the Chief Magistrate.

The traditional limitation of two terms of no more than four years each comes to us with the overwhelming endorsement of the patriots who have held the Presidential office, and many lesser men who have considered the subject. Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Jackson, Cleveland, Buchanan, William Henry Harrison, Andrew Johnson, Rutherford B. Hayes, William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, Taft, and perhaps other Presidents have spoken in its favor in no uncertain terms.

It is clear from this roster that it has not been treated as a party question. The words, as well as the examples, of these men and those of many, many others have been, or no doubt will be, cited to you.

Sees Sound Reason in Tradition

We have the right to believe that a tradition so long established and so universally accepted as this has sound reason behind it. History and experience leave us in no doubt what that reason is. The one thing upon which those who founded this government and those who have carried it on have all agreed is that we should never risk the permanent control of our government by any single man.

One hundred and fifty years ago men had never heard such terms as "Fuehrer" and "Duce," but they knew the hateful thing those words have come to signify. They called it monarchy and they would have none of it. So when the powerful office of the Presidency was created they fixed for it only a four-year term.

True, they did not forbid a re-election, although I think they would have done so if the great figure of Washington had not dominated the scene. But his example, followed by that of Jefferson and endorsed by their successors, wrote the two-term tradition deep into the conscience of the country —so deep, in fact, as to make it a part of the unwritten, if not the written, law.

Time and again when a Constitutional amendment such as the one which you are now considering has been proposed, its adoption has been discouraged by the argument that the two-term tradition was too well settled ever to be disturbed, and that such a tradition is stronger than any form of words.

Electors Recalled This is not pure fancy, for tradition is a powerful force. Many compulsions in our government as well as in our dailylives are due more to tradition than to law. The action of an elector in the electoral college is an instance. Every member of the electoral college is perfectly free in law to cast his vote for any person he chooses, for the offices of President and Vice President. No provision of the Constitution, no statute, no personal oath binds him to the contrary. And yet, every elector holds himself bound to vote for the candidates designated by the party on whose ticket he has himself appeared.

This is not merely as a matter of choice but because of tradition and the fear of the public reproach that a departure from that tradition would bring. And when one reflects upon the canons of conduct that control men in their personal affairs, it is amazing to find how many of them are rooted in tradition and tradition alone.

But those who have relied upon tradition to govern the length of the Presidential term have left one dominating factor out of view—that is, the factor of human nature. It is the nature of the human animal, most human animals, to love place and prominence, adulation and power. Some, of course, care for all this more than others. Some love it so much that the power they have is never gladly or voluntarily surrendered. The appetite growing by what it feeds on becomes the master passion of their lives.

Sees Instances of History

Such men, even while they realize that some day their power must be laid down, can always find a reason why the fatal day must be postponed. In their minds there is always a crisis in which their services are indispensable; always some great work in hand which they, and they alone, can do.

Outwardly they may pretend that they groan under the burden and would be glad to lay it down, but in their secret souls they cling to their places like limpets to a rock. Is not history full of just such instances? Need I resort to illustrations?

Moreover, there are never lacking around the throne those who inflame this deep-seated ambition to hold on. The friends and sycophants of the incumbent, whose political lives are linked with his, constantly assure their chief that the public good demands that he should not desert the ship.

It is this sort of sweet music that is the curse of kings, while those who oppose him only arouse a dogged determination in his egotistic heart to choose his time and not theirs for disappearing from the scene.

Is tradition powerful enough to hold spirits like these? Time, past and present, answers "No." And since it is not, let us fix a limitation by the law. "In questions of power," wrote Jefferson, "let no more be said of confidence in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution."

Presidential Power Reviewed

The tremendous power of the Presidential office must never be forgotten. With the exception of the dictators in totalitarian states, no chief of state in the world today has such power as the President of the United States. How greatly this power has been enlarged in recent years, I need hardly remind you.

With billions of money to disburse at his will, with places by the hundreds of thousands for him to fill, with scores of discretionary statutes ready to spring into life at his word, with the Army and Navy under his control as Commander in Chief, and the conduct of foreign relations in his hands, where is there another ruler to rival him?

Now I lay it down as irrefutable that any President possessed of these powers, or even one-tenth of them, unless his Administration has met with some crushing disaster, can cause himself to be renominated, not once or twice, but aslong as he chooses, if the basic law does not forbid. With the two-term tradition broken down, and no law to take its place, we have every reason to dread a future occupancy of the White House limited only by the ambition or the life of the tenant.

I do not profess to a profound knowledge of history, but I do not recall a single case where a republic has survived except in name the coming of a permanent chief executive. The name itself counts for little.. "It is with governments," said Chief Justice Fuller, "as with religions; the form often outlives the substance of the faith."

Diaz Career Used as Example

There is an interesting example very near home which many people seem to have forgotten. Porfirio Diaz, a man of great force and ambition, was elected President of Mexico in 1876, under a Constitution he had helped to frame, providing for a four-year term and forbidding re-election.

That was the slogan under which he came to power. When the four years were up he patriotically declared himself in favor of a strict observance of the Constitution, and turned oyer the office in 1880 to General Gonzales, whom he had, in fact, selected to succeed him.

In 1884 Diaz was re-elected, as he had planned. Thereafter at each quadrennial election up to 1910 he was voted in without opposition. Opposition there was none, for all of his opponents had been most effectively purged. For twenty-six years, with the help of his army and lavish grants to his friends, he was the unchallenged Dictator of Mexico until, in 1911, the revolution headed by Madero drove him out.

Had Color of Legality

To give his successive re-elections the color of legality he forced through the Congress in 1887 an amendment permitting it. But of this one historian says: "Only those without principles, only those abject with adulation, could accept this procedure." And the writer adds: "What a price men and nations must pay that politicians be called great."

Men may differ in their estimate of Diaz and of what he did or failed to do in Mexico, but it would be absurd to claim that under him Mexico was a republic in anything but name or that the Congress permitted to hold their seats only so long as they agreed with him were the representatives of a democracy. Mexicans are Mexicans and Americans are Americans, you will say, but there is nothing in this particular episode that deserves imitation north of the Rio Grande.

I am for this amendment because I do not want to see our form of government Mexicanized.

Personal government is always and everywhere the death of freedom. Power too long continued is always abused, for it works queer changes in the minds and morals of those who wield it. The only prophylactic is a wholesome and cleansing rotation in office. If this cannot be compelled by custom it must be forced by law. For only so can liberty survive. There was never a finer phrase than that of Francis Lieber, who declared that men are "too feeble to wield unlimited power, too noble to submit to it."

Six-Year Term Proposed

The proposed amendment, S. J. Res. 15, offers a six-year term without possibility of re-election. Is this long enough? Too long for a poor President perhaps; long enough, to my way of thinking, for even the best. I can imagine that lurid pictures will be painted of some present or future crisis when it will be hurtful to make a change.

Not only do I think such pictures are highly imaginary but the argument they are intended to support proves fartoo much. For if it may be unfortunate to change at the end of six years it may be equally so at the end of eight or twelve or twenty.

To fall in with this line of reasoning is to abandon altogether the principle of rotation in office and calmly contemplate the possibility of a permanent President. There is no stopping place.

I refuse, for my part, to believe that in this land of general enlightenment any man in any post is ever indispensable. I would tremble for my country if such a thing ever came to pass, and I shall tremble quite as much if such an idea can find lodgment in the minds of the American people. It strikes at the root of all our national ideals, all our public professions, all of our boasted capacity for self-government.

We have become sterile indeed if we cannot produce at any and all times the men we need to fill our public offices; so sterile indeed that we would then no longer deserve the liberty we would no longer have the will to protect.

Something can be said for a policy of granting two successive terms of four years each and no more, on the theory that the people should have the right to displace an unsatisfactory chief magistrate at the end of four years and that a President would be encouraged to effort by the prospect of earning an endorsement midway of his service.

Doubted Wilson's Reasoning

This, as you know, was the view held by President Wilson in a communication he made in 1913 to the Committee on the Judiciary of the House of Representatives of which I happened to be then a member: In spite of my great respect for him and for his memory, I must be permitted to doubt the soundness of this reasoning.

The argument for an interim review of a President's service would have more force if ours were a parliamentary form of government carried on by a Prime Minister and his Cabinet, responsible at all times to a majority of the legislature. They are under a constant possibility of dismissal.

But that is not our system. We think we do better if we employ our servants in the executive branch for fixed and certain terms. We want them to realize that what they do they must do within the allotted span of their official lives.

We rely upon their zeal for the public good and their regard for their future standing before their fellow citizens and before posterity to spur them on in the discharge of their duties, rather than upon a prospect of continuous re-election. For experience proves, does it not, that when re-election is in view every act and decision—human nature being what it is—is colored by that contingency.

There is an argument in favor of the two four-year terms as proposed by S. J. Res. 289, which seems to me to have more merit—namely, that of national habit. We have worked on that plan for one hundred and fifty years and have grown accustomed to it. To continue it may be easier than to change, on the sound principle that it is always "wise to preserve what it is not necessary to destroy."

Would Remove Temptation

Yet if we are to go through the process of amendment, as I clearly think we must, I would prefer to do the best rather than the expedient thing. A single term would remove from any President the temptation to play for his own re-election.

Six years is long enough in which to do all the good one man is likely to accomplish, if he thinks first of his country and not of himself. If his conscience and his zeal do not stir him to his utmost effort in that length of time, the hope that he will do better on a second trial is a vain illusion.

But the vital thing is that we set now a definite, fixed, certain termination to the length of any man's occupancy of the Presidency. If the day ever comes when we have, or imagine that we have, but one man fit for the position, we may as well give up our pretense of being a representative republic and install a permanent or even an hereditary head under any name we choose to give him. In the light of this fatal dawn the Recording Angel will write across the ruins of our vanished freedom that we had been weighed in the balance and found wanting.

I care not how others may feel, but for myself the man has not yet been born of woman—and I use that phrase because it includes both the living and the dead—the man has not yet been born of woman to whom I would entrust for more than eight years at the most the vast, the expanding, the fateful powers of the Presidency of the United States.