The Third Term Issue


By HIRAM W. JOHNSON, U. S. Senator from California

Broadcast from the Nations Capital, over the facilities of the Columbia Broadcasting System, October 18, 1940

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VII, p. 52-55.

WHEN first like a vagrant comet the ruthless ruler of Germany burst upon the horizon, the American people were concerned, but unafraid; and then, when his bloody aggressions became manifest and one nation after another fell, they began to look to their defenses, and to attempt the repair of them. Then was the opportunity for a few men in this country to frighten our people, and to cause a hysteria presented to us as a crisis such as we had never before seen. Over-emphasized and asserted most cleverly it was that the awful crisis was upon us. It was painted in lurid colors by those who knew so well how to arouse the people. And then, too, came another crisis very different,—the crisis of a third consecutive presidential term which would enable the present incumbent again to be a candidate, and perhaps again to be elected. One crisis was, from without, war-like and nebulous in character; the other, from within, very, very close to us all, more subtle but more important.

Various astute and clever politicians who knew just what they wanted soon prepared the means by which one crisis could minister to the other. The game was played then and every endeavor was made to whip up a war scare and a war hysteria. This proved fairly easy because of the rapidity and ruthlessness with which the aggressor nations were acting. The people were made to believe that St. Louis and Omaha were about to be bombed, and every species of propaganda was called into use to increase their fears. And then mysterious whisperings were heard about changing horses in the middle of the stream, and then the indispensable man was born. I may add, parenthetically, that Americans have very little use for the indispensable man, and when it was found how little use he was to those who had created him, he gradually retired from the picture and the crisis.

The President maintained a discreet silence until the meeting of the Democratic Convention, and although those of us who had been suspiciously viewing the trend of eventswere neither shocked, nor surprised at his assumed unwillingness to become a candidate, he apparently knew full well that his months of preparation and his ambiguous declarations could mean but one thing, and that the assumed unwillingness would ripen into a graceful offer to bear the burden of the great office and be a candidate again. For the first time in the history of the Nation we have a third-term presidential candidate. And this presents in greater degree than a flaming war, with its cruel destruction of peaceful nations, a crisis purely American. This is the greater crisis, and perhaps is more far reaching than any other, for it may mean the preservation of the last fortress of democracy on this earth. I emphasize this is an American crisis alone, and for that reason, we must solve it ourselves as Americans, in order that our coveted and boasted American liberty shall not perish from the earth.

It is because I deem so important this issue of a third term, paling into insignificance every other issue, that I come before you tonight as an American, who loves his country above all else, who believes in its traditions, and its customs, and in its treasured institutions, to argue for a few minutes upon this most important subject.

One who has reached his allotted span, who has no animosities toward any man, and no partisanship of any sort, I speak neither as Democrat, nor Republican, nor Progressive. I speak from a full heart just as an American, and I choose in this campaign the man opposed to the third term. It makes no difference to me whether his chance of election be of one sort or another. It makes a vast difference that I shall preserve that which has been most dear to me in my life,— my independence and my country's weal.

Let us look at the historical record for a moment. I choose principally the record of the Democratic Party for I wish to speak mainly to my Democratic friends.

George Washington set the precedent of a two term limitfor Chief Executives, tho Thomas Jefferson established it. Jefferson is the patron saint of the Democratic Party. Until the recent Democratic Convention you have heard him quoted and praised by all Democrats. It remained for this last Convention to boo him when Carter Glass was nominating Jim Farley, and quoting Jefferson as opposed to a third term. What a long way we have traveled! Until at last we find, after Jefferson has been venerated for more than a century, his words praised as pearls of wisdom; whose advice has been so clear and persuasive that it has always been followed, this popular hero, this Democratic saint is booed in a Democratic Convention! And nothing more distinguished that Convention, or extinguishes it, in the opinion of thinking people, than those boos heard in 1940 at one whose name had ever been received with veneration and acclaim, and one who had measured up in his life to the loftiest heights of patriotism.

But Jefferson established the principle of a two term limit for Presidents. Washington set the precedent. Madison and Monroe acquiesced in it, and Andrew Jackson, who, until the Democratic Convention of 1940, was the second greatest Democrat of all times, favored it.

All the great Democrats from that day to this have been in accord. None has dissented. The reasons were plain. It was the fear of personal power in one man, the fear of personal power which would lead that one man to excesses. Power is a heady wine. Few human beings can resist it, and certainly there has been no evidence, or even desire of resistance in the gentleman who seeks it now. He has gathered unto himself more power than any ruler on earth has, save in the totalitarian governments. And there has been no instance when any part of it has been returned. In his course at the Democratic Convention at Chicago, his direction of its proceedings, and his subsequent actions as its third term candidate, he has contributed a perfect illustration of every danger and evil which Jefferson foresaw so clearly, and against which he warned his countrymen so earnestly.

And after this so-called Democratic Convention what have we seen, seen with regret and sorrow! Without notice, we witness the recipient of a third-term nomination, brushing aside with a sweep of the hand the precedent of Washington and the tradition established by Jefferson, and he has done this in total disregard of what the American people have thought. No chance to debate the matter, no opportunity for Congress to ratify it, nor for the people to pass upon it. Perhaps the unanimity with which the people and their representatives have determined the question is the very reason for not submitting it.

It does not answer the requirement to say that the people now have a chance to pass upon it, because, first, the principle is hidden in a mass of irrelevant matters, and in the hot enthusiasms of present politics the question is beclouded by a Democratic nomination however obtained. The very abuse that custom and tradition sought to avoid is presented to the people practically as a fact accomplished.

Instead of submitting the matter to the people for determination he handed it over to his State and County chairmen to do with as they saw fit. He handed it over, indeed, to men whom he knew would do his will without thought of the perpetuity of American traditions.

Grover Cleveland warned us against the power of patronage at a President's disposal in forcing his re-nomination, and that this warning was real is demonstrated by the number of employes of the Federal Government which in the last seven years has doubled, and is now more than a million.

Cleveland spoke of the pitfalls in the pathway of an ambitious president, "the allurements of power, the temptation to retain public place once gained, and more than all, the availability which his party finds in an incumbent, whom a hordeof office holders support with a zeal born of benefits received and the hope of favors yet to come."

All of the forebodings of Washington, Jefferson, and Jackson are fulfilled and justified. No longer need we consider what may happen—what is certain to happen is obvious if a president sees fit to destroy this great tradition and custom.

If he sees fit to increase his term four years, he can increase it eight, or sixteen, and finally, as Jefferson once remarked, the whole presidential office becomes but an inheritance.

I speak to you tonight with no ill-will toward any man. The law has ever made it a sin for a trustee to profit from his beneficiaries' inheritances. Jealously the law guards this. The rights of beneficiaries are so carefully protected that a trustee must not deal with the property entrusted to him. This was to remove temptation, and is as old as the old Mosaic law that no man may serve two masters. The temptation applied to the highest and the lowest, the highest in dealing with his country, and the lowest in dealing with matters entrusted to him.

In 1875 the House passed its Resolution by a vote of 233 to 18. In the Senate this Resolution was passed in 1928, and it reads as follows:

"Resolved, That it is the sense of the Senate that the precedent established by Washington and other Presidents of the United States in retiring from the presidential office after their second term, has become by universal concurrence, a part of our republican system of government, and that every departure from this time-honored custom would be unwise, unpatriotic, and fraught with peril to our free institutions."

The vote on this Resolution was: Yea—56. No—26.

The members of the Senate who still are there and who voted for this Resolution are Ashurst, Barkley, Capper, Frazier, Glass, Harrison, Hayden, Johnson, King, LaFollette, McKellar, Neely, Norris, Nye, Pittman, Sheppard, Shipstead, Smith, Thomas, Tydings, Wagner, Wheeler.

There never has been an occasion when the matter has been brought to attention officially that it has not been decided that the third term violates tradition and custom and is "fraught with peril to our free institutions."

If your imagination will permit you, go back to the first beginnings of this country. Can you see Washington and Jefferson, Madison and Monroe, and Jackson, and all the remaining galaxy of the great, safeguarding our precious liberties? We're the last country on earth to possess these.

Shall one of our own jeopardize them, or shall one of our own be permitted to violate the sacred tradition built up by these great men of the past for the preservation and for the perpetuity of our institutions?

It must not be done.

Upon you and upon me rest the solemn obligation of protecting those who come after us, as our great founding fathers sought to preserve for us our liberties unsullied and untouched, to permit the ambition of no man, however great he may be, or however appealing he may be to the people, to violate the custom or tradition.

We are asked to permit him to make the first break in the protecting dike. This country belongs to you and to me, and to every other inarticulate citizen. Theirs is the right, theirs alone to alter our fundamental law and abandon this custom and tradition. We are asked now to submit it to one man alone with the warnings of 150 years ringing in our ears. We are asked to gamble now with the most precious of human possessions—liberty. We must not do it.

Both Washington and Jefferson refused even to contemplate any American so far forgetful as to want a third election, Washington said:

"There cannot in my judgment be the least danger that the president will by any practicable intrigue ever be able to continue himself one moment in office, much less perpetuate himself in it, but in the last stage of corrupted morals and political depravity."

and Jefferson in like fashion was unable to conceive a president actually consenting to a continuous term in office, and remarked

"should he consent to be a candidate for a third election, I trust he would be rejected on this demonstration of ambitious views."

Consider for the moment the power that the President now has. He has arrogated to himself the right to the purse of the nation. A celebrated Englishman once said "Give me the purse and I will govern". By his innumerable boards and commissions he deals with nearly all of the problems of life, and enforces his will alone concerning them. To the minds of the great and pure men who have governed this nation, it is unthinkable that any man would seek to violate the sacred agreement and tradition that all had rigorously obeyed. But, they overlook one trait of human nature, one dominant factor, the love of place and prominence, of adulation and power. I say this in no invidious sense, but as the common fault of human nature. Some love it so much that power is never gladly or voluntarily surrendered. The appetite growing by what it feeds on becomes the master passion of their lives. Such men find while they realize that some day their power must be laid down, can always find a reason why the fatal day may 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 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. History is full of just such instances. The friends and sycophants of the incumbent, whose 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.

Jefferson once wrote, long after he thought he had definitely fixed the tenure of the office of President:

In questions of power, let no more be said of confidence in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution."

Neither Jefferson nor his contemporaries could foresee the immense power that a President avid for it could acquire. In recent years we have seen billions of dollars that he could disburse at will, with places by the hundreds of thousands for him to fill, with scores of discretionary statutes ready at his word, with the Army and Navy under his control as Commander-in-Chief, and the conduct of foreign relations in his hands. Who could ask for more? I but state the fact when I say any president with these great powers can cause himself to be renominated, not once, or twice, but as long as he chooses. With the two-term tradition broken down, we have every reason to dread a future occupancy of the White House, limited only by the ambition or the life of the tenant.

One hundred and fifty years have elapsed since the foundation of our Republic. Thirty presidents have followed one another in succession, some ruling well, some not so well. In all the time we have been a nation, with all the men who have been our presidents, never have the custom and tradition been broken, no man has had the temerity to challenge it. Now, in 1940, if we permit this sacred tradition to be broken and the labor of a century and a half set at naught, it requires no prescience or vision to see what will happen thereafter.

Think of it. A century and a half of an acquiesced in custom and tradition, none in whose custody it has been, however sorely tempted, has dared to violate it. Now in secrecy and stealth, with the aid of all the boss-ridden cities of America, is it broken! Wake up, Americans, rush to protect what protects your liberties. Wake up, Americans, ere it is too late.

Dr. Raymond Moley so aptly phrases his description of the instances involving personal power and the effect upon delegates to the late Democratic Convention that I dare quote him here:

"Consider, how, the instances in which this issue of personal power has currently been involved. The first has been the attempt to lay down to Congress a list of specifications for its action. We all remember those 'must' bills. So we call it by the name 'must'. The second we call 'pack'—the attempt of the Executive to get the immediate power to create in the Supreme Court a majority of his own choosing. The third we call 'purge'. It involved the power of the Executive to destroy the political careers of those legislators who would not conform to the Executive's will. The fourth, we shall call 'perpetuate'—the effort of the Executive, through a subservient party and a distracted people, to override the principle that has kept any other president from serving more than two terms.

"There they are. Four words describe them—'must', 'pack', 'purge', and 'perpetuate'.

"* * * They are four signs that the danger of individual power never passes. They are the four horsemen of autocracy.

* * *

"These efforts follow an appallingly logical course—the course that begins with an aspiration and ends with a person. It begins with an ideal and ends with a single will. Certain ideas are indispensable. Then compliance is indispensable. And finally the leader is indispensable.

* * *

"* * * Recall * * * the conclave of * * (the Democratic) party in Chicago last July. Nominally, it was a convention of that Democratic Party which pledged itself, 1912, to a single term for the President. But the Democratic Party which made that pledge is dead. The thing that met in Chicago this summer was * * * (composed of) men and women who * * did not think: they nodded. They did not vote their convictions. * * * They did not select a candidate. The candidate selected himself.

"* * * Democracy holds that executive authority shall neither be hereditary nor perpetual. If America rejects that tenet, it rejects democracy. And it rejects it as its deadly peril.

* * *

"* * * The issue rises above party, above prejudice, above personal affections, above hysteria and above fear. Save our principles and we save our liberties."

And now I leave this question with you. I leave it believing that I have a sacred duty to perform, and you must judge whether I have succeeded. I'm loath to cease this discussion. There are many other things in this campaign that I would discuss, but I'll have to defer a presentation of them until some future time. I realize how inept I have been, perhaps, in parts of it, but I have tried to discuss a great principle rather than any personality. If I have succeeded in arousing some slight spark in our electorate I shall consider my task sufficiently performed. I cannot think of our great ancestors, all of whom with singular unanimity favored the tradition which Jefferson established, I cannot think of our past presidents who with unanimity followed, without feeling a great reverence for the noble men who charted their course in the dark, until the blessed sunlight came for the struggling Republic, and for those who followed them.

I would be wanting in expression upon the current contest if I did not say to you that the fight that is being made by Willkie and McNary, practically single-handed and alone, arouses my enthusiasm and my admiration. They have opposed to them almost insuperable odds. First, about one hundred and twenty-five members of the electoral college are already selected by the exigencies of politics. More than one million employes of the existing power stand like a phalanx in this campaign, and then, more important than all, nine millions of people who are recipients of the bounty of the government. Yet, they fight on. If these adventitious aids which the present president has should be taken from him, the contest would no longer be in doubt. Upon all matters I do not agree with Messrs. Willkie and McNary in this campaign, but they are eternally right upon the great issue, and the all important one of a third term. Thrice armed is he whose cause is just. Fear not, fight on. Truth is mighty and it will prevail.

We have been in such a fog of hysteria that it has been difficult to think soberly or well. One event has pyramided another so quickly that it is difficult to think at all. We have become soft and soggy with temporary abundance. Even the enormous debt stirs only the few. We are satisfied with a promised security, unearned and easy. Our thoughts teem with greed and every man for himself. May I say,—that is not the American way. Our country was not founded upon those ideas, but by striving and toiling and saving and building—a unity among men with a definite goal—America. They gave their all to give us this heritage we so enjoy.

Let us transport ourselves to the early days. Imagine yourselves with Washington. Go with him through all his trials and difficulties. Think of him in his crisis, with his regiment

naked and sick and hungry,—you remember "the old continentals in their ragged regimentals"—and his cause seemingly lost. And then, in his loneliness, on the bleak hill of Valley Forge, he knelt to ask his God to help him and be with him to the end, all to give us peace, security and freedom. How can we forget?

Think of Jefferson, the philosopher and thinker, who, at the beginning was a resident of another continent and how he wrote continuously and pleadingly, and then established this principle. Think of his trials and disappointments and indomitable courage that succeeded in implanting in every American heart his ideals. Are we to forget him also? And how about Old Hickory, with matchless courage, and his heart filled with patriotic fervor, who for seven long years preached the faith that was in him, until Buchanan wrote in 1829

"The example of Washington, which has been followed by Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe, has forever determined that no President shall be more than once reelected. This principle has now become as sacred as if it were written in the Constitution."

We can not be false to all these and other patriots, living or dead, who with a singleness of purpose to preserve intact our liberties, fought for this principle.

We cannot be and we will not be. And so when we come to the judgment seat how shall we answer for our precious country, for the preservation of its pristine glory, for the protection of the liberties of our citizens? Shall we answer, trembling—"We had not the courage because the power was great and overwhelming, millions upon millions, on the other side, and we fell before them." Or shall we answer thus and say,—"We stood up like brave men and fought the good fight, and with the aid of God we won it!"

God bless and save America!