Vail Daily column: Term limits and voting rights
This is the 14th part of a series.
So revered was he, and so novel was the concept of voluntary succession, George Washington could have been — and history suggests should have been — president for life. Instead, after two terms, he graciously stepped down, handing over power to the fiery John Adams (who, incidentally, was ousted in his re-election bid by Thomas Jefferson, his rival).
The tradition begun by Washington, of presidents serving not more than two terms — or for a total of eight years in office — continued for the next 144 years until Franklin Delano Roosevelt, our 32nd president, was elected for a third term in 1940. He was elected again in 1944 for a fourth term but died three months after being sworn in and was succeeded by his veep, Harry S. Truman.
No president other than Roosevelt had or has since served more than two terms and this is due, in recent part, to ratification of the 22nd Amendment. Passed two years after FDR’s death and ratified four years later, the 22nd Amendment provides that “No person shall be elected to the office of the President more than twice.” It goes on to hold that “no person who has held the office of President, or acted as President, for more than two years of a term to which some other person was elected President shall be elected to the office of President more than once.” In other words, the “max” that one can swivel in the Commander in Chief’s chair in the oval office is 10 years.
It is interesting to note, the other Roosevelt — Teddy, the Hemmingway-esque figure of Rough Rider fame, our 26th president and FDR’s distant cousin — served two terms in office, from 1901 to 1909. Then after a safari in Africa but before running (and nearly dying in) the unknown waters of the Amazon with his son, Kermit, in 1912, Teddy split the Republican Party by running as a third party candidate under the banner of the Progressive Party. History has, however, remembered the Progressive Party as the Bull Moose Party, the story behind which goes like this: While campaigning in Milwaukee Roosevelt was shot in an assassination attempt.
Nonetheless, like the dogged Santiago in Hemmingway’s “Old Man and the Sea”, Roosevelt was not about to be daunted by a little nuisance like a bullet in his chest. Blood staining his shirt front, he went ahead and gave his speeches anyway before going to the hospital. He brushed off the attack saying, “It takes more than that to kill a bull moose!”
In the end, though, Teddy Roosevelt lost the election to Woodrow Wilson and the history of a third term was not made until FDR three-and-a-half decades later.
Strange as it may ring, until 1961, in Washington, D.C. — the seat of government and some would say, the home of democracy — people who lived there could not vote for president. Say what? Well… note that Washington, D.C., is not a state and, as designed in 1787, the Electoral College granted the vote only to states. As a quick aside, have you ever wondered what the “D.C.” thing is and what “Columbia” means? Well, think “Columbu” in the early years of the nation. “Columbia” was nearly interchangeable with “America” (adopted after the cartographer Amerigo Vespucci). And the “D” was for “District,” which replaced what was first referred to as the federal “territory.”
Anyway, the 23rd Amendment changed that. The 23rd Amendment gave D.C. residents a number of presidential electors (three) equal to those of the least populous state.
In 1964, 99 years after the end of the Civil War, the nation was still feeling the effects of racial discrimination. One measure employed by Jim Crow southern states to deny blacks the right to vote was the institution of a poll tax, a special fee charged for the right to vote. On the cusp of its adoption, five states — Virginia, Alabama, Texas, Arkansas and Mississippi — still imposed such taxes. Passed at the height of the civil rights movement, the 24th Amendment took a further step towards equality, banning all such poll taxes.
Not surprisingly, of the 38 states that ratified the amendment, nearly all were in the north or west. Of the states of the old Confederacy, only Florida, Tennessee, and Missouri were among the 38 who ratified. The state legislatures of Virginia, North Carolina, Alabama and Texas all ratified the amendment decades later in a symbolic gesture. Eight other states, six in the Deep South — Arizona, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Wyoming — still haven’t ratified it today and Mississippi specifically rejected it.
In the next two parts of this series, we will finish off review of the amendments — numbers 25 through 27 — then take a look at how the Constitution is interpreted and applied. We will start, then, with the housekeeping measure of the 25th Amendment which, yet again, focused on the presidency, executive power and succession.
Rohn K. Robbins is an attorney who practices in the Vail Valley with the law firm of Stevens, Littman, Biddison, Tharp & Weinberg LLC. His practice areas include business and commercial transactions, real estate and development, family law, custody, and divorce and civil litigation. He may be reached at Robbins@SLBLaw.com.