Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vols. VIVIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 18351860
The Third-Term Question
By John Bigelow (18171911)
[Born in Malden-on-the-Hudson, N. Y., 1817. Died in New York, N. Y., 1911. From a Letter to the New-York Tribune, 14 September, 1874.]
IT appears: 1. That the limitation of a Presidents service to not exceeding two terms is sanctioned by the unbroken usage of almost an entire century. 2. That, the moral authority of this usage has not been weakened by a single exception. 3. That every President who has been tempted with the prospect of a third term has distinctly recognized the binding force and wisdom of it 4. That the Presidents thus tempted, who have had opportunities of observing for the longest period the operation of our Government, have been most tenacious of the Washingtonian limitation; and finally, 5. That no President, however popular, however important his services to his country, and whatever his prospects of a reëlection, has ever permitted his name to be used in a canvass for a third term, or failed publicly and officially to denounce any attempt to prolong the term of Presidential service beyond eight years, as an offence against the spirit of our Constitution and fatal to the principle of popular sovereignty.
Are we traversing a crisis requiring greater statesmanship, or larger measures of public confidence, than were ever encountered by any previous Presidentby Washington, by Jefferson, or by Jackson? Are our obligations to the present incumbent greater than to any of his predecessors? Has our statesmanship become so impoverished, and has the race of our public men so degenerated, that he is the only one left equal to the duties of the Presidency? Or are we as a nation becoming weary of the eternal vigilance which is the price of liberty, and, like the elders of Israel in the days of Samuel, are we ready to add unto all our sins this evil, to ask for us a king?
No one will pretend that we are in one of those grave exigencies which have sometimes in other countries rendered a change of Executive hazardous. On the contrary, there probably was never an epoch in our history when such a change would beget less anxiety than the present .
It is one of the merits of republican institutions that they impose no duty and require no service for which the average intelligence and morality of its people is not equal. The Presidency of the United States does not yet, and we trust may never, resemble those craggy mountain peaks which are only accessible to the eagle and the serpent. It is quite a secondary question whether General Grant has been or would continue to be, if reëlected, a good President. If he were a Washington or a Lincoln, the objection to his reëlection would be equally fatal. The people of the United States very deliberately framed their Government with the view of remaining the masters of it, and not of being mastered by it, and they are not yet willing to abdicate in favor of any, even the most audacious conspirator against their sovereignty. It might happen that General Grant would not abuse the prerogatives with which a reëlection would clothe him, but who could insure us against his successor? Let the Rubicon beside which he is now encamped be once passed, let there be no recognized limitation to Presidential reëligibility and the office would at once go upon the market, and be sold for its pecuniary value. The combination of hundreds of millions of capital in a gold or railroad speculation is no longer a rare experience; conceive who can the pool that would be raised to win the indefinite Presidency of this Republic .
If there was anything calculated to mitigate the distress produced by the financial crisis of 1873, it was the fact that its bolts fell heaviest upon those who were most active in this conspiracy for wresting the Federal Government from the final control of the people, and left them, for the present at least, more of a terror to each other than to the country.
But what they sought to do there are others equally capable of undertaking, if countenanced by the Executive, the moment that barrier is removed which like a divinity now doth hedge the popular sovereignty of the country, and before which, till now, every President of the United States has inclined himself in respectful homage. Every country abounds in men ready to reason like the tyrant of Thebes:
Be just, unless a kingdom tempts to usurpation;
For that, sovereignty alone is adequate temptation.