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The six-year presidential term?

Stumbled on an interesting fact the other day while reading a New Republic piece by historian Sean Wilentz.

In 1861, when the Confederate States of America created a Constitution for their short-lived Confederacy, they gave the president a six-year term but barred him from seeking a second term.

In general, the CSA Constitution was closely modeled on the U.S.A. Constitution. Most of the changes were very states’ rightish, designed to curb what were viewed as the excesses in the way federal power had grown over its first 75 years. Other changes were explicitly designed to protect slavery (although the original U.S. version had also protected the slaveocracy).

But the single six-year term for the prez seems different. Apparently, even by 1861, some Americans were tired of seeing presidents who spent too much of their first term positioning themselves politically reelection in their second.

For obvious reasons, we’re not accustomed to seeking much positive example from anything done by the Confederacy. But this one had virtually nothing to do with slavery, and thinking about it right now, it strikes me as a good idea. (Yes, I know it would require a constitutional amendment. And it won’t happen. Just seems like a good idea.)

The obvious downside is that a president would have the powers of that office for six years without the democratic check having to face the voters again. But that’s the obvious upside, too. The president would be freed from reelection considerations during his/her entire term and, we can hope, would be freed to do what seemed  best for the country. Historically, most presidents who seek a second term, win a second term. And most second terms are relatively unproductive compared to first terms.

The rest of the long, smart Sean Wilentz piece, by the way, was about the oft-reoccurring dream in U.S. history that the country could somehow rise above partisanship in its politics.


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Comments (8)

  1. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 01/05/2012 - 11:17 am.

    The problem is it only addresses the Presidency. What we need to do is publicly finance elections for qualifying candidates, require free tv and radio air time. Reinstate the equal time doctrine for political ads, and limit campaigns to six months before an election.

  2. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 01/05/2012 - 11:27 am.

    An interesting proposal.
    Maybe the strongest argument against it would be that we couldn’t correct a mistake as quickly. On the other hand, what would Bush II’s single six year term looked like? And Bush I’s, for that matter?
    Of course, we could go parliamentary and have the President chosen by the House with the approval of the Senate.

  3. Submitted by Peder DeFor on 01/05/2012 - 11:30 am.

    That’s a good point about second terms being unproductive. Usually they’re somewhat embarrassing. I can’t think of any in the last 50 years where the second term was anywhere near as good as their first.

    I’m more in favor of term limits for the House and Senate members. On the face of it, I’m not seeing much downside from a single six year term for the President though.

  4. Submitted by Gavin Sullivan on 01/05/2012 - 12:13 pm.

    Imposing such restrictions isn’t getting any easier; any ‘equal time doctrine’ will likely not apply to internet-based advertising–the most effective/efficient kind of advertising. How could a 6-month campaign be enforced? Constitutionally, the setup of the US Senate–residents of The Equality State get 70 times more representation per vote than do Californians–strikes me as a far greater outrage than does the presidential term & term-limit.

  5. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 01/05/2012 - 01:24 pm.

    The Senate is apportioned the way it is because we are the United -States- ; so one house of the legislature gives small states equal status with large states. It was a condition of the foundation of the country.

  6. Submitted by Bill Gleason on 01/05/2012 - 08:15 pm.

    Bad idea, Eric.

    First, it makes every president a lame duck, every term.

    Second if the president elected is a turkey, under the present system he or she can be voted out in four years, rather than six.

    Third, look at the damage the GOP did to the country by trying to wait Obama out and doing everything it could NOT to do what is best for the country, but rather what is worst for Obama’s re-election chances. We are fortunate not to have to endure this for six years.

  7. Submitted by Tom Lynch on 01/05/2012 - 10:03 pm.

    #5-It may have been set up that way, but it still doesn’t mean it’s democratic.

  8. Submitted by Paul Landskroener on 01/06/2012 - 09:05 am.

    I’m with Gleason on this one; Ia six year term may make sense, but why bar reelection?

    My pet proposal is to lengthen the terms of House members to 4 years and elect half every two years. Contrary to some, I believe Congress spends too little time in Washington and too much time back home campaigning or quasi-campaigning. They need to take the job of legislating seriously and three days a week at work seven or eight months a year isn’t serious.

    (I also favor lengthy but fixed-year terms for federal judges abolishing the Senate.)

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