my opinion originally was that the President of the US. should have been elected for 7. years, & for ever ineligible afterwards. I have since become sensible that 7. years is too long to be unremoveable …the service for 8. years with a power to remove at the end of the first four, comes nearly to my principle … the danger is that … reelection through life shall become habitual, & election for life follow that. Genl. Washington set the example of voluntary retirement after 8. years. I shall follow it. and a few more precedents will …[establish this principle]. perhaps it may beget a disposition to establish it by an amendment of the constitution.
Thomas Jefferson to John Taylor, January 6, 1805
Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Wise leaders self-limit their authority.
Taylor (1753-1824) was a Virginia lawyer, farmer, politician, political writer and close ally of Thomas Jefferson. He had written the President after hearing reports that Jefferson would serve a second term only and then retire. Taylor asked him to reconsider that decision.
Jefferson declined. One of his three objections to the new U.S. Constitution proposed in 1787 was no limit on the number of terms a President could serve. He feared that could turn into a President-for-life, either dictator or king. He credited Washington with setting the example of retiring after two terms. He would follow suit. Several more doing the same would establish the principle. Presidents Madison and Monroe continued in that vein, serving two terms only.
That principle continued until 1940, when Franklin Roosevelt was elected to a third term and then a fourth in 1944. This resulted in the 22nd Amendment (which Jefferson suggested) adopted in 1951, constitutionally limiting the President to two terms.