George Washington and the Two-Term Precedent
Sales Date: August 18, 2023
128 Pages, 5.50 x 8.50 in
- Published: August 2023
- Published: December 2023
- Published: August 2023
One of the earliest and most consequential presidential decisions in American history was George Washington’s choice to step down after two terms in office, despite the fact that he would almost certainly have won a third term had he chosen to run. The example he intended to set—and the circumstances he faced at the time—tell a more complicated story of the true motives behind his decision to retire and the impact his decision had on his successors and the nation. In George Washington and the Two-Term Precedent, David A. Yalof examines how this decision set a pattern that would be followed by presidents for more than a century until FDR began serving a third term in 1941.
While often portrayed simply as a noble decision by Washington to restrain the power of the executive office, Washington’s decision was in fact motivated by self-interest and a desire to cement a legacy of honor and integrity. Yalof shows that he was never motivated by the desire to reign in the executive with an unwritten two-term limit. If anything, Washington hoped to strengthen the executive branch by demonstrating that the institution of the presidency could be trusted with the power and independence than it had so far received. His voluntary relinquishment of the presidency after two terms in office achieved these goals.
Yalof focuses on the two-term precedent and how it came into being not by legal prescription but by the tacit influence of Washington’s refusal to run for a third term and what it suggests about American conceptions of executive power. George Washington and the Two-Term Precedent offers a sober reminder that the country’s most famous and original hero chose to walk away from power, and it was that decision that cemented his greatness in American history.
“Yalof offers for the first time a serious, provocative, and gracefully written account of the two-term presidency. Washington's famous decision to limit his tenure in office, Yalof argues, was more complicated and certainly more interesting than standard mythology suggests. To understand why, you must read this book!”—Stephen Howard Browne, author of The First Inauguration: George Washington and the Invention of the Republic
“Yalof reminds us that presidents are usually assessed according to what they do—their lasting accomplishments—rather than what they do not do and by their restraint. Yet, as this book so admirably demonstrates, Washington’s decision to step down after two terms shaped the development of the office, strengthened the young Republic, and remains a relevant cautionary tale today. Both Washington’s lesson and Yalof’s assessment of it offer a timely reminder, contrasting the great Founder’s actions with those of Donald Trump who attempted to negate the results of an election and hold on to power. This most welcome addition to the literature succeeds in dispelling old misconceptions and offering important, new scholarly interpretations about a topic well known to all, yet one that, curiously, has been generally overlooked by researchers.”—Robert Watson, Distinguished Professor of American History and Avron Fogelman Research Professor at Lynn University, and author of America’s First Crisis, The Nazi Titanic, The Ghost Ship of Brooklyn, George Washington’s Final Battle and Escape!
Foreword by Richard J. Ellis
Preface and Acknowledgments
Introduction: George Washington and the Two-Term Precedent
1. Sacrifice (1717–1792): The Quest for a Limited Executive
2. Decision (1793–1797): The Second Term and the Decision to Leave Office
3. Aftermath (1797–1951): The Presidents Who Followed Washington and the Precedent They Followed
Conclusion: Looking Back and Looking Ahead