Rotation in Office

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ROTATION IN OFFICE. The premise of rotation in office is as old as the American republic and driven by two contrasting premises. The more exemplary reason offered by high-minded theorists and office seekers alike is that it underscores American democratic traditions by allowing as few as possible to be ensconced in remunerative and powerful lifetime government jobs. The second reason for the principle derives from the new administrations, at any level of government, who want open positions to reward their friends and punish their enemies. The first premise was invoked by no less a figure than George Washington, when, in 1796, he declined a third term as president on the grounds that a two-term limit by general informal agreement showed a healthy respect for American democratic institutions. Only a few years later, in 1801, Thomas Jefferson was the first president to sweep his Federalist enemies from office in wholesale numbers.

But it was President Andrew Jackson, a generation later, who laid the groundwork for what his opponents came to call the "spoils system." Beginning in 1829, Jackson invoked wholesale rotation in federal office as his guiding principle, saying plainly that "no one man has any more intrinsic right to office than another." So, with that in mind, and in the name of (Jacksonian) Democracy, he cleansed the federal civil service of his predecessor John Quincy Adams's appointees, replacing them not with the new democratic working class men who adored him, but with elite politicians who supported him, and who were indistinguishable, in class terms, from the men they succeeded. This occurred not only with cabinet and sub-cabinet level administrative positions in Washington, D.C., but with civil servants in the states and communities in America who staffed the customhouses, the Internal Revenue Service, the post offices, and the land offices.

Even with that principle put into wholesale practice, Jackson discovered what his successors in the nineteenth century would later learn as well. There were never enough jobs to go around, and many disappointed, politically connected office seekers turned on him. He said of them, "If I had a tit for every one of those PIGS to suck at, they would still be my friends." Only civil service reform, beginning at the turn of the twentieth century, would end the spoils system as the mechanism that drove the early premise of "rotation in office." The U.S. Civil Service laws mostly cleared that Augean stable of corruption, but it did nothing for the principle of rotation.

In the twentieth century, Franklin Roosevelt's decision in 1940 to run for a third (and then a fourth) term as president raised enough flags in the American electorate to launch a movement to legalize the two-term limit that George Washington had introduced by precedent. A constitutional amendment finally limited presidents to two terms, beginning with Lyndon Johnson.

In the 1990s, a term limits movement gained momentum in several states, imposing rotation in elective office at all levels of government. It limited elected officeholders in some places to terms that usually do not exceed eight years. Term limits, in the name of the principle of rotation, are still honored only here and there, but in a way they are a start toward a return to the more democratic process that George Washington wanted to establish at the inception of the American republic.


Prince, Carl E. The Federalists and the U.S. Civil Service. New York: New York University Press, 1978.

Carl E.Prince

See alsoCivil Service ; Spoils System .