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Term limits and the moral aspect

granite building

Why questions surrounding term limits go beyond the scope of ethics

(2nd edition [re-edit] - Feb 2014) by A.O. Kime
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While we’ve all heard the supporting arguments for imposing term limits on congressmen at the federal level - and thus know the rationale - perhaps not well-known is that some 70% of the citizenry support the idea of ’citizen legislators’ (as opposed to ’career politicians’). What then explains why it hasn’t yet happened?

Well, it appears we haven’t yet found the right formula to neutralize the ‘resistance’... mainly being politicians who relish the perks of being a U.S. Senator or Representative (of the House). More specifically, those who become mesmerized and addicted to the power and the glorified status of those positions. Their addiction might also include the ostentatious parties or those under-the-table kickbacks (in one form or another).

While there would be many other perks - likely some beyond the imagination of the average working stiff - to be successful in waging a campaign it's best one knows the makeup of the resistance. In this case, resistance to the idea of term limits. What constitutes its impetus (driving forces)? What constitutes its defenses?

While the perks, power and satisfying the ego should characterize the driving forces for most congressmen, we can't overlook 'just wanting to serve'. Credit must be given those legislators who, so far, haven't sold their soul to the lobbyists in Washington. Of course, we can't overlook what the voters want either... specifically those content with the status quo. Those, then, need to be persuaded to re-think the matter through radio, newspaper and TV ads.

As for its defensive system, it resides in the history of term limits… namely the federal constitution convention at Philadelphia (1787) which omitted mandatory term limits from the Articles of Confederation. This Philadelphia convention, of course, is what created the U.S. Constitution. It gives legislators 'the right' to run for reelection. It's their excuse. They have the law on their side.

But there’s also ‘advantages’ which often explains an incumbent’s staying power. The biggest advantage would be when the incumbent is on the ballot (once again). For the voter, the comforting 'the devil I know' kicks in. Other advantages would include 'experience' and often bigger campaign contributions.

The driving forces and having the law on their side makes the resistance to the idea of term limits formidable while the advantages make incumbents hard to budge.

The ethics component

However, they don’t have the ethics of the matter on their side… and, importantly, they know it. Knowing it is the weakness in their bulwarks.

But for good reasons.

Since antiquity ’citizen legislators’ and not ’career politicians’ had been the ideal, the common goal. Naturally, it reflected best a democracy (or a ‘republic‘ if one prefers to think in those terms). To seek reelection, or not to seek reelection, was considered an ethical matter… until, that is, the 20th century rolled around.

Prior to 1900, of course, not to seek reelection was viewed as the honorable thing to do… ethical. It didn't matter that the 'right' existed. Abraham Lincoln certainly had that view when he said (in reference to running for another term in the House) "to enter myself as a competitor of another, or to authorize anyone so to enter me, is what my word and honor forbid." But to whatever degree that view was held by other congressmen, history tells us that it was the voters who chose not to reelect their legislators. In short, citizens were the determining factor… they were the ones enforcing (imposing) term limits.

History of term limits

But there’s more history which favor term limits and Wikipedia can summarize it best…

“Term limits, or rotation in office, date back to the American Revolution, and prior to that to the democracies and republics of antiquity. The council of 500 in ancient Athens rotated its entire membership annually, as did the ephorate in ancient Sparta. The ancient Roman Republic featured a system of elected magistrates—tribunes of the plebs, aediles, quaestors, praetors, and consuls—who served a single term of one year, with reelection to the same magistracy forbidden for ten years. According to historian Garrett Fagan, office holding in the Roman Republic was based on "limited tenure of office" which ensured that "authority circulated frequently," helping to prevent corruption. An additional benefit of the cursus honorum or Run of Offices was to bring the "most experienced" politicians to the upper echelons of power-holding in the ancient republic Many of the founders of the United States were educated in the classics, and quite familiar with rotation in office during antiquity. The debates of that day reveal a desire to study and profit from the object lessons offered by ancient democracy.

In 1783, rotation experiments were taking place at the state level. The Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776 set maximum service in the Pennsylvania General Assembly at "four years in seven." Benjamin Franklin's influence is seen not only in that he chaired the constitutional convention which drafted the Pennsylvania constitution, but also because it included, virtually unchanged, Franklin's earlier proposals on executive rotation. Pennsylvania's plural executive was composed of twelve citizens elected for the term of three years, followed by a mandatory vacation of four years.

On October 2, 1789, the Continental Congress appointed a committee of thirteen to examine forms of government for the impending union of the states. Among the proposals was that from the State of Virginia, written by Thomas Jefferson, urging a limitation of tenure, "to prevent every danger which might arise to American freedom by continuing too long in office the members of the Continental Congress...." The committee made recommendations, which as regards congressional term-limits were incorporated unchanged into the Articles of Confederation (1781–89). The fifth Article stated that "no person shall be capable of being a delegate [to the continental congress] for more than three years in any term of six years."


“However, when the states ratified the Constitution (1787–88), several leading statesmen regarded the lack of mandatory limits to tenure as a dangerous defect, especially, they thought, as regards the Presidency and the Senate. Richard Henry Lee viewed the absence of legal limits to tenure, together with certain other features of the Constitution, as "most highly and dangerously oligarchic." Both Jefferson and George Mason advised limits on reelection to the Senate and to the Presidency, because said Mason, "nothing is so essential to the preservation of a Republican government as a periodic rotation." The historian Mercy Otis Warren, warned that "there is no provision for a rotation, nor anything to prevent the perpetuity of office in the same hands for life; which by a little well timed bribery, will probably be done...."

Generally though, most Americans probably already know of these sentiments… they may have only forgotten who said what. The point is, a new approach is needed since legislators would also know of these sentiments. And, it didn’t make any difference. It would be useless to keep citing them.

Nor would an incumbent agree they have been, or soon will be, corrupted by the political atmosphere in Washington. Of course, compared to their contemporaries how could they know? Perhaps to them “not worse” means they’re still a good guy.

State term limits

The history of term limits did make a difference to some 15 states however… having placed term limits on the seats of their elected state officials (Governorships in 36 states). However, there has been some backtracking - terms limits didn’t last long in six other states. They didn’t survive the challenges. That means, of course, the resistance is capable of fighting back.

Invariably for federal legislators however - despite the view of these 15 states and despite the ethics component - they decide to run for reelection nonetheless. Although supported by the fact the law allows them to seek reelection, they obviously didn't think the sum total of the opposing sentiments was the majority view. While only 15 states out of 50 doesn't suggest otherwise, surely the ethics of the matter should be considered the trump card. But, obviously, they disagreed.

But term limits rises above being just about ethics.

Since ‘ethics’ merely represents the philosophy of morality - effectively being a ‘linguistic derivative’ - then morality is at the heart of the matter. But seldom, it seems, has a legislator’s morals been attacked for seeking reelection. Is that what is missing? Can they defend themselves effectively from an accusation of being immoral? In public? They’d be hard-pressed for a quick response for they’d know morality questions are surrounded by quicksand. A pause would suggest their ego was in the process of slaying any surfacing doubts. Surfacing doubts, after all, pose a threat to their conscience. If even a smidgen of guilt survived they’d likely unravel.

Well, maybe just some politicians would... but at least the accusation would have left an indelible mark. To satisfy themselves they’d later feel compelled to do some serious soul searching (provided they still had a conscience).

Of course, the accuser must be prepared to explain why it’s a matter of morality. The following comes to mind.

The morality component… the real essence of the matter

Surely dismissing any cherished and long-held ideal is immoral… especially when it concerns justice. There is no greater ideal. And, certainly, term limits (citizen legislators) falls under the category of justice. Similarly, to forsake (ignore) the U.S. Constitution would be immoral. Or the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Even smirking at the integrity of the Magna Carta (800 year-old charter of rights). Forsaking their tenants goes beyond the scope of ethics. Far beyond.

After all, so much blood was spilt to obtain and maintain these ideals. Having paid a heavy price in blood to obtain or maintain an ideal elevates it to a higher level… where the terms ‘ethical’ and ‘ethics’ are simply inappropriate, lacking.

Another instance of wrongdoing would be to ignore the warnings about majority rule… its pitfalls known for hundreds of years. It would be both inexcusable and arrogant. But because societies paid a heavy price for learning the hard way, it would elevate this ignoring into sinfulness.

Nor should people suffer and die for a government-sanctioned just cause (through wars) only to have that cause forgotten. It amounts to suffering and dying for nothing. How can this forgetfulness not be a sin?

Case in point - legislators who forgot what our soldiers fought for (freedom, a free world). At least that's what they were told... and that's what can't be forgotten. Lie or not, it is the reason chiseled in stone. Soldiers certainly didn't knowingly die for socialism, oil, corporate oligarchy or so American industries could ship our jobs overseas (outsourcing). It wasn’t for UN Agenda 21, totalitarianism or a police state either. This forgetting amounts to betrayal and the type which rises to an even higher level… most assuredly into the realm of 'evil'. And, it’s why we need term limits. Almost invariably, after 2-3 terms, the atmosphere in Washington will turn a conscientious legislator into a conniving devil. Or a traitor.

The godly component

Those few who didn’t (or won’t) turn into a conniving devil or traitor knew one important thing… leaders take on the role of a god. It’s true in any capacity - even in the military and business. And they know they’ll be judged accordingly. For those who want to be judged based on a higher standard is commendable though. However, along with the rewards of a subconscious nature (aka: our connection to God), there are risks. Yet, there is little chance of injury to one’s spiritual forces for trying to do the right thing. However, incumbents would substantially increase their chance for injury from staying too long. Overpowering can be the temptations in Washington.

One such individual who is willing to limit herself is Michele Bachmann (external website) - Representative from the State of Minnesota. Citing that since eight years is all a president can serve, so too should it apply to her (see her website for her departing video statement).

It is clear, all leaders play god to some extent and while the rewards are invariably greater than what followers receive, the temptations to do evil are invariably greater also. If there were earthly gods it would be no different for them. For ages it has been recognized that rewards (money, power) and temptations walk hand-in-hand and cannot be separated (far). This makes it a truism... effectively the ‘law of the universe’.

Eerie so many are oblivious to this ’greater test’ applicable to leadership. Obviously then, term limits would be doing most incumbents a favor… although more important is that term limits would save the soul of the country.

And, only citizen legislators (via term limits) can do the saving. Simply, a country has no discernable soul until it is fully reflected. Perennial legislators can't do that... only their impact on a nation's legacy is reflected. A nation's soul is its natural dynamics exposed bare.

So then, on moral grounds should congressional ‘term limits’ once again be addressed. And, the sooner the better.

A.O. Kime

“Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man's character, give him power.” Abraham Lincoln

The following excerpt is from the novel "Who Goes There?" by B.K. Benson (published 1901). Although fiction, it was likely the actual sentiments of at least some Civil War soldiers (Blackwood Ketcham Benson was born in 1845 - would have known first hand the sentiments back then):

"—Ah! yes: I think I see; it is because the spirit of the nation is not equal to the spirit of the world. The world-idea forbids killing and forbids submission, and demands life and freedom for all; the spirit of the nation is not so unselfish; the spirit of the nation exalts so-called patriotism; the world-spirit raises high the principle of philanthropy universal. The country has not developed the world-idea, and will not, except feebly; but she will at last, and will be loyal to the spirit of the world.—" (for the rest of the excerpt see our article The 19th Century and the Evolution of Thought)

Last modified: 03/10/16