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In a recent comedic stand-up monologue the following was said:

You know when they wrote the constitution, people like George Washington, no one expected to live to age 78. The average life expectancy was 35, but for whatever reason back in 1789 they made the minimum age to be president 35.

A quick check shows this is probably roughly true.

At the time the ability to live beyond the average life expectancy would have included genetic factors but certainly also would have been helped by wealth, access to nutrition and medical care and possibly to education.

Question: Is there any evidence or well-supported arguments made that the 35 year age minimum was intentionally selected at least partly to make use of differential life expectancy a selective force for who is eligible in terms of class and privilege?


Different but related: Is there a historical source that might explain why so many countries use 35 as a minimum age for the president / the highest office person? Here I'm asking something very specific; the use of differential life expectancy as a selective force.

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    “No one” is an odd statement given that Benjamin Franklin was 83 in 1789. – Gort the Robot Mar 7 at 17:10
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    Please note that "average life expectancy was 35" doesn't mean people were dropping from old age at 35. Many died due to illness in childhood, but those who didn't, could reasonably live to 80 and even beyond. Even poor people. – vsz Mar 7 at 20:21
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    The increase in average life expectancy since colonial times has been the result of vastly decreased rates of infant and child mortality. One of the saddest things I ever saw was at a church in Great Smokey Mountain National Park in the US, which has a cemetery out the back of the building. Walking through the cemetetry you saw a lot of graves of children, aged from less than a day to a couple years old. Our oldest daughter was just over a year old at that point and my wife was pregnant with our second child, so it hit home pretty strongly. – Bob Jarvis - Reinstate Monica Mar 7 at 20:44
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    I always thought 35 was to prevent dynasty, so the child of the president does not easily follow as the replacement. Note that JA/JQA and Bush1/Bush2 were not consecutive. Little to do with Life expectancy. – chux - Reinstate Monica Mar 7 at 22:33
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    There is a lot of text available about what the framers discussed and/or what some of them claimed was the rationale. I am not aware of it covering this topic but I haven’t read all of it. – WGroleau Mar 8 at 1:35
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The Wikipedia article about life expectancy incudes the following:

Life expectancy increases with age as the individual survives the higher mortality rates associated with childhood. For instance, the table above listed the life expectancy at birth among 13th-century English nobles at 30. Having survived until the age of 21, a male member of the English aristocracy in this period could expect to live:

  • 1200–1300: to age 64
  • 1300–1400: to age 45 (because of the bubonic plague)
  • 1400–1500: to age 69
  • 1500–1550: to age 71

So Americans in the 18thC who survived to 35 look likely to have had a reasonable chance of surviving several Presidential terms, at least.

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    This is a really interesting answer and an important point, thank you! For those reaching adulthood, half did not die by 35 or 40. The corollary is that we should not take everything that stand-up comedians say as literal truth ;-) – uhoh Mar 7 at 15:56
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    I luv me some corollary! What I didn't mention is that there is an obvious selection effect: to be electable you had to survive childhood, the chances of which were probably class-based. – simon at rcl Mar 7 at 16:03
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    @simonatrcl Perhaps, but children who died could be replaced. Childhood disease would have no selection effect on classes of adults. – Kevin Krumwiede Mar 7 at 18:04
  • @KevinKrumwiede : I have no figures and so I won't make any arguments. – simon at rcl Mar 7 at 18:14
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    @simonatrcl: I would argue that "surviving childhood" is a prerequisite as soon as the minimum age is that of an adult. – Matthieu M. Mar 7 at 18:51
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The other answers touch on this point, but I think it needs to be emphasized: The quote in the question demonstrates a gross misunderstanding of the concept of average life expectancy.

Overall average life expectancy is less meaningful than average life expectancy at a given age. The average life expectancy at birth was much lower than it is today, but that was mostly because of the high rate of fatal childhood illnesses. If you made it to age 10, you were mostly in the clear. Children who died were replaced, and there was no shortage of old people. Modern medicine has only increased the average life expectancy of an adult by about five years.

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  • Even today ten is the age with the lowest mortality. – EvilSnack Mar 8 at 1:50
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The two are unrelated, and any "resemblance" between the two ages is coincidental.

If the "life expectancy" was 35, it would be a weighted average of the ages of people who died in childhood, and people who lived to be adults, and who could expect to live a normal lifespan approaching 70, from Biblical times, (at least for men; women often died in childbirth). That is, the deaths would be "bi modal," from ages 0-5, then again around ages 65-70. The life expectancy in your chart rose over time when as the left "mode" diminished in size. It is NOT a bell curve with a peak around age 35.

As for the rise to the Presidency, the U.S. Constitution mandates that no one be elected to Congress before the age of 25, to the Senate before the age of 30, and the Presidency before the age of 35. Assuming a "wunderkind" was elected to Congress at age 25-26, s/he should serve at least 2-3 terms (4-6 years) in Congress before running for Senate. That person would be expected to serve, if not a whole Senate term of 6 years, at least 4-5 before running for President. Or possibly have an equivalent career track outside of government.

There has been a school of thought that people, particularly men, are not fully adult and mature until age 25. Lower thresholds for adulthood at 21 or 18 only signify "more adult than not."

Ironically, Joe Biden was among the youngest elected Senators (barely 30 on inauguration day), but did not become a viable candidate for President until his old age.

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