Twenty-Second Amendment Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Passed in 1947 and ratified about four years later, the Twenty-Second Amendment to the US Constitution established an official term limit for the nation's presidents. Prior to this amendment's ratification, most US chief executives had adhered to the precedent set by first president George Washington of serving no more than two terms in office. The Constitution lacked any formal guidance on this issue, however, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt had successfully stood for election to four consecutive terms during the 1930s and early 1940s. Although Roosevelt had been fairly elected in each instance and no serious accusations emerged that his long tenure in office had contributed to abuse of power, a federal commission recommended the addition of an amendment establishing the two-term limit as part of a series of suggestions aimed at streamlining government operations. The states ratified the amendment with little fanfare, and it has remained largely uncontroversial.

Summary Overview

Passed in 1947 and ratified about four years later, the Twenty-Second Amendment to the US Constitution established an official term limit for the nation's presidents. Prior to this amendment's ratification, most US chief executives had adhered to the precedent set by first president George Washington of serving no more than two terms in office. The Constitution lacked any formal guidance on this issue, however, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt had successfully stood for election to four consecutive terms during the 1930s and early 1940s. Although Roosevelt had been fairly elected in each instance and no serious accusations emerged that his long tenure in office had contributed to abuse of power, a federal commission recommended the addition of an amendment establishing the two-term limit as part of a series of suggestions aimed at streamlining government operations. The states ratified the amendment with little fanfare, and it has remained largely uncontroversial.

Defining Moment

The Framers of the US Constitution did not all agree on the best length of time for any given person to serve as the nation's president. Many early American leaders were wary of granting too much power to any one person, fearful that the liberty won by the American Revolution would be endangered by allowing an American monarch to come to power. The nation's first plan for government, the Articles of Confederation, had not allowed for an executive branch at all, assigning the office of “president” to the head of the national Congress. However, by the time of the writing of the Constitution, the weaknesses of the central government had become clear, and the Framers decided to create an office (the presidency) to oversee the implementation of government laws and policies.

As debates over ratification raged in the state legislatures and the press, Federalists and Anti-Federalists clashed over the nature and power of the proposed chief executive. Anti-Federalists argued that a president—especially one not subject to any form of term limits—was akin to the British king. Federalists rejected this claim, and the Constitution was ratified with the office of the presidency intact.

Washington—the first president to serve under the Constitution—declined to run for a third term. This decision set a precedent for a two-term presidency that was strongly endorsed by the nation's third president, Thomas Jefferson, who also refused to seek a third term, but did so on grounds more directly related to political philosophy. Only a few outliers challenged the two-term precedent. For example, Theodore Roosevelt became president upon the assassination of William McKinley in 1901 and served nearly all of McKinley's elected term before winning election in his own right in 1904. After leaving office in 1909, he became frustrated with the policies of his successor William Howard Taft and mounted an unsuccessful campaign at the top of the ticket for the Progressive Party in 1912.

Therefore, not until 1940 did a president successfully attain a third term. During the waning years of his second term in the late 1930s, President Roosevelt kept quiet about his intentions for the election of 1940. Roosevelt may have wished to avoid weakening his position in dealing with Congress to address the economic problems of the Great Depression; he may also have wanted to show strength in the face of the rising Axis threat in Europe. Although historians disagree on Roosevelt's motivations in accepting a nomination for a third term in 1940, voters resoundingly returned Roosevelt to the office at the polls. They did so again in 1944, when Roosevelt ran for a fourth term despite his declining health.

Author Biography

First established in 1947, the Commission on Organization of the Executive Branch of the Government was a nonpartisan committee headed by former Republican president Herbert Hoover, a long-time civil servant who believed in the efficacy of small government. Commonly known as the Hoover Commission, the body studied ways to reduce bureaucracy, increase efficiency, and generally improve the operations of the executive branch to meet the needs of the post–World War II United States. Between 1947 and 1949, the commission made dozens of recommendations to then president Harry S. Truman, another proponent of administrative efficiency. Among the first of these recommendations was the introduction of term limits for the presidency. This idea found favor with the Republican Congress that had been elected in 1946, and the federal legislature sent the amendments to the states for ratification short weeks after its members took office. Ratification was completed in February 1951.

Historical Document

AMENDMENT XXII

SECTION 1.

No person shall be elected to the office of the President more than twice, and no person who has held the office of President, or acted as President, for more than two years of a term to which some other person was elected President shall be elected to the office of the President more than once. But this article shall not apply to any person holding the office of President when this article was proposed by the Congress, and shall not prevent any person who may be holding the office of President, or acting as President, during the term within which this article becomes operative from holding the office of President or acting as President during the remainder of such term.

SECTION 2.

This article shall be inoperative unless it shall have been ratified as an amendment to the Constitution by the legislatures of three-fourths of the several states within seven years from the date of its submission to the states by the Congress.

Glossary

inoperative: not operative; not in operation; without effect

ratified: to confirm by expressing consent, approval or formal sanction

Document Analysis

Using clear and simple language, the Twenty-Second Amendment firmly formalizes the traditional two-term cap on the period during which any single person can serve as US president. The heart of the amendment lies in the opening statement of section 1, which stipulates that no one “shall be elected to the office of the President more than twice.” Further, section 1 seeks to prevent the creation of loopholes in the amendment's application by establishing a procedure for the relatively uncommon instances in which a vice president ascends to the presidency in the event of the death, resignation, or incapacitation of the elected chief executive. The amendment asserts that “no person who has held the office of President, or acted as President, for more than two years of a term” to which someone else was actually elected can run for office twice, implying that a person who rose to the presidency at the midpoint of an unexpired term could stand for election in his or her own right for a total term in office of ten years. Because vice presidents often act briefly in the capacity of president when the elected chief is unable—for example, during a surgical procedure—this limit allows for needed flexibility in conducting governmental operations, while maintaining the intent of the amendment. The amendment also provides an exemption for the person who was president or acting as president at the time of its proposal and during the presidential term that the amendment becomes effective.

Section 2 establishes a time limit for full ratification of the amendment. Because the Constitution places no set time limit on the period between which an amendment can be sent for ratification and final approval, the time lapse can be quite significant; the Twenty-Seventh Amendment, for example, was approved by Congress in 1789, but did not garner enough support from the states for ratification until 1992. The Eighteenth, Twentieth, and Twenty-First Amendments contain similar language.

Essential Themes

Likely because of the long-standing US presidential tradition of declining to seek election to any term beyond the second, the Twenty-Second Amendment has been generally accepted by the US electorate and office holders without a great deal of protest. Occasionally, representatives or senators of both political parties have called on the US Congress to introduce a measure repealing the amendment. These efforts, however, have never proceeded to a point of serious consideration. Objections to the amendment rest mostly on its limitation of absolute democracy—voters may not always reelect a popular president whom they otherwise would have—and on its creation of so-called “lame duck” presidents, who find it difficult to garner political support for policies in their second terms. Because such presidents cannot constitutionally stand for reelection, political jockeying within a sitting chief executive's own party to receive support for a presidential nomination in the following election can serve as a distraction from the work of governing.

As of 2014, only a handful of individuals have been directly affected by the amendment's provisions: Dwight D. Eisenhower, the first president elected after ratification; Richard M. Nixon, who resigned in disgrace partway through his second elective term; Ronald Reagan, who served two terms in the 1980s; Bill Clinton, a two-term president who served the following decade; and two twenty-first century presidents, Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Barack Obama. Under the terms of the amendment, incumbent chief executive Truman was exempt from the two-term limit because he was in office when the amendment was proposed as well as when it was enacted. Though Truman had the right to run for a third term in 1952, even after having served most of Roosevelt's elected fourth term and retaining the office in the 1948 election, he declined to run after suffering an early primary defeat. Lyndon B. Johnson would also have been eligible to stand for reelection in 1968 after advancing from the vice presidency to serve part of assassinated president John F. Kennedy's unexpired term in 1963 and winning election in his own right the following year because his total term in office would have remained within the ten-year cap, but Johnson opted not to run in 1968.

The Twenty-Second Amendment has additionally established a constitutional precedent for the usage of term limits that has led to calls for a similar measure to be created for other elected federal officials, particularly US representatives and senators. During the mid-1990s, polls suggested that between two-thirds and three-quarters of Americans would support the passage of a similar amendment placing term limits on members of Congress. Roughly equivalent majorities expressed support for such a measure nearly two decades later. Political gridlock and acrimony, analysts concluded, contributed to the popular belief that term limits helped the government work more effectively—an opinion with which the Hoover Commission would likely have agreed.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • “Americans Call for Term Limits, End to Electoral College.” Gallup.com. Gallup, Inc., 18 Jan. 2013. Web. 12 Dec. 2014.
  • Caress, Stanley M., & Todd T. Kunioka. Term Limits and Their Consequences: The Aftermath of Legislative Reform. Albany: State U of New York P, 2012. Print.
  • Korzi, Michael J. Presidential Term Limits in American History: Power, Principles, and Politics. College Station: Texas A&M U Press, 2013. Print.
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