U.S. Presidents Are Limited to Two Terms Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In the aftermath of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s four-term presidency, Congress passed a constitutional amendment limiting future presidents to no more than two terms in office. The amendment was ratified by three-fourths of the state legislatures, becoming the Twenty-second Amendment to the Constitution.

Summary of Event

Debate over the term of office of the president of the United States was a major issue at the Constitutional Convention and has persisted since the adoption of the U.S. Constitution. In fact, from 1789 to 1947 more than 270 proposals for term limits were introduced in Congress. In 1787, many of the delegates at the convention in Philadelphia were concerned about an executive or president being too powerful in the new government. Delegates struggled with the issue of the length of the president’s term, as well as whether the president should be reelectable. Those who favored a single term generally supported a long presidential term of at least six years. Those who favored reelection supported shorter terms, ranging from one to four years. Eventually, the delegates agreed on a four-year term for the president without specifying any limits on the number of terms a president could serve. Constitution, U.S.;Twenty-second Amendment[Twentysecond Amendment] Presidency, U.S.;term limit Twenty-second Amendment[Twentysecond Amendment] [kw]U.S. Presidents Are Limited to Two Terms (Mar. 1, 1951) [kw]Presidents Are Limited to Two Terms, U.S. (Mar. 1, 1951) [kw]Terms, U.S. Presidents Are Limited to Two (Mar. 1, 1951) Constitution, U.S.;Twenty-second Amendment[Twentysecond Amendment] Presidency, U.S.;term limit Twenty-second Amendment[Twentysecond Amendment] [g]North America;Mar. 1, 1951: U.S. Presidents Are Limited to Two Terms[03460] [g]United States;Mar. 1, 1951: U.S. Presidents Are Limited to Two Terms[03460] [c]Government and politics;Mar. 1, 1951: U.S. Presidents Are Limited to Two Terms[03460] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Mar. 1, 1951: U.S. Presidents Are Limited to Two Terms[03460] Roosevelt, Franklin D. [p]Roosevelt, Franklin D.;Twenty-second Amendment[Twentysecond Amendment] Michener, Earl C. Truman, Harry S. [p]Truman, Harry S.;Twenty-second Amendment[Twentysecond Amendment]

President Franklin D. Roosevelt signs the declaration of war against Japan in December, 1941. Roosevelt’s re-election to a fourth term during the war was the impetus for passage of the Twenty-second Amendment.

(National Archives)

George Washington established the two-term tradition. Washington, who reluctantly agreed to serve a second term, made it clear he would never seek a third term. The second president, John Adams, was defeated in his bid for a second term. The third president, Thomas Jefferson Jefferson, Thomas , served two terms. Near the end of his second term, eight of the thirteen states passed resolutions urging Jefferson to seek a third term, but he declined. Jefferson became an intellectual advocate of the two-term limit by noting that if the president did not step down voluntarily, the office might become a lifetime position. The two presidents who followed Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe, also honored the two-term tradition.

The first president who sought reelection to a third term was Ulysses S. Grant Grant, Ulysses S. . Grant served as president from 1869 to 1877. After sitting out for four years, Grant sought the Republican Party’s nomination to run for president in 1880 but was defeated by James Garfield for his party’s nomination.

In the twentieth century, several presidents considered running for a third term. Theodore Roosevelt Roosevelt, Theodore became president in 1901, following the assassination of William McKinley. He served all but six months of McKinley’s term and was then elected in his own right in 1904. Roosevelt did not seek reelection in 1908; however, he ran for president as the Progressive Party’s candidate for president in 1912, after the Republican Party refused to nominate him as its candidate. Democrat Woodrow Wilson defeated both Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, the Republican incumbent, in the general election.

Wilson thought about running for a third term, but his declining health and opposition from party leaders prevented him from doing so. In 1923, Calvin Coolidge Coolidge, Calvin became president after the death of Warren Harding. Coolidge served nineteen months of Harding’s term and then was elected president in 1924. There was some speculation that Coolidge would run for reelection in 1928; however, he announced in August, 1927, that he would not seek another term.

Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was first elected president in 1932, broke the two-term tradition in 1940, when he accepted the Democratic Party’s nomination for president. Roosevelt cited the ongoing war in Europe as his main reason for running for a third term. The main issue in the general election was foreign policy, not term limits, although Roosevelt’s Republican opponent, Wendell Wilkie, pledged to seek a constitutional amendment limiting presidential terms if he were elected president. The United States entered World War II during Roosevelt’s third term. In 1944, still embroiled in the war, Roosevelt ran for a fourth term and was reelected. Roosevelt, however, was in declining health, and he died on April 12, 1945.

In 1947, following their congressional victories in the 1946 elections, Republicans pushed for a constitutional amendment limiting the term of office for the president. On January 3, 1947, Congressman Earl C. Michener, chair of the House Judiciary Committee, introduced a constitutional amendment limiting the number of terms a president could serve. The proposed amendment stated that no person could be elected president more than twice and that no person who had held the office for more than two years without being elected could be elected president more than once. In February, 1947, the amendment passed the House of Representatives by a vote of 285 to 121.

There was an attempt in the Senate to replace the amendment with one that would limit all federal officeholders to six years in office, but the substitute amendment failed by a vote of 82 to 1. The Senate then passed the original amendment by a vote of 59 to 23. Republicans in both the House and Senate unanimously supported the amendment, which exempted the seated president, Harry S. Truman, from its conditions and required ratification by three-fourths of the state legislatures within seven years of its congressional passage for it to become part of the Constitution. On March 31, 1947, Maine and Michigan became the first states to ratify the amendment. On February 27, 1951, Minnesota became the thirty-sixth such state, giving the amendment the support of three-fourths of the forty-eight states and enacting it into law. Eventually, forty-one states would ratify the amendment. Of the thousands of Republican state legislators in the United States who voted on the proposed amendment, only eighty-three voted against it. On March 1, 1951, the Twenty-second Amendment was certified by U.S. administrator of general services Jess Larson to have received the ratification of the requisite number of state legislatures, and it officially became a part of the U.S. Constitution.

Significance

Prior to the adoption of the Twenty-second Amendment, there was no limit on the number of terms a president could serve. Since its passage, supporters of the amendment have contended that without term limits, the office of president could become too powerful and upset the separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches. Opponents of the amendment have argued that term limits restrict the suffrage rights of citizens to choose a president. Critics have also argued that presidents’ inability to run for a third term makes it more difficult for them to pass their agendas during the final two to three years of their second terms, because Congress knows such presidents are “lame ducks.”

A number of presidents, both Democratic and Republican, have been critical of the amendment. Democrat Harry S. Truman, who was president when the amendment was passed, urged repeal of the Twenty-second Amendment in testimony before Congress and in public writings. Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower at first thought the amendment was unwise; however, he later admitted it had a point. After Richard M. Nixon was reelected president in 1972, some Republican strategists began to discuss whether to start a campaign to repeal the amendment so Nixon could run again. The Watergate scandal and Nixon’s resignation ended that discussion.

Republican Ronald Reagan was concerned about the amendment’s limitation on the president’s effectiveness during the second term and described the amendment as a perversion of the Constitution’s design for a limited but energetic government. Democrat Bill Clinton argued that the amendment should be modified so a president would have to leave office after two terms but could then run again after an interim period. On the other hand, former presidents Lyndon B. Johnson, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter have supported a single six-year term for the presidency. Numerous proposed amendments have been introduced in Congress since the ratification of the Twenty-second Amendment; however, despite the controversy and differences of opinion, the amendment remains part of the Constitution. Constitution, U.S.;Twenty-second Amendment[Twentysecond Amendment] Presidency, U.S.;term limit Twenty-second Amendment[Twentysecond Amendment]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kyvig, David E. Explicit and Authentic Acts: Amending the U.S. Constitution, 1776-1995. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1996. A historical narrative about amending the Constitution, with detailed discussion of the issues surrounding each amendment.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Palmer, Kris E. Constitutional Amendments, 1789 to the Present. Detroit, Mich.: Gale Group, 2000. Includes a chapter on each of the twenty-seven constitutional amendments ratified by the end of the twentieth century, as well as a chapter on proposed future constitutional amendments. Each chapter thoroughly discusses the historical context leading up to the passage of the amendments, as well as their impact after passage.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pendergast, Tom, Sara Pendergast, and John Sousanis. Constitutional Amendments: From Freedom of Speech to Flag Burning. Volume 3. Detroit, Mich.: Gale Group, 2001. A thorough discussion of constitutional amendments and proposals. Volume 3 examines Amendments 18-26, as well as proposed amendments.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Vile, John R. Encyclopedia of Constitutional Amendments: Proposed Constitutional Amendments and Amending Issues, 1789-2002. 2d ed. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO, 2003. A detailed review and analysis of the constitutional amendments. Includes a discussion of the thousands of other constitutional amendment proposals.

Franklin D. Roosevelt Wins a Fourth Presidential Term

Truman Is Elected President

Eisenhower Is Elected President

Kennedy Is Elected President

Johnson Is Elected President

Constitution Provides for the Incapacity of the President

Nixon Is Elected President

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