“Constitutional Amendments” Series – Amendment XXII – “Term Limits for the Presidency”

Color portrait of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had been elected president four times from 1932 to 1944. (Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library & Museum)

Amendment Twenty-two to the Constitution was ratified on February 27, 1951. It establishes term limits on those elected president, and outlines an accompanying series of stipulations regarding the eligibility of succession for unfinished presidential terms. The official text is written as such:

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 President more than once. But this Article shall not apply to any person holding the office of President when this Article was proposed by 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.

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.

The question of having term limits on elected officials harkens back to the first debates surrounding the Constitution’s ratification. By the laws enacted beneath the previous Articles of Confederation, the office of President did not exist, as the Congress wielded both legislative and executive authority. When the concept of an individual holding the title of president was created, the Framers differed in several ways as to how they would be elected, and for how long. Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, for instance, envisioned a president who would be nominated by the Congress to serve for life. This raised concerns that the United States would effectively turn into an “elective monarchy,” but other proposals for presidential terms were also met with divided reception. It was eventually determined that presidents would be voted for by the people through the Electoral College system, and the prospective president-elect would not be bound by term limits. The decision for George Washington – the First President of the United States – to voluntarily step down from office after two terms, established an unofficial tradition for future presidents to serve for no longer than two terms. For one-hundred and fifty years, this system seemed to sustain itself with little to no trouble. But it was the uniquely chaotic circumstances of the 20th century that would raise greater questions regarding term limits.

Franklin D. Roosevelt – the Thirty-second President of the United States – had been elected in 1932 in response to the Great Depression. After serving two full terms, he ran for president again for the 1940 Presidential Election. The Second World War had started a year earlier, and the looming threat of the United States being pulled into the conflict in some way or another remained a major concern for the American public, who were still recovering from the previous decade’s economic downturn as well as the long-term scars left behind by the previous “Great War” in Europe. Inspired by Roosevelt’s leadership in response to the Great Depression, he won the election, led the country through four years of the war, was re-elected in 1944, and served as president until his death in April 1945. After the war ended in 1945, concerns loomed in Congress regarding a possible risk of executive overreach being brought about by Roosevelt being president for almost thirteen years. He had used his executive power to produce several federal work programs in response to the Great Depression, and had served as Commander-in-Chief to a massive American military force that had spread far across the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans. While these uses of executive power were justified by some to be in light of the world-affecting circumstances of the 1930s and 1940s, doing so in the prospective time of post-war peace was seen by some as concerning.

In 1947 – two years after Roosevelt’s death and the subsequent ascension of Harry S. Truman to the presidency – the House of Representatives proposed Joint Resolution 27, calling for a set limit of two terms, each containing four years, for all future presidents. After going through some revisions by the Senate, the proposed amendment was approved and sent out to the states for ratification on March 21. The proposed amendment – now officially adopted as the Twenty-second Amendment – was ratified in 1951 after almost four full years of deliberation. Since the new amendment’s ratification, all subsequent presidents have served for no longer than two elected terms. Several attempts have been made by presidents and Congress members of many different political affiliations to either modify, or outright repeal the Twenty-second Amendment. Arguments in favor of repealing the amendment have ranged from having consistent leadership in response to a crisis, to allowing non-consecutive terms for eligible presidents with longer life expectancies. The Twenty-second Amendment is one that has experienced a fairly split reception in the decades since its creation, and in so doing has resurrected debates on the nature of the office of president.

Written by Nicholas J. Dilley, Ronald Reagan Presidential Library & Museum

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