The Constitution’s 22nd Amendment is in the news after two congressional members engaged in a spirited debate this week about its purpose. To help readers understand the questions involved, here are some details about how the amendment that limits presidential terms of office became part of the Constitution.
Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said in a TV interview with MSNBC, “They had to amend the Constitution of the United States to make sure [Franklin] Roosevelt did not get reelected,” referring to the 22nd Amendment. Representative Liz Cheney responded on Twitter, saying, “We knew the Democrats let dead people vote. According to @AOC, they can run for President, too.” Ocasio-Cortez then told Cheney on Twitter that “the National Constitution Center + Newsweek are just two of many places where you can clarify your misunderstanding of the history of the 22nd Amendment.”
In this case, Ocasio-Cortez referred to one of our Constitution Daily blog posts mentioned in the Newsweek story. The blog post mentioned comments made by Republican presidential candidate Thomas Dewey in late October 1944 about a proposed presidential term limits amendment. President Roosevelt defeated Dewey for Roosevelt’s fourth term in office in November 1944 but died shortly after his inauguration in 1945. Congress did not approve the 22nd Amendment’s language until 1947, and the states did not ratify the amendment until 1951.
As a nonpartisan institution, the National Constitution Center does not have a stake in that debate. But there is an interesting story leading up to congressional approval of the 22nd Amendment and its ratification.
Background on Presidential Term Limits
In 2009, Thomas Neale from the Congressional Research Service detailed the long debate about presidential term limits at the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. The delegates considered a fixed term for the chief executive among several options. Initial ideas included a three-year or seven-year term of office, limited to one term. When the delegates could not agree on a solution, the question was referred to the Committee on Postponed Matters, which included Gouverneur Morris and James Madison. The Committee devised the Electoral College and a four-year term for the President with no term limits, among other important innovations. Neale says during the state ratification process, doubts from the anti-Federalists were offset by “the near certainty that George Washington would serve as first President under the Constitution.”
These doubts about unlimited presidential terms of office did not fade away after President Washington set the unofficial two-term precedent in 1796. Scholar Stephen W. Stathis explains in a 1990 paper that Congress considered early versions of presidential term limit amendments in 1803 and 1808, and the Senate approved term-limit resolutions in 1824 and 1826, only to be rejected by the House.
The National Archives’s “Amending America” project shows that presidential term limit motions appeared in Congress over the next 140 years regularly, with the first possible amendment submitted to Congress in 1788 by Thomas Tucker. In his 1897 report to the American Historical Association, Herman V. Ames listed 125 versions of presidential term limit amendments proposed to Congress between 1788 and 1896. “These were brought out chiefly by the fear that the President would use the patronage of his office to secure his reelection,” Ames said. “A large number of the amendments did not propose to change the term of the President as fixed by the Constitution, but to limit the number of times the same person could be chosen President.”
The controversy over President Ulysses S. Grant’s potential third-term candidacy in 1876 and 1880 led to a spate of proposed term limit amendments. In 1876, the House passed a resolution that “the precedent established by Washington and other Presidents of the United States, in retiring from the Presidential office after their second term, has become by universal concurrence a part of our republican system of government.”
The Amendment's Passage and Ratification
Stathis writes that by the time the 80th Congress convened in January 1947, at least 200 presidential term limit amendments had been proposed in the House or Senate. But that Congress would be unique in its action to get the amendment to a full vote and the two-thirds majority needed to pass it, thereby sending it to the states for ratification.
The Republican Party had advocated for a presidential term limit amendment in its 1940 and 1944 convention platforms when first Wendell Willkie and then Thomas Dewey ran against Franklin Roosevelt. (The Democrats had added a presidential term limit amendment to its 1912 platform to oppose another Roosevelt—Theodore—when the former President sought a third, non-consecutive term.)
The 80th Congress saw a mutual interest between Republicans and southern and western Democrats united their desire to limit presidential tenure after the Franklin Roosevelt era. The House considered two versions of the amendment. One amendment limited a President to single six-year term; the other limited the President to two four-year terms. The House version with a two-term limit passed in a 285-121 vote barely a month after the new Congress met. Stathis notes that 37 Democrats who voted for the resolution were from southern states.
The Senate and Senator Robert Taft changed the House version to add language related to a Vice President who assumed office having 10 years of eligibility. Nine Senate Democrats from southern states joined with a unanimous GOP Senate Caucus in the Senate vote approving the amendment’s language. Stathis points to the long-time dissatisfaction among some southern Democrats with the Roosevelt era, and an assumption that Truman would continue its policies, as motivating their support for the 22nd Amendment. The House approved the Senate version in mid-March 1947, sending it to the states for ratification.
The states, however, did not move as quickly to ratify the 22nd Amendment. Initially, it did not have support among southern Democratic-controlled states. But President Truman’s moves to promote civil rights programs led to a broader split within the Democratic Party. Minnesota was the 36th state to ratify the amendment in February 1951, adding it to the Constitution.
If you would like to learn more about the broader issues about the 22nd Amendment, our Interactive Constitution has essays from scholars F.H. Buckley and Gillian Metzger on the Founders’ thoughts about the presidential term, and the on-going debate about the need to limit the time someone serves as President.
Scott Bomboy is the editor in chief of the National Constitution Center.