• Blog
  • February 27, 2020
  • by NCC Staff

On this day: Term limits for American Presidents

On this day in 1951, the 22nd Amendment was ratified, limiting the number of terms served by the President. The move ended a controversy over Franklin Roosevelt's four elected terms to the White House.

On February 27, 1951, Minnesota became the 36th state to approve the proposed constitutional change, pushing the 22nd Amendment over the three-quarters threshold needed for it to be ratified. The approval process started nearly four years earlier when a Republican-controlled Congress championed the amendment after Franklin Roosevelt won four consecutive terms in the White House.

“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,” the amendment read.

For generations, Americans and politicians veered away from the concept of a third-term President. George Washington had set an unofficial precedent in 1796 when he decided several months before the election not to seek a third term.(The concept of term limits was discussed at the Constitutional Convention but not enacted in the Constitution.)

In 1799, a friend again urged Washington to come out of retirement to run for a third term. Washington made his thoughts quite clear, especially when it came to new phenomena of political parties. “The line between Parties,” Washington said, had become “so clearly drawn” that politicians “regard neither truth nor decency; attacking every character, without respect to persons – Public or Private, – who happen to differ from themselves in Politics.”

Washington’s voluntary decision to decline a third term was also seen as a safeguard against the type of tyrannical power yielded by the British crown during the Colonial era.

Between 1796 and 1940, four two-term Presidents sought a third term to varying degrees. Ulysses S. Grant wanted a third term in 1880, but he lost the Republican Party nomination to James Garfield on the 36th ballot. Grover Cleveland lacked party support for a third term but was a rumored candidate. Woodrow Wilson hoped a deadlocked 1920 convention would turn to him for a third term.

Even the popular Theodore Roosevelt couldn’t get by party objections to a third term. Roosevelt passed on running for office in 1908, fully aware of the Washington precedent. But after a fallout with President William Howard Taft, he sought a third nonconsecutive term in the 1912 presidential election. He lost the election as a third-party candidate but came in second ahead of Taft.

Franklin Roosevelt broke the third-term unwritten rule in 1940 after World War II broke out in Europe and Nazi Germany overran France. The move caused some key Roosevelt supporters within the Democratic Party to leave his campaign. Roosevelt insisted that he was in the race to keep America out of war in Europe, and he easily defeated Wendell Willkie on Election Day.

After Roosevelt died in 1945, momentum built quickly for a presidential term-limits amendment. But even after the 22nd Amendment was ratified, two Presidents held aspirations of a third term within the amendment’s limitations. Harry Truman was President when the amendment was proposed and ratified, and its language allowed for Truman to run for office in 1952. But a loss in the New Hampshire primary led to Truman’s withdrawal from the race.

And in 1968, President Lyndon Johnson was eligible to run since he assumed the presidency in late 1963. Johnson also dropped from the 1968 presidential race after a disappointing showing in New Hampshire amid poor poll numbers.

Since 1951, some members of Congress have introduced efforts to repeal the 22nd Amendment, but they haven’t made it out of committee.

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