by Michaela Crawford Reaves, Ph.D.
California Lutheran University
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.
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.
In 1944 Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected to his fourth term as president of the United States. Amazingly, his margin of victory remained over 80 percent in each election. Although some historians attribute this phenomenal run to “depression psychosis,” a fear that the economic Depression would return if Roosevelt left office, others attribute it to his charisma and success in combating the Depression and World War II. In April 1945, however, Roosevelt died and his vice-president, Harry Truman, became president. In 1946, a wave of labor strikes, an economic downturn and fear of the Soviet Union propelled the Republicans to a majority in Congress for the first time in 16 years. Immediately, on March 21, 1947, the new Congress passed a bill for presidential term limits. Specifically, the bill would limit any election to the office to two terms, with the addendum that a person filling out another president’s term could only run for two terms if he or she acted as president for less than half of the previous term. The states ratified the bill on Feb. 27, 1951, and it became law.
Although Roosevelt won election four times, the idea of term limits was not new. George Washington arguably could have run for a third term in 1796 and chose not to do so, possibly based on his commitment to the Roman dictator, Cincinnatus, who served only as long as his country needed him and then stepped down. Whatever Washington’s motivations, it was generally assumed that a two-term president was the best option. In 1880, however, there is evidence that Ulysses S. Grant wanted to run for a third term but was not nominated. Twelve years later, in 1892, the Omaha Platform of the developing Populist Party included a plank for a single six-year term for the president. Although the idea did not catch on in the ensuing elections, the idea of term limits lingered. In 1947 one might postulate that the Republicans and Southern Democrats felt that Roosevelt had pushed the limits toward de facto kingship too far and they responded with the 22nd Amendment.
Michaela Crawford Reaves is a professor in the Department of History at California Lutheran University. She holds a doctorate from the University of California, Santa Barbara. Reaves specializes in the cultural and social history of the United States.