by Michael Powelson, Ph.D.
Ratified on Jan. 23, 1933, the 20th Amendment to the Constitution changed the dates that the president, vice president and members of Congress officially begin their terms of office. Previously, the president and vice president took office on March 4 of the year after they were elected, but the 20th Amendment moved up this date to Jan. 20. The immediate reason for this change was that although Franklin Roosevelt had been elected in November 1932, he was still not officially president when many banks began to collapse as part of the Great Depression of 1929. Herbert Hoover was the sitting “lame duck” president but had little ability to take action on the banking crisis, while Roosevelt was uninterested in taking steps to improve the financial situation while Hoover was still president. It was hoped that by shortening the time between election and officially taking office, the president would be in a better position to handle a crisis such as the one faced in the winter of 1932-1933.
Additionally, the 20th Amendment stipulated who would take office if the president-elect was not able to do so. The reason for this was that a failed assassination attempt against Roosevelt was carried out on Feb. 15, 1933, when he was the president-elect but not yet officially in office. In case of the death of the president-elect the vice president-elect shall take office, and if no candidate had been elected president by Jan. 20, as was the case with the disputed election of 1876, the amendment provided that Congress would select a president and vice president “until a President or Vice President shall have qualified.”
The 20th Amendment also established that elected senators and Congress members shall take office and convene on Jan. 3 of the year after their election. The reason for this was that the Constitution stipulated that Congress meet in December, which meant that some members would not meet in Congress until a year after their election.
Michael Powelson, Ph.D., is a California State University, Channel Islands, history lecturer.