The 22nd Amendment Sets Presidential Term Limits

Franklin Roosevelt
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the 32nd president of the United States, held office for a record four terms. Keystone Features / Getty Images

The 22nd Amendment to the United States Constitution establishes term limits for persons elected to the office of President of the United States. It also sets additional eligibility conditions for presidents, who after assuming the office through succession, serve out the unexpired terms of their predecessors. Under the 22nd Amendment, no person may be elected president more than twice and no person who has already served or acted as president for more than two years of an unexpired term may be elected president more than once.

The joint resolution proposing the 22nd Amendment was passed by Congress and sent to the states for ratification on March 24, 1947. The 22nd Amendment was ratified by the required 36 of the then-48 states on February 27, 1951.

Section 1 of the 22nd Amendment states:

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.

History of the 22nd Amendment

Before the adoption of the 22nd Amendment, there was no statutory limit on the number of terms a president could serve. The Constitution merely stated that the president’s term in office lasted four years. The Founding Fathers had believed that the shifting political views of the people and the Electoral College process would prevent third presidential terms.

After George Washington and Thomas Jefferson chose to limit their presidencies to two terms, the two-term limit became a respected tradition—sort an unwritten rule.

The two-term tradition held sway until 1940 when President Franklin D. Roosevelt chose to run for a third term. With the nation facing the Great Depression followed closely by World War II, Roosevelt was elected to not only a third but a fourth term, serving a total of 12 years in office before his death in 1945. While FDR was the only president to be elected to a third term, he was not the first to try. Both Ulysses S. Grant and Theodore Roosevelt had run unsuccessfully for third terms.

In the 1946 midterm elections, just 18 months after Democrat FDR had died in office, many Republican candidates made limiting presidential tenure a large part of their campaign platforms. In the election, Republicans succeeded in winning control of both the House and Senate and immediately pushed the 22nd Amendment establishing presidential term limits to the top of the legislative agenda when the 80th Congress convened in January 1947.

In less than one month—on February 6, 1947—the House of Representatives, with the support of 47 Democrats, passed a joint resolution proposing the 22nd Amendment by a vote of 285-121.

After resolving differences with the House’s version, the Senate passed the amended joint resolution on March 12, 1947, by a vote of 59–23, with 16 Democrats voting in favor.

The 22nd Amendment imposing presidential term limits was submitted to the states for ratification on March 24, 1947. Three years and 343 days later, on February 27, 1951, the 22nd Amendment was fully ratified and incorporated into the Constitution.

The Constitution’s Framers and Presidential Term Limits

The Constitution’s Framers had little to go on as they debated how long the president should be allowed to hold office. The Constitution’s predecessor, the Articles of Confederation, provided for no such office, granting Congress both legislative and executive powers instead. Their only other example of a supreme national executive—the King of England—against whom they had just revolted, was a troubling model.

Some of the Framers, including Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, argued that presidents should serve for life and be appointed by Congress, rather than elected by the people. Of course, that sounded far to “kinglike” for others, like Virginia’s George Mason, who said it would make the American presidency an “elective monarchy.” Surprisingly, however, when Hamilton and Madison’s proposal for lifelong, appointed presidents came to a vote, it failed by only two votes.   

With the “presidents-for-life” option off the table, the Framers debated whether presidents could be re-elected or be term-limited. Most of them opposed term limits, arguing for presidents who would be elected by Congress and could run for re-election an unlimited number of times. But that, warned Gouverneur Morris, would tempt incumbent presidents to make corrupt, secret deals with Congress in order to get re-elected. That argument led the Framers to adopt Article II of the Constitution with its complicated and still controversial Electoral College method of electing presidents with no term limits.

Since the 22nd Amendment amended Article II in 1951, some politicians and constitutional scholars have argued that desperate circumstances, like the Great Depression and World War II faced by Franklin Roosevelt, warranted unlimited presidential terms. Indeed, some two-term presidents of both parties, including Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama, lamented their constitutional inability to run for third terms.

22nd Amendment Key Takeaways

  • The 22nd Amendment establishes term limits for the President of the United States
  • Under the 22nd Amendment, no person may be elected President of the United States more than twice.
  • The 22nd Amendment was approved by Congress on March 24, 1947, and ratified by the states on February 27, 1951.

References

Updated by Robert Longley