The topic of discussion for this Constitution Monday comes from Section 1 of the Twenty-second Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America: “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….” This provision establishes that Americans shall be free of a life-time President or one serving for long periods of time.
W. Cleon Skousen explained that the “Founders had a great dread of hereditary rulers, or elected officials who might gain control of an office and then refuse to relinquish it.” The attendees at the Constitutional Convention “proposed that the tenure of office for the President be limited to a term of four years. However, when a straw vote was taken, Madison noticed that Washington voted against it. It was assumed from this that Washington (whom everyone expected to be the first President) felt he might need more than four years to get the new government safely inaugurated.
“Nevertheless, after President Washington had served two terms, he considered that sufficient, and refused the invitation to run for a third term….”
Skousen further explained that other Presidents followed the tradition set by President Washington or found the “notion” of a third term to be “unpopular.” Then along came 1940, World War II – and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who successfully broke the tradition when he was elected for a third term. He then went on to win a fourth term but died a few weeks after being inaugurated.
“Since the Republicans had taken over the Congress, they immediately initiated a strong drive to prevent the President from serving more than two terms. Congress approved this amendment on March 21, 1947, and it was ratified by the states on February 27, 1951.”
(See The Making of America – The Substance and Meaning of the Constitution, pp. 755-756.)
Bruce Peabody of The Heritage Foundation added this explanation: “Although the Twenty-second Amendment was clearly a reaction to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s service as President for an unprecedented four terms, the notion of presidential term limits has long-standing roots in American politics. The Constitutional Convention of 1787 considered the issue extensively, although it ultimately declined to restrict the amount of time a person could serve as President….
“Nonetheless, sustained political attention to this matter only developed with Roosevelt. In 1946, lawmakers made the President’s four terms an issue in congressional election campaigns, pledging to support a constitutional amendment that would prevent a similarly lengthy presidency in the future. In January of 1947, prominent House leaders acted on these campaign promises, introducing an initiative that ultimately became the Twenty-second Amendment.
“The turning point in the debates on the measure occurred when Senator Warren Magnuson argued for an amendment that would simply bar someone from being `elected to the office of President more than twice.’ …
“We can safely conclude that those who drafted the amendment sought somehow to prevent the emergence of a President with a tenure as lengthy as Roosevelt’s. Many proponents of the measure further argued that they sought to codify the two-term tradition associated with Washington….
“Although numerous court opinions make passing reference to the Twenty-second Amendment, its parameters have not been systematically examined by the judiciary. No doubt the low profile of the amendment in the courts reflects limited interest in and opportunity for testing the provision….
“These facts should not lead one to conclude that the Twenty-second Amendment is so straightforward that it requires no further interpretation. Among other unresolved questions, the amendment seems to leave open the possibility that a twice-elected President could still become President through nonelectoral means. For example, such a person might still be elevated to the presidency after serving as Vice President, or, if authorized, to act as President through a presidential-succession statute.” (See The Heritage Guide to the Constitution, pp. 424-425.)