Why Do Presidents Only Serve Two Terms?

(Last Updated On: January 3, 2019)
FDR Term Limits - Why Do Presidents Only Serve Two Terms?

The Founding Fathers had a lot to consider when drafting the U.S. Constitution. Who would run the country? How would they be appointed? What would they be called?

Being that the majority of these men came from Britain, most had never functioned or lived in a society without a king as ruler. So there was a lot of debate among them about what title and powers should be given to the head of their new country. Some of the Founders believed that Congress should appoint the leader. Others argued for a more democratic approach.

Ultimately, the title of “president” was decided upon, and the Electoral College system of voting was written into the Constitution. But one thing was never settled on – presidential term limits.

But if you know your presidents, you know that (with the exception of Franklin D. Roosevelt) none have served for more than two terms. So how did that come about? Why do presidents only serve two terms? And what is up with FDR’s four terms?

Why Do Presidents Only Serve Two Terms?

Since a presidential term limit was never put in place, there was a lot of anticipation about what first President George Washington would do after his inaugural term. In 1793, he was still very popular, and America was still quite unstable. So he emerged as the only viable candidate at the time, and was unanimously re-elected for a second term.

But not everyone was thrilled by this. Some of his opponents accused him of giving a “monarchist” impression at a birthday party early in his second term. And increasingly, his political foes accused him of being too ambitious and greedy. By the end of his term, Washington was left tired and upset by the constant attacks on his integrity, and by the emergence of partisan politics. He would retire for personal and political reasons at the end of it.

While Washington never felt obliged to only serve two terms, he often gets credit for starting the two term precedent. But it was actually Thomas Jefferson who would cement this tradition. After his second term, he refused to run for a third on political grounds. Jefferson felt that two terms were sufficient for one person. He thought running for more would be an overextension of power. The two term limit would become the unofficial standard.

Flash forward to 1940. After serving for two terms, there was a lot of speculation at the 1940 Democratic National Convention that Franklin D. Roosevelt might run for an unprecedented third term. Roosevelt largely kept quiet about his intents. But as Germany’s actions in Western Europe became more egregious, Roosevelt would ultimately decide that only he had the experience, skills, and leadership to combat the Nazi threat. With the support of Democratic leaders, Roosevelt would run for, and win, a third, and later fourth, term.  

FDR Term Limits and the Development of the 22nd Amendment

Franklin D. Roosevelt would die on April 12, 1945, just 82 days after his fourth inauguration. Vice President Harry Truman succeeded him. In the 1946 midterm elections, Republicans would take control of both the House and the Senate. FDR’s long tenure as president had led to questions of presidential tyranny. And many of the new congressmen supported an amendment that would limit presidential terms. When the 80th Congress convened in January of 1947, the issue was given top priority.

The House of Representatives quickly approved a proposed constitutional amendment, which set a limit of two four-year terms for future presidents. When the bill reached the Senate, a slight provision was added clarifying the protocol for how many times a Vice President who succeeded to the presidency might be elected to office. The Senate passed the bill 59–23. After the House agreed to the Senate’s added provision, the amendment was submitted to the states for ratification. This process was completed on February 27, 1951, and the 22nd Amendment came into force.

Since then, the issue of presidential term limits still comes up from time to time. In 1987, President Ronald Reagan stated his desire to start a movement to repeal the 22nd Amendment after he left office. At the end of Bill Clinton’s second term, he suggested that maybe the rules should be altered to limit presidents to two “consecutive” terms. And in 2016, with many feeling like the presidential choices were less than stellar, some wondered if Barack Obama might run again. But thus far, no real ground has been made to repeal the amendment, despite those who still feel it should be done away with.

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Mark Heald is the Managing Editor of Sporcle.com. He enjoys spending time with his family, traveling, and bemoaning the fact the Sonics left Seattle.