The U.S. Constitution’s Twenty-Second Amendment: Setting Presidential Term Limits

By Michael Arnheim

As of today any president can only be elected twice. This is due to the Twenty-Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Because Article II, Section 1 of the original, unamended Constitution set the president’s term of office at four years, but it didn’t place any limit on the number of times that a president could be reelected.

George Washington was elected president without any opposition in 1788 and again in 1792. He would undoubtedly have been reelected without any problem in 1796 as well, but he decided that he’d had enough. So he delivered his famous Farewell Address — not a live speech, incidentally, but an open letter to the nation carried by many newspapers — and retired to Mount Vernon to dedicate himself to farming and to the construction of a large whiskey distillery.

As two terms were good enough for the Father of the Nation, that should be enough for anybody. That was the conventional wisdom on the subject. Thomas Jefferson recognized the danger of the absence of term limits on the tenure of the presidency.

In 1807 he wrote, “If some termination to the services of the chief Magistrate be not fixed by the Constitution, or supplied by practice, his office, nominally four years, will in fact become for life.” In other words, according to Jefferson, either the Constitution had to set a limit or else some limit should be set by convention.

Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe — all of whom were two-term presidents — respected Washington’s example and didn’t attempt to run for a third term. They effectively established a convention that was followed, sometimes reluctantly, until Franklin Delano Roosevelt decided to run for a third term in 1940.

Roosevelt, ever the wily politician, employed a ruse to get over the two-term tradition. First, he switched the 1940 Democratic Party Convention to Chicago, which was controlled by a tightly organized Democratic Party machine — which of course also controlled the public address system in the convention hall.

Then FDR disarmed his opponents by announcing that he would not run unless drafted, and that the delegates were free to vote for whoever they liked. Dead on cue, the loudspeakers in the hall screamed: “We want Roosevelt . . . The world wants Roosevelt!” The delegates joined in the manufactured frenzy and nominated Roosevelt by 946 votes to 147.

After that, winning the general election was a walk in the park. And, having shattered the two-term mold, Roosevelt had no trouble getting nominated for a fourth term, which he again easily won, though with a reduced majority. He died less than three months after his fourth inauguration.

When the Republicans swept Congress in the 1946 midterm elections, they were determined to prevent any future president from emulating Roosevelt’s successful flouting of the two-term limit. They recognized that to achieve this aim they needed a constitutional amendment. So in March 1947 Congress passed a proposal to enforce the two-term limit. The proposal became the Twenty-Second Amendment, which was finally ratified in February 1951. Only two states rejected it: Oklahoma and Massachusetts.

The main part of the Twenty-Second Amendment reads as follows:

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.

Here’s what it means:

  • You can’t be elected to more than two presidential terms — regardless of whether they are consecutive or not.

  • If you have succeeded to the presidency on the death, removal, or resignation of the president and have served more than two years of that president’s term, you can’t be elected president yourself more than once.

  • If you have succeeded to the presidency on the death, removal, or resignation of the president and have served two years or less of that president’s term, you can be elected president yourself a maximum of two times.

  • If you have been filling in for an indisposed president only as acting president, you can be elected president yourself for a maximum of two terms, unless you have been Acting president for more than two years, in which case you can’t be elected president yourself more than once.

One thing that the Twenty-Second Amendment doesn’t do is to place any term limit on the vice presidency. No, sirree! You can be elected Vice president as many times as you like — or rather, as many times as the voters like.

Repeal of the Twenty-Second Amendment has been suggested several times, notably in the 1980s in order to “win one more for the Gipper” (Ronald Reagan) and again in the 1990s to elect Bill Clinton to a third term. Those moves came to nothing.