History of the Two-Term President: Returning Power to the People

The 2020 election has brought multiple constitutional topics to the forefront of our daily discussions, many of which are rarely discussed today.  The reason is because these issues are no less important than they were in 1787.  The method by which the U.S. selects its president and the subsequent peaceful transfer of power to which so many have been referring define our nation.  It is one of many examples of a larger theme that limits power, which is returned to the people.

The presidency is an excellent place to begin examining this theme.  For instance, prior to the passage of the 22nd Amendment, which placed a constitutional prohibition on an individual being elected to more than two terms as president, there were no restraints on how many terms a president could serve.  Despite this fact, no American president took a third term except for Franklin D. Roosevelt, the only one to win not just a third, but even a fourth.  A trend of returning power prevailed.

The precedent of a president stepping down and giving back this power was set, at least in large part, by the first president of our republic, George Washington.  It was not the first time, either.  Following the conclusion of the War of Independence, Washington also resigned as commander in chief of the Continental Army.  As most historians suggest, the intent was to send a message that the power of the new republic was to lie with civilian authority.  Fear of what colonists had felt was a tyrannical government was a prominent factor in multiple decisions made during the Revolutionary Era.  Washington's seemingly simple act was truly a grand gesture, foreshadowing future developments.

Washington would once again relinquish power at the end of his second term as president of the United States.  The presidency proved to be a perpetual challenge.  Contentious political parties, European wars, domestic issues such as the Whiskey Rebellion, and much more certainly took a toll.  Regardless of the growing criticism of Washington, there were still plenty of calls for the president to agree to a third term.

Unfortunately, perhaps too much credit is given to Washington for his decision to step down.  Bruce Peabody acknowledges Washington's influence on the two-term limit but argues that it was not intentional.  For instance, the author cited Washington's own words from a letter to the Marquis de Lafayette, where little concern for a lack of term limits was conveyed.[1] 

Personal and self-serving reasons were undoubtedly the primary catalyst for Washington's retirement, and there were indeed plenty of one-term presidents who did not need to even consider the question of accepting a third term.  Yet there is ample evidence that the precedent in question has had an unquestionable influence on two-term presidents.

For example, Thomas Jefferson, as the end of his second term grew nearer, pointed to Washington's precedent when explaining why a third term would not be sought.  Jefferson stated, "I should unwillingly be the person who, disregarding the sound precedent set by an illustrious predecessor, should furnish the first example of prolongation beyond the second term of office."[2]

Jefferson's words are far from the sole evidence that Washington's precedent was real.  As the Congressional Research Service suggests, "Jefferson's decision acquired the force of tradition, at least in the short run, and was frequently attributed to Washington.  Three of Jefferson's four immediate successors, Madison, Monroe, and Andrew Jackson (1829–1837), who, arguably, would have been able to secure reelection, retired at the close of their second terms."[3]  To say Washington's precedent is a myth would be a fallacy based on this evidence alone.

The public discourse of numerous eras illustrates that it was not just a simple few who subscribed to the belief that term limits are advantageous and that the historical precedent from where it originated was part of our American fabric.  Legislatures, political organizations, newspapers, and the public all partook.

Term limits were a hotly debated issue throughout America's history.  For instance, Ulysses S. Grant apparently had ambitions to run for a third term.  The Civil War hero's openness to breaking Washington's precedent created a stir.  Stephen W. Stathis notes that the futility in seeking a third term became apparent when the House of Representative condemned any such move.[4]  The 1875 House resolution read, "[P]recedent established by Washington and other presidents of the United States, in retiring from the presidential office after their second term, has become, by universal concurrence, a part of our republican system of government."[5]  Close to a hundred years after Washington gave back the power of the presidency, Congress employed his example to ensure that the precedent would remain intact.

Franklin D. Roosevelt successfully broke the two-term precedent.  Yet it was the electorate that allowed Roosevelt to do so.  As Tom Ginsburg, James Melton, and Zachary Elkins assert, Roosevelt's popularity within the Democratic Party and among the voters was "high enough to overcome the default norm of the unwritten constitution: no doubt some unspecified number of voters who might have otherwise been inclined to vote for him declined to do so because of the unwritten limitation."[6]  One could suggest even that when Washington's precedent was broken, its influence was still present.  Within a few years following Roosevelt's election to a fourth term, the 22nd Amendment would be ratified.

The 22nd Amendment did not bring the debate to a close.  It did, however, reinforce the broader ideology that it represented, which has been discussed since the Constitutional Convention.  As a 2019 report from the Congressional Research Service notes, "the proposal to establish a single six-year term for the President and Vice President was a hardy perennial from the early days of the republic: 212 such amendments were introduced between the 19th through 104th Congresses."  The work goes on to explain that most of the proposed amendments prior to the middle of the 20th century were for a single term.[7]  The continuity in the American narrative is apparent, from the late 18th century to today.

America's identity has always been rooted in limiting power among the powerful and a belief in extending that power to the people.  One should bear in mind that not all our founding fathers fully supported expanding the latter.  Nevertheless, it stems from the context in which America was founded and the important precedents that were set along the way.

Let us remember that the debate is not confined to the presidency.  The expansion of the right to vote for presidential electors to individual citizens, through a popular vote (previously chosen by state legislatures), may be cited.  The 15th Amendment barred race as a disqualification for voting.  The 17th Amendment created a direct vote for U.S. senators (previously chosen by state legislatures).  The 19th Amendment expanded the vote to women.  Consider the numerous examples of progress I am failing to mention.

In the end, one could compare history to stepping stones along a winding river.  What will be encountered will depend on where one may choose to cross the river.  This will then dictate the choices that are made and the subsequent the events that follow.  Countless stepping stones have led America to this point, where the Constitution is debated among virtually all, during the 2020 election.  It is a true testament to our past.  The very discussions that the American public are having today are remarkably similar to those of the framers of the Constitution.  Therefore, if we want to see from where our rights and freedoms originate, we need not look any farther than ourselves.

Dale Schlundt holds two master's degrees, in adult education and history.  Dale has taught at Northwest Vista College and Our Lady of the Lake University.  He is currently a faculty member at Palo Alto College and served as co-chair for the Texas Regional Alignment Network from 2017 to 2019.  You can watch videos on history, education, and politics on his YouTube channel at https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCupVvuDk825e5uhaEP1luxA.

[1]        Bruce Peabody, "George Washington, Presidential Term Limits, and the Problem of Reluctant Political Leadership."  Presidential Studies Quarterly, Vol. 31, No. 3 (Sep. 2001), 442.

[2]     "Thomas Jefferson to Rhode Island Legislature, December 10,1807," National Archives. (Accessed December 9, 2020.)  https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/99-01-02-6965. 

[3]     "Presidential Terms and Tenure: Perspectives and Proposals for Change," Congressional Research Service, 2019, 13.  (Accessed December 10, 2020.) https://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R40864.pdf

[4]    Stephen W. Stathis, "The Twenty-Second Amendment: A Practical Remedy or Partisan Maneuver?"  University of Minnesota Law School Scholarship Repository, 1990, 64.

[5]   H.R. Res., 44th Cong., 1st Sess., 4 CONG. REc. 228 (1875), from Stephen W. Stathis, "The Twenty-Second Amendment: A Practical Remedy or Partisan Maneuver?"  University of Minnesota Law School Scholarship Repository, 1990, 64.

[6]    Tom Ginsburg, James Melton, Zachary Elkins, "On the Evasion of Evasion of Executive Term Limits."  William and Mary Law Review, Vol. 52: Issue 6 (2010-2011), 1828. 

[7]    "Presidential Terms and Tenure: Perspectives and Proposals for Change."  Congressional Research Service, 2019, 4.  (Accessed December 10, 2020.)  https://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R40864.pdf

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