The length of a presidential term and tenure in office were major questions before the Constitutional Convention as delegates discussed, debated, and ultimately constructed the Office of the Presidency. For a variety of reasons, including the judgment, as explained by Alexander Hamilton in Federalist No. 72, that the Constitution should not limit the ability of the American electorate to choose their Chief Executive, the Framers opposed the idea of term limits.
An informal two-term tradition was started by George Washington when as president, he resisted the requests from his countrymen to serve a third term. He replied that “an elective monarchy is not why we fought the revolution,” and returned to his home at Mount Vernon. Washington’s view was reinforced by President Thomas Jefferson, who shunned the prospect of a third term in office. Washington and Jefferson set in motion what became a two-term tradition that lasted for about 150 years. The tradition was snapped in 1940 when President Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected to a third term. In 1944, he was elected to a fourth term, but his death in August of 1945 shortened his tenure in the presidency.
Roosevelt’s election to a fourth term was more than Republicans could accept. For reasons of principle and fear of ongoing Democratic domination of the Oval Office, the GOP launched an effort to amend the Constitution and to impose term limits on the presidency. They weren’t the first to do so. Indeed, delegates to the Constitutional Convention had considered a single term, as well as the idea of term limits. The Framers were keenly aware, from their reading in history, that longevity in office often was accompanied by abuse of power and corruption. It was, perhaps, only their commitment to voter choice that prevented the imposition of term limits. Americans continued to debate the proposition of limits as the decades passed; indeed, by 1947, at least 270 resolutions in favor of term limits had been introduced in Congress.
In 1947, the Republican-dominated Congress easily passed a resolution limiting a president to two terms. The House of Representatives voted 285 to 121 in favor of it, and the Senate approved it 59-23. Thus it easily satisfied the necessary two-thirds support in both chambers. Within four years, the requisite number of 41 states ratified the proposed the measure and in 1951 the Constitution incorporated the 22nd Amendment. The Amendment did not apply to President Harry Truman, but only to his successors.