Presidential Term Limit

The Heritage Guide to the Constitution

Presidential Term Limit

Amendment XXII

Section 1. 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. But this Article shall not apply to any person holding the office of President when this Article was proposed by Congress, and shall not prevent any person who may be holding the office of President, or acting as President, during the term within which this Article becomes operative from holding the office of President or acting as President during the remainder of such term.

Section 2. This article shall be inoperative unless it shall have been ratified as an amendment to the Constitution by the legislatures of three-fourths of the several States within seven years from the date of its submission to the States by the Congress.

The Twenty-second Amendment, proposed by Congress in 1947 when President Harry S. Truman was completing Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s fourth term, was a reaction to FDR’s unprecedented four consecutive elections to the presidency. But support for (and opposition to) presidential term limits had a lengthy and complex history prior to the amendment’s becoming law. 

Participants in the Constitutional Convention of 1787 extensively debated the idea of restricting the amount of time a person could serve as president, but ultimately included no such limits in the Constitution proposed to the states. The Federalist Papers explicitly defended this decision to leave presidents with unlimited The Heritage Guide to the Constitution eligibility, contending that the alternative would be “pernicious,” depriving the nation of its best leaders and undermining “stability in the administration” of government. Other thinkers in the Founding era came to different conclusions, with Thomas Jefferson and George Mason, for example, arguing that limits on the number of times a person could serve as president would help sustain the republic.

George Washington, who famously declined to be considered for a third presidential term in 1796, is cited as the father of a two-term tradition that culminated in the Twenty-second Amendment. But Washington did not favor limits on eligibility, and he wrote that the decision to exclude such restrictions was “fairly discussed in the Convention.”

Nevertheless, following Washington’s retirement after his second elected term, numerous public figures subsequently argued that the nation should follow his example of limited service to create a check against any one person, or the presidency as a whole, accumulating too much power. While a number of presidents considered attempting a third term, no one successfully did so until Franklin Roosevelt’s 1940 electoral victory. 

Congress expressed its interest in presidential term limits by introducing 270 measures restricting the terms of office of the president prior to proposing the Twenty-second Amendment. Nonetheless, sustained attention to turning this legislative sentiment into law developed only with the Roosevelt presidency. The Republican Party’s platforms of 1940 and 1944 called for a constitutional amendment that would limit a person from being president “for more than two terms” and campaign literature from this era warned of the dangers of entrenching executive power through years of successive service.

In 1946, congressional lawmakers made the president’s four terms an issue in their election campaigns, pledging to support a constitutional amendment that would bar such lengthy presidencies in the future. In January 1947, prominent House leaders acted on these pledges, introducing an initiative that ultimately became the Twenty-second Amendment. Despite the arguments of some that the amendment was a posthumous rebuke of Roosevelt, it is notable that both houses that proposed the amendment were controlled by the Democratic Party.

The turning point in the debates on the measure occurred when Democratic Senator Warren Magnuson argued for an amendment that would simply bar someone from being “elected to the office of President more than twice.” Magnuson claimed that other proposals being considered were too “complicated” and might unfairly restrict a person who assumed the office of president “through circumstances beyond his control, and with no deliberation on his part . . . but because of an emergency,” such as the death of an elected president. 

When some legislators countered that Magnuson’s proposal provided insufficient controls on those who assumed the presidency through these “unfortunate circumstance[s],” a compromise was struck. The final proposal provided a general prohibition against a person’s being elected to the office of president more than twice while imposing additional restrictions on those who attained the office of president through nonelectoral means, such as succession. The resulting language is what is now the Twenty-second Amendment. 

It can safely be concluded that those who drafted the amendment sought to prevent the emergence of a president who would serve for as many years as FDR. Some proponents of the measure further argued that they were seeking to codify the “two-term tradition” associated with Washington. But while these observations point to the general aspirations of the amendment’s authors, they do not establish a specific picture of how they intended their proposal to apply.

Congressional deliberations about the amendment were curtailed, with the House restricting debate to two hours. Furthermore, the discussions leading up to the congressional vote did not obviously articulate a consistent, clear legislative purpose. Lawmakers expressed, at various times, their interest in limiting a president’s “service,” “terms,” “tenure,” and “[eligibility for] reelection,” without elaborating exactly how these different terms should be understood. Moreover, when Congress discarded initial proposals foreclosing a person’s eligibility for office if he or she had served in two prior terms, and instead adopted the current text that focuses on limiting elections to the presidency, it provided little explanation for this important shift beyond needing “compromise” as part of the lawmaking process.

One should also note that the immediate framers of the amendment did not obviously intend to create a two-term tradition in any narrow sense. They specifically discussed how the amendment would allow someone who became president through an “emergency” within the first two years of a presidential term to pursue the White House through election for two additional terms. Thus, despite the assumption of many that the Twenty-second Amendment codified Washington’s two-term example, we are left with some genuine uncertainty about its creators’ precise goals.

The ratification debates over the amendment do not provide much additional insight into the wishes of those who supported the proposal in the states. The amendment does not appear to have prompted a great deal of public or legislative discussion once approved by Congress.

Although numerous court opinions make passing reference to the Twenty-second Amendment, its implications 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. Since the amendment was ratified, only six presidents have been technically limited by it (Dwight D. Eisenhower, Richard M. Nixon, Ronald Reagan, William Jefferson Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama were all twice elected), and none of them seriously considered challenging the amendment’s legal restrictions or meaning. 

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. Indeed, many of today’s scholarly and policy debates about the amendment speculate on how it could be interpreted or altered to give the nation greater options in dealing with problems related to terrorism, emergency rule, and presidential succession. Critics have urged repeal of the amendment on the grounds that it makes executive leadership more difficult and limits popular choice.

Bruce Peabody

Professor of Political Science, Fairleigh Dickinson University

David A. Crockett, "An Excess of Refinement": Lame Duck Presidents in Constitutional and Historical Context, 38 Presidential Stud. Q. 707 (2008)

Bruce G. Peabody & Scott E. Gant, The Twice and Future President: Constitutional Interstices and the Twenty-second Amendment, 83 Minn. L. Rev. 565 (1999)

Stephen W. Stathis, The Twenty-second Amendment: A Practical Remedy or Partisan Maneuver?, 7 Const. Comm. 61 (1990)

Unintended Consequences of Constitutional Amendment (David E. Kevin ed., 2000)