Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez recently claimed the Republicans changed the Constitution to remove President Franklin Roosevelt from office. Of course, she was wrong. It’s common knowledge the 22nd Amendment was not ratified until 1951, six years after FDR died in office. My Champions of the Constitution network pushed back on AOC, as did many others.
But it got me to wondering: What is the story of the 22nd Amendment and why do we have it?
The 22nd Amendment reads, in pertinent part, “No person shall be elected to the office of the President more than twice....” FDR would not have been eligible for reelection for his third and fourth terms if the 22nd Amendment had been in effect at the time.
There are additional provisions in the 22nd Amendment dealing with unexpired terms, but the main point is that the Amendment codifies the two-term tradition set by George Washington, a tradition unbroken until FDR won a third term in 1940. Washington was rightly celebrated around the world for declining to become President-for-Life, which he easily could have done. Congress approved the 22nd Amendment in 1947 and it took effect in 1951 after it was ratified by enough states. Oklahoma and Massachusetts were the only states to reject the amendment.
The Framers wrestled with presidential term limits at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787. Hamilton and Madison supported lifetime appointments for presidents. Mason and others believed that was too much like a monarchy. A single 7-year term was proposed, but the Framers settled on 4-year terms with no limit on the number. Presidential term limits were proposed numerous times in the 19th Century, but none passed. Ulysses S. Grant sought a third term - nonconsecutive - in 1880 but lost the Republican nomination to James Garfield. Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson also sought third terms, under various circumstances. FDR let himself be drafted for a third term in 1940, the widening war in Europe being his excuse. Dewey, who ran unsuccessfully against FDR in 1944, supported presidential term limits, calling unlimited presidencies “the most dangerous threat to our freedom”.
We think of term limits for president as being settled, but more than 50 resolutions to repeal the 22nd Amendment were introduced in Congress, starting just five years after it was ratified and continuing up until 2013. Harry Truman, Mitch McConnell, and Harry Reid all supported repeal. So did Ronald Reagan, who said the 22nd Amendment is antidemocratic.