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This Day in History: The History of the 22nd Amendment

On this day in 1951, the 22nd Amendment is ratified. That amendment prevents U.S. Presidents from being elected to more than two terms in office.

In 1940, Franklin D. Roosevelt became the first to buck the precedent set by George Washington and to serve more than two terms. But did you know that he was not the only President to attempt it?

Of course, few men could be expected to live up to the example set by Washington. Our first President wanted to retire at the end of his first term, but he was talked out of it by Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton. Nevertheless, by the time the next election rolled around, Washington was adamant. He was determined to retire and to return to his beloved Mount Vernon.

And that is exactly what he did.

Washington’s decision set a precedent for many years to follow. Jefferson, Madison, James Monroe and Andrew Jackson each voluntarily stepped down after two full terms. No other President had the option of running for a third term until Ulysses S. Grant, after the Civil War.

As the 1876 election approached, Grant announced that he would not seek a third term, but did he also leave himself a little wiggle room to be drafted?

“I am not, nor have I ever been, a candidate for a renomination,” he wrote in May 1875. “I would not accept a nomination if it were tendered, unless it should come under such circumstances as to make it an imperative duty—circumstances not likely to arise.”

Grant was the last two-term President until Grover Cleveland (who served two non-consecutive terms) and Teddy Roosevelt, who served most of two terms after William McKinley's death. As a former President, Roosevelt made a serious run for his own non-consecutive third term. He’d become disillusioned with the decisions of his successor, William H. Taft. He determined to take the Republican Party nomination away from the incumbent President.

It didn’t work. At the party convention, the Republican Party chose to stick with Taft. Many Roosevelt supporters marched out defiantly. The Bull Moose Party was born!

Roosevelt campaigned hard, even surviving an assassination attempt, but he could not win. Republican voters were badly split, and a unified Democratic Party elected Woodrow Wilson to the presidency.

Wilson would become the last President before FDR to take a shot at more than two terms. Perhaps the move was doomed to failure? The President had been in bad health since a near-fatal stroke in 1919. Nevertheless, when the Democratic Party Convention deadlocked in 1920, one last behind-the-scenes appeal was made to put Wilson’s name into contention for a third term.

The proposed move was rejected.

In the end, FDR was the only President to break through the American reluctance to elect candidates to more than two terms in office. In the midst of the Great Depression, with war looming, his supporters managed to re-nominate him for both a third and a fourth term. He passed away early in his fourth term.

Less than two years later, Congress approved an amendment that prevents any person from being “elected to the office of the President more than twice.” It also places limits on those who serve the end of someone else’s term. Finally, the amendment made an exception that effectively let Harry Truman run again, if he so chose.

But Americans were back to their old ways. Truman’s half-hearted attempt to achieve the nomination was rejected.

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