President George Washington is still widely admired when he completes his second term as President, and many hope that he will run for a third term. Washington declines on the grounds that an orderly transition of authority is necessary to prevent rule by a king-like power. Washington also grew sensitive to the increased partisanship and resulting newspaper attacks on his administration during his second term, which made him anxious to retire to Mount Vernon.
After defeating John Adams in his run for reelection, Thomas Jefferson goes on to serve two terms as President. Jefferson then steps down voluntarily, solidifying the tradition of Presidents serving only two terms.
As President Ulysses S. Grant, a Republican, nears the end of his second term in the White House, he contemplates running for a third term. The House of Representative, where the Democrats hold the majority, pass a resolution denouncing a third term as a violation of American political tradition. Grant chooses not to be a formal candidate, but stands ready to be drafted in 1876 and 1880. His party chooses other candidates.
Theodore Roosevelt comes to the Presidency after the assassination of President William McKinley in 1901. He serves out the remainder of McKinley’s term and is reelected in 1905. After his reelection, he announces that he will honor the two-term tradition and not seek a third term in 1909. However, by 1912, he has fallen out with his successor President William Taft and challenges him for the Republican Presidential nomination. Roosevelt sweeps the primaries but is denied the nomination. He runs instead on the Progressive (Bull Moose) Party ticket. Although Roosevelt receives more votes than Taft, the split he causes within the Republican ranks hands the election to the Democratic candidate, Woodrow Wilson.
Having served two terms in which he guided the nation through the Depression, Franklin Delano Roosevelt remains popular among the voting public. With war looming in Europe, he breaks with tradition and runs for a third term in 1940. His Republican opponent, Wendell Wilkie, attacks Roosevelt’s New Deal programs, and accuses the President of seeking to lead the nation into another war. Three-quarters of the nation’s newspapers endorse Wilkie and oppose another term for Roosevelt. Despite this opposition, Roosevelt becomes the first President ever elected to a third term.
In the midst of the Second World War, Franklin Delano Roosevelt runs for an unprecedented fourth term. His Republican opponent, New York governor Thomas Dewey, chooses not to criticize the President’s handling of the war, but instead questions his ability to lead the nation given his age and health, calling Roosevelt “a tired old man.” The strategy fails and Roosevelt is returned to office one last time, but he dies only four months into this fourth term, in April 1945.
For the first time since the beginning of the Depression, Republicans win control of both the Senate and House of Representatives in 1946. Among the party’s chief objectives is a constitutional amendment that will prevent another President from running for more than two terms. With the support of President Harry Truman, who took office in 1945 after Franklin Roosevelt’s death, Congress approves the Twenty-second Amendment and sends it to the states, with a seven-year deadline for ratification.
The Twenty-second Amendment specifically exempts the incumbent President, Harry Truman. As Vice President, he had become President just four months into Franklin Roosevelt’s fourth term. Few people believe that Truman has a chance of being elected in 1948, when all the polls show the Republican candidate, Thomas E. Dewey, winning easily. Instead, Truman fights a scrappy campaign and pulls off a stunning victory. The Korean War, which begins during Truman’s second term, makes him increasingly unpopular. Although Truman is eligible to run for a third term in 1952, he chooses to retire from the Presidency.
While Republicans pressed for a two term limit to the Presidency, it is a Republican President, Dwight D. Eisenhower, who is the first to fall under the amendment’s restriction. Eisenhower remains popular after serving two terms, and observers believe he could have won a third term had he been able to run.
With Ronald Reagan in his second term as President and limited from running again, Republican representative Guy Vander Jagt introduces a bill to repeal the Twenty-second Amendment, but Congress does not act upon it. Similarly, during President Bill Clinton’s second term, several Democrats introduce bills to repeal the amendment. In 2003, a bipartisan bill to repeal the Presidential term limit is submitted. Congress does not approve any of these bills.