The 22nd Amendment

Contributor: Nathan Murphy. Lesson ID: 13614

George Washington left office after two terms, and every president after this followed in his example. However, after the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt, many sought to formalize this tradition.


United States, United States

learning style
Auditory, Visual
personality style
Grade Level
High School (9-12)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!


Look at the two images below. The first is Franklin Roosevelt in 1933 at the beginning of his first term as president, and the second is the day before he passed away in 1945.

This was a span of 12 years and consisted of two of the largest disasters in the nation's history: the Great Depression and World War II.

Imagine the type a stress a person would go through leading the country for this much time.

  • How was FDR even able to lead the country all those years?

Third Presidential Terms


George Washington had two reasons for not seeking a third term as president:

  1. He was getting old and did not want to spend the rest of his life as president, a job that he only reluctantly accepted.
  2. Having fought a revolution over the monarchy, Washington felt a president should not seek more than two terms in office.

For over a century, this advice was heeded.

Toward the end of the 19th century, however, some presidents began thinking about running for a third term. Theodore Roosevelt even formed his own party so he could run for a third term in 1912.

While these presidents tried to seek another term, none of their candidacies ever made it very far, so they never posed a risk to breaking this unwritten rule.

Franklin Roosevelt

FDR fourth Inaugural Address, 1945

Image by Abbie Rowe, via Wikimedia Commons, is in the public domain.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected to four presidential terms; however, he passed away only months after the start of this last term.

While many people believe he was a power-hungry politician who would never leave the office voluntarily, something much more complex led to his third-term election in 1940.

Although the Pearl Harbor attack, which sent the United States into World War II, did not occur until well after this election, the inevitability of the country's involvement was obvious.

While Roosevelt was planning to retire after his second term, Hitler was aggressively expanding Germany. He had taken Austria and Poland, something that deeply troubled Roosevelt. However, he remained silent on whether or not he would run again as he searched for a replacement.

Just before the Democratic Party nominated a candidate, Hitler invaded France. At this point, it became obvious that Europe was descending into war for a second time that century. Just four days before the Democratic delegates had to vote for a candidate, FDR announced he would seek a third term in office.

He certainly did not have to; however, without a suitable replacement, he was not confident anyone could maneuver the United States through the coming war.

This decision has roots in another unwritten rule of the presidency. When a president is leading in wartime, the patriotic thing to do is to vote them into a second term to continue their job.

It was this rule that allowed FDR not only to win the Democratic nomination but be elected four times to the presidency.

Although FDR was elected to his fourth term in 1944, he died 11 weeks after his inauguration.

After his death in 1945, Roosevelt was placed on a funeral train where citizens could come and pay their respects to the former president.

FDR funeral train

Image from the National Archives and Records Administration, via Wikimedia Commons, is in the public domain.

While the train was in Georgia, a reporter asked a man who was seen crying if he knew the president. He replied:

"No, I did not know President Roosevelt, but he knew me."

This was a common sentiment among Americans who viewed the actions of FDR during the Great Depression and World War II as instrumental to the success and stability in their lives.

However, while many everyday Americans mourned the passing of the president, his death began a debate on whether the unwritten two-term-limit rule should be codified into law.

22nd Amendment

Capital building

Roosevelt's sudden death only months into his presidency left new Vice President Harry Truman in charge.

It was in 1947, during Truman's presidency, that Congress introduced a bill to create the 22nd Amendment, which would put a constitutional limit of two terms on each future president.

Section 1 of the 22nd Amendment reads:

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.

  • So, what does this mean?

Typically, this means that a president can only serve a maximum of eight years in office: two four-year terms.

However, if a vice president were to become president in the last two years of the presidential term, (s)he would then be allowed to run for two four-year terms of his or her own.

This happened in 1963 when Lyndon Johnson became president with only a year left in President John F. Kennedy's term. He was elected to a second term in 1964. While he did not seek a third term in 1968, he would have been eligible under the circumstances.

LBJ, 1964

Image [cropped] by Arnold Newman, via Wikimedia Commons, is in the public domain.

While this amendment was created in direct response to Democrat Roosevelt's presidency, its passage was not a purely partisan vote.

While all Republicans at the time supported it, so did 47 Democrats in the House of Representatives and 16 Democrats in the Senate, indicating there was a common fear of presidents winning multiple elections and becoming monarchs.

Having just won World War II, the United States wanted to assert itself as the preeminent democratic nation, and this was a major way to show it.


By 1951, three-quarters majority of the states ratified the 22nd Amendment, and it became law.

While the Constitution never specified a presidential term limit, Washington's rule stood for over a century until FDR decided that no other person would be able to effectively deal with the challenges of the ensuing world war.

Move on to the Got It? section to make sure you understand the historical implications of the two-term limit and why it was an informal rule for so long.

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