Most People Were Fine With The President Not Having Term Limits…
Until They Weren’t
Many of the people who criticize the Constitution these days and say that the founders didn’t take in to account the modern world usually don’t take consider the way America worked back that. The idea of term limits, for example, is something that is fundamentally criticized by commentators and pundits as Senators and Congressmen tend to serve well into their nineties.
They also never seem to take in to account the fact that when the Constitution was written, the average lifespan was forty-eight. Men like Benjamin Franklin were anomalies at the time of its writing. In an era with no vaccinations, far more deadly illnesses, and modern medicine not that much above bleeding, the founders could never have foreseen generations living into their eighties. This continued until the beginning of the 20th century, when the average lifespan was still not that much above fifty.
Furthermore, term limits were not considered serious option because well into the beginning of the twentieth century, many elected officials to Congress did not serve more than one term. Lincoln, when he was elected in 1846 to the House, only served one term because he had promised a colleague that he would let him run in the next election. Parties may have held seats for protracted periods, but the people who served in them constantly fluctuated. Term limits weren’t discussed because of the constant rotation of many congressmen. This began to change slowly but surely in the nineteenth century and became more of a habit after the Civil War.
Of course, those people who argue against term limits tend to ignore the fact that there is a position that has one: the President. It has become so much of a part of history and because there has been only one violator of the two term limit that has been part of it that I have little doubt that the major reason FDR’s decision to run for a third term in 1940 caused such uproar as many thought he was turning the Constitution upside-down. What is mostly forgotten is the fact that, like so many precedents, it was such a part of history that it was implied no one would dare violate it. In fact, several times in the 150 years leading up to FDR’s decision, several presidents considered breaking it — and were only stopped from doing so by outside factors. So let’s consider the history of the two terms tradition, and how and several presidents did not consider it valid.
As we all know after George Washington decided to step down from the Presidency in 1796, he spoke against the idea of any president running for a third term. He no doubt could have gotten another one should he have desired it, but he was tired of the responsibility. In 1796, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson ran in the first contested elections. Adams and because he finished second, Jefferson became his vice-president, despite the fact they were of different political parties. Congress changed the rules in the next election that only the two highest recipients of votes from the same party would serve as President and Vice President. Of course, in 1800 Jefferson and his Vice President Aaron Burr received the exact same number of votes, leading to another crisis. (If you’ve seen Hamilton or have a fundamental understanding of history, you know how it was resolved.)
Jefferson won reelection in 1805 and made a similar speech saying that no President should serve more than two terms. But unlike the previous alterations that the Framers made with the two previous elections, no one felt any need to amend the Constitution to say so. Madison and Monroe followed up by each serving two terms apiece. Then came the 1824 election, which was a clusterfuck: Andrew Jackson won the popular vote and a plurality in the Electoral College, but not a majority. One of his defeated opponents Henry Clay and the decided distaste for Jackson led to the House picking John Quincy Adams.
The outrage in the country led to Jackson running for President and ushering in the age of what would become known as Jacksonian Democracy. It was not particular popular among the elites of the time — in 1834 the Whig Party was formed almost entirely based out of outrage to Jackson and his policy — but Jackson was still extremely popular by the end of his second term and might have well wanted to run again. But he was nearly seventy and not in the best of health, so he followed the principles set by Jefferson and stepped aside in the next election for his Vice President Martin Van Buren.
From then until the beginning of the Civil War, no one considered the two term precedent because nobody was winning more than one term. After Van Buren’s electoral defeat in 1840, due to a series of illnesses among elected presidents and the unpopularity of many of them while holding office, not one President won reelection. Some of this was because they were Vice Presidents whose ascent to power had left many of their fellow politicians unsatisfied with their hold on the office. Some were so unpopular with their party that winning renomination was basically impossible. Lincoln’s reelection in 1864 was remarkable not just because it happened in the midst of wartime, but because he was so unpopular with his own party at the time that many people wanted another candidate to try and save the Union. Lincoln himself thought it highly unlikely he would win reelection until the success of his generals managed to turn the tide for the war effort. Even then, considering that most of his opposition wasn’t part of the county at the time, his share of the popular vote — 55% to 45% — was a lot more paper thin that you’d think.
After Lincoln’s assassination and the impeachment of Andrew Johnson, the Republicans turned to the Hero of Appomattox, Ulysses Grant. Grant won in a landslide and despite the manifest number of scandals in his administration, won reelection by a bigger one. Even after all the scandals were fully revealed by 1876. Grant seriously running for a third term but the party thought he was deadweight.
Their opinion had changed four years later. In 1880, Grant became the first president to try to run for a third term. His major opponent at the Republican National Convention was James G. Blaine, an immensely popular but equally scandal ridden Congressman. For thirty ballots, the two men deadlocked. Then the party began moving towards an undeclared Congressman from Ohio James Garfield, a man who demanded that his name not be put in nomination. His words were ignored and Garfield ended up winning the nomination on the 36th ballot. Grant was disappointed but came out in favor of Garfield anyway.
Blaine eventually won the nomination in 1884 and then lost by the skin of his teeth to Governor of New York Grover Cleveland. Cleveland was immensely popular at the time and easily won renomination four years later. The Republicans were more unsettled and after seven ballots chose Benjamin Harrison, governor of Ohio.
Cleveland won the popular vote over Harrison by more than half a million cast, but thanks to Harrison taking the key states of Pennsylvania and Indiana by slim margins, he managed to eke out an electoral win. He was never entirely popular with his own party and was fortunate to win renomination in 1892. Cleveland was not much more popular with the Democrats, but he too won renomination, the first — and only — defeated President to win renomination. (That doesn’t mean other former Presidents didn’t try, but that’s an issue for a later article.)
Cleveland won reelection by a landslide in 1892. Despite the fact he had served two terms, he was the incumbent and could have gotten a third term had the party leaned his way. But not long after winning reelection, a national depression struck the country and despite his best efforts, members of his own party began to undermine him to his financial policies. By the time the Democratic Convention met that summer, he was considered dead weight by the party and his name was not even put into nomination. That does not mean his political career was necessarily considered finished: in 1904, facing the possibility of a Democrat defeat, many wanted Cleveland to run against Theodore Roosevelt. He briefly considered it, but finally turned him down. (The Democrats in this period were in a rut in seven presidential elections between 1884 and 1912, they would nominate Cleveland or William Jennings Bryan six times.)
Theodore Roosevelt, who ended up taking office after McKinley’s assassination in 1901 was a different story altogether. Neither the Republican elite nor the Democrat power brokers liked or trusted him. The people, however, loved him. He was easily elected to a term in his own right in 1904. Then he made what he considered the biggest mistake of his life by announcing he would not run for reelection in 1908. Both parties no doubt breathed a sigh of relief that they were going to be rid of that ‘damn cowboy’. They clearly didn’t know TR.
As history has recounted countless times, by 1912 TR had grown unsatisfied with his chosen successor William Howard Taft. More importantly, so had many other Republicans. In the first presidential primary contest, TR won 9 out of 12 primaries and Taft won just one. But the political delegations were controlled by the party and were eventually awarded to Taft. TR and his followers walked out of the convention, and formed the Progressive, or ‘Bull Moose Party.” TR might have been able to win election had the Democrats followed their standards and nominated a conservative candidate. Instead, they went with the nominally progressive Woodrow Wilson (after 46 ballots) and the divide in the GOP led to Wilson sweeping the nation electorally. Based on the fact that he received 43% of the popular vote to TR’s 26% and Taft’s 23%, it’s crystal clear that if the GOP had lined up behind one candidate, Wilson would have lost. TR knew this.
In 1916, with the war in Europe raging nearly as hard as TR hatred of Wilson, he began a shadow campaign for the Republican nomination. The GOP, however, was still bitter about the last election, and refused to let him in. He managed to gather some support at the convention, but ended up losing the nomination to Charles Evans Hughes, future Supreme Court Justice. Roosevelt spent little campaigning for Hughes but rather against Wilson and for involvement in the war. The results of the election were the closest in over thirty years, with Wilson barely eking out a victory with 277 electoral votes to Hughes’ 254. (Wilson went to bed election night thinking he’d lost.) TR was blamed for the defeat by some, but when America finally joined the war in April of 1917, there was a mass realization that his thinking had been correct. Almost automatically, he was the Republican frontrunner for the 1920 nomination. After an exceptional midterms just before the Armistice, TR despite his poor health, was preparing for another term in the White House.
Then in January of 1919, he died throwing the GOP into chaos.
The Democratic Party was, if anything, in worse shape. By all rights, Democrats should have been considering likely nominees for the 1920 campaign. The problem was the man in the White House. It wasn’t just that Wilson was incredibly unpopular and basically unable to fulfill his duties. It was despite that; he wanted a third term in order to get vindication for the failure of his League of Nations. His doctors and even his wife tries to convince him to let go, but he held on to the idea throughout the nomination process. When the ticket was formed in 1920, he said very little in praise of it, even though the candidate for Vice President was his own Assistant Secretary of the Navy.
FDR had wanted to try and get the Presidential nomination himself in 1920, but his youth was against him. The only reason he got the VP nod was, frankly, because the bosses thought the last name Roosevelt would help add votes to a Democrat ticket that looked doomed to defeat. It counted for little: when November came, Warren Harding’s Republicans swept the country, beating the Democrats by a margin in the popular vote of nearly two to one. Harding was the first candidate to receive over 60 % of the popular vote.
By this point, we all know FDR’s story as well. It is not clear if he ever seriously considered the idea of a third term when he won his second term in 1936. But considering that he had won an even a bigger share of the popular vote than Harding had sixteen years earlier and had carried 46 of 48 states, it’s hard to imagine that at the time Republicans would have been terrified by the idea and Democrats would have considered a realistic possibility. Then he overreached himself, first with his plan to pack the Supreme Court, which many in his own party rejected, and then his decision to try and ‘purge’ his party of Southern conservative Democrats in 1938, which ended in what was considered a political overreached and ended in little but defeat. After the 1938 midterms and a recession that followed, FDR was considered a lame duck and he began to consider a life outside the White House.
Then World War II began and FDR changed his mind. This was not popular within his own party as those who had been hoping for a future afterwards. Nor was it necessarily popular among the rank-and-file. Announcing his reelection campaign for the senate, Harry Truman said that he thought the idea of violating the third term precedent was dangerous for any candidate. Indeed, even going so far as the convention, it looked unlikely that FDR could manage his ‘draft’ for his third term. It took the efforts of the Chicago bosses and intervention by Eleanor to arrange it.
FDR won reelection for a third term over Wendell Wilkie in November. And despite FDR’s horrid health conditions in 1944, the party determined that he needed to run again. He won reelection and of course died in April of 1945. It is far more likely due to their disgust with FDR as well as the fact that their pointed out in his last two campaigns had failed to raise much heat with voters, that the Republican controlled Congress managed to get the 22nd Amendment passed in 1951, officially limiting President to two terms. Yet even then, they were willing to make exceptions: the incumbent Truman was considered ineligible from it. How seriously he may have considered running for a third term will never be known for certain: he eventually decided against it after Estes Kefauver, a Tennessee Senator, managed to defeat him in the New Hampshire primary. It’s unlikely he could have won given his own unpopularity at the time as well as the fact that Democrats had held the Presidency for the past twenty years. But it was still something the GOP were willing to grandfather him in for.
I have a feeling the main reason that it took such a long time to write into the Constitution a prohibition against third terms was because of another trend that had gone on just as long and would, in fact, outlast the 22nd Amendment by quite a margin. That was the tendency of losing presidential candidates to attempt to regain the nomination of their party after being defeated in a previous election. Since this too is a subject of considerable interest to many at this time, in my next article in this series I will deal with this exact subject — though as political historians know, most of those candidates had even less luck than those who would try for a third term.