When China announced that it was abolishing presidential term limits, paving the way for Xi Jinping to stay in power indefinitely, U.S. media framed it as a dangerous decision. To many Americans, our two-term limit seems necessary and democratic. But for most of the United States’ history, there was no safeguard to keep presidents from serving for life.
Starting with George Washington and lasting through Harry S. Truman, presidents could serve as many terms as they could win. It wasn’t till after Franklin D. Roosevelt won four consecutive presidential elections, leaving office only because he died, that the government decided limits might be a good idea.
In the beginning, the U.S. had no presidential term limits because it had no president at all under the Articles of Confederation. Granted, there was a president of the Continental Congress in the 1780s, but it was not a chief executive position. The Articles’ framers in the Second Continental Congress purposely left out a head-of-state because they worried about creating another king, à la George III, with whom they’d just severed ties.
Yet in 1787, a new Constitutional Convention formed to scrap the Articles and draft a Constitution that was shockingly different. The result was much less democratic than the Articles or any state constitution at the time. Michael Klarman, a Harvard Law School professor and historian, has even gone so far as to call the Constitutional Convention a coup.
Some of the Constitutional framers still had fears about creating a chief executive who was too much like a king. But they danced pretty close to the edge with things like the presidential pardon, a power similar to the British King’s “royal prerogative of mercy.” And according to National Constitution Center (NCC), they also came pretty close to making the presidency a straightforward lifetime appointment.
“Surprisingly, many of the Framers—including [Alexander] Hamilton and [James] Madison—supported a lifetime appointment for presidents selected by Congress and not elected by the people,” the NCC writes. “That would have made the presidency what Virginia’s George Mason called an ‘elective monarchy,’ however, and when this was put to a vote it failed by only six votes to four.”
Instead, they devised a complicated voting system involving the electoral college that would still ensure, as the framers desired, that presidential elections were not solely in the hands of ordinary voters. Within this system, they shortened a president’s appointment from life to four years. And because most of the framers didn’t want to set a limit on how many four-year terms a president could serve, they didn’t say anything about it in the Constitution.
Nevertheless, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson ended up setting a two-term precedent. Washington declined to run a third time, but did clarify that he would’ve if he felt he was needed. Jefferson, on the other hand, specifically thought that two terms was enough for one person, and that more might overextend executive power. After these presidents, two terms became the unofficial standard.
That is, until FDR broke tradition by winning elections in 1932, 1936, 1940, and 1944. In total, he served for 12 years, and died just a few months after his last inauguration.
The extraordinary circumstances of the Great Depression and World War II help explain why FDR served for so long. When a country faces national and international crises, it might lean toward keeping the same government in power for longer than usual. Still, FDR’s long tenure created unease about the possibility of presidential tyranny. In addition, Michael J. Korzi, a professor of political science at Towson University, argues that by by the end of his third term, Roosevelt’s high blood pressure and the beginnings of congestive heart failure were making him too ill to serve.
“Roosevelt’s illness would eventually see the president capable of working no more than about four hours a day,” Korzi writes for History News Network. “Many in the Washington community who regularly saw the president doubted that he would complete his fourth term.” And of course, he didn’t.
These concerns led to the 22nd Amendment, ratified on February 27, 1951, which established a two-term limit for presidents. However, it didn’t completely end the debate over term limits. In 1987, the New York Times reported that President Ronald Reagan “‘would like to start a movement’ to repeal the constitutional amendment that limits Presidents to two terms.” If he’d succeeded, this would have allowed Reagan—then in his late 70s and a few years from an official Alzheimer’s diagnosis—to run again.
Today, with a new wave of authoritarianism taking hold in Europe and China, some observers are concerned about the future of democratic elections around the world.