50 Surprising Facts About America's Founding Fathers

Hulton Archive/National Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/National Archive/Getty Images

George Washington. Alexander Hamilton. Benjamin Franklin. John Adams. These men and several more continue to stand as some of the most influential figures of the United States of America, drafting the Declaration of Independence and helping to define the ideology and ambition of the free world.

More than 200 years later, their philosophies continue to inform, educate, and inspire. If you're aware of their significance but might be a little short on details, we've assembled a laundry list of facts, trivia, and lesser-known information about this formidable group.

1. The Founding Fathers probably never heard the phrase "Founding Fathers."

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The term wasn't coined until 1916, when then-Senator Warren G. Harding was giving a speech at the Republican National Convention. Harding's phrase included men who fought in the American Revolution and drafted the Constitution as well as the Declaration of Independence.

2. John Hancock has become synonymous with personal signatures.

The most likely reason: His name takes up six square inches on the Declaration of Independence, a massive piece of real estate compared to the rest of the signees. Sam Adams, for example, needed just 0.6 square inches. No one knows for sure why Hancock used such broad strokes, although it's possible he didn't realize the document would eventually need 56 signatures.

3. The signatures on the Declaration of Independence were kept secret.

Not too many people could crack jokes at Hancock's expense over it because the signatures were kept secret for some time owing to the fact that there was fear of reprisal from the British. At the time the Declaration was signed, British armies were stationed nearby, and the potential to be hung for treason was large enough to keep quiet about it.

4. John Hancock was more famous for being a smuggler.

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Hancock often brought over goods like glass, paper, and tea in secret to avoid excessive British taxation.

5. The British had a price on John Hancock's head.

Hancock's smuggling practices led to the British wishing to see his head mounted on the proverbial stake. Hancock was actually said to be a little irate about that British resentment. He thought the 500 British pound price on his head was insultingly low.

6. Thomas Jefferson was given the job of writing a rough draft of the DECLARATION Of Independence.

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Such semantics probably weren’t on Thomas Jefferson’s mind when he prepared the Declaration. Considered the best writer of the group, it was Jefferson who was charged with writing a rough draft of the document.

7. Thomas Jefferson's initial draft of the Declaration of Independence called for an end to slavery.

Jefferson later took this part out because he felt the document wouldn’t be approved by delegates in states like Virginia and South Carolina.

8. Thomas Jefferson kept bears as pets (for a short time).

JEAN-FRANCOIS MONIER, AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Jefferson can also lay claim to having the most unusual "pets" of any president on White House grounds. A military captain gifted Jefferson with two grizzly bears in 1807. Jefferson knew the animals were too ferocious to be kept, but until he could pass them over to a handler in Philadelphia, they remained on the grounds for two months. Jefferson kept them caged on the front lawn.

9. Thomas Jefferson also had mastodon bones.

Those bears weren't Jefferson's only experiment with imposing creatures. He once had the bones of a mastodon sent to him in the White House and devoted time to an attempt to reconstruct it. He was actually a bit obsessed with mastodons.

10. Thomas Jefferson told a slave he would free him if he learned French cooking.

Just before Jefferson was appointed minister to France in 1785, he took a trip to the country and quickly fell in love with its cuisine. In a rather cringe-inducing deal, he told his slave, James Hemings, that he would free him if Hemings would learn the art of French cooking and then pass it on to a Jefferson employee. Jefferson kept his word, although Hemings stayed in France for several years and didn't become a free man in the U.S. until 1796.

11. Thomas Jefferson was a prolific writer.

Jefferson liked to write nearly as much as he liked to eat. The third president wrote an estimated 19,000 letters in his lifetime, keeping a copy of each correspondence for himself. Oddly, he never wrote to his wife.

12. Thomas Jefferson frequently wrote to Abigail Adams.

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

After Jefferson became minister to France, he maintained a close relationship with both John Adams and John's wife, Abigail. Despite gender equality being a rare concept at the time, Jefferson thought Abigail to be every bit as insightful as anyone and kept a lengthy mail correspondence with her.

13. John Adams wasn't a fan of the vice presidency.

John Adams became vice president in 1789 with Washington's appointment as commander-in-chief, but the role seemed to insult him. Adams called it the "most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived."

14. John Adams was a fan of William Shakespeare.

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When he wasn't condemning his own job, Adams was an ardent admirer of William Shakespeare. With Thomas Jefferson, Adams even visited Shakespeare's home in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1786. Adams liked it; Jefferson thought they were overcharged for the tour.

15. John Adams brought Satan to the White House.

When Adams took the presidential office in 1797, he brought with him two dogs: One was Juno, and the other was named Satan.

16. John Adams was the first president to live in the White House.

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Adams was the first president to take up occupancy in the White House, but construction delays kept him off-premises until 1800; he was in office only five more months after moving in. That also means Juno and Satan were the first dogs to live in the White House.

17. John Adams wanted the presidency to keep some of the splendor of royalty.

Adams's lost bid for reelection may have had something to do with his somewhat pompous view of the office. He often lobbied for the president to be referred to as "his highness."

18. John Adams created the United States Marine Band.

Adams couldn't have been too much of a miser, though. In 1798, he formed the United States Marine Band, the oldest active professional music group in the country.

19. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson died on the same day. And it gets weirder.

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In a strange bit of coincidence, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson died the same day: July 4, 1826. It was also the 50th anniversary of American independence.

20. Benjamin Franklin didn't believe in free will.

While all of the Founding Fathers are renowned for pushing the idea of liberty and independent choice, Benjamin Franklin apparently came to the idea a little late. In 1725, when he was just 19 years old, Franklin self-published a pamphlet titled A Dissertation Upon Liberty and Necessity, Pleasure and Pain, which argued that humans didn't actually have free will and weren’t responsible for their behavior. Maturity prevailed, however, and Franklin later burned almost every copy of the booklet he could find.

21. Benjamin Franklin wanted to rearrange the alphabet.

Ben Franklin's eccentricity wasn't limited to that strange philosophy. He once had a plan to rearrange the English alphabet by eliminating the letters C, J, Q, W, X, and Y, declaring them redundant. It didn't katch on.

22. If you're reading this while watching a sunrise, you might have Ben Franklin to thank.

A more reasonable Franklin contribution: bifocals, which he invented in order to both see from a distance and read text up close without having to switch lenses.

23. Ben Franklin didn't think very highly of the bald eagle.

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Continuing his role as America’s most eccentric Father, Franklin also advocated for the turkey to be the nation's official bird. He once dissed the bald eagle, calling it a bird "of bad moral character."

24. Ben Franklin (sarcastically) thought highly of flatulence.

Franklin also authored a text titled "Fart Proudly," a mocking essay intended to irritate the Royal Academy of Brussels, an institution he felt was too focused on impractical science. In it, he advocated for a breakthrough in making toots more pleasant-smelling. (He never sent it.)

25. Ben Franklin bathed without water.

Franklin's unique perspective extended to personal hygiene. He often opted for what he dubbed an "air bath" over a cold water bath, wandering around nude in his quarters for a half-hour each morning while reading or writing.

26. John Adams and Ben Franklin once argued about a window.

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Franklin and John Adams made for a bit of an odd couple. Forced to spend the night together in a hotel while traveling in 1776, the two argued over whether the window should be open or closed. Adams believed night air could lead to colds; Franklin, obviously fond of a little breeze, dismissed the notion as nonsense and advocated for fresh air. (Franklin won: The window stayed open.)

27. Most of Philadelphia came to Ben Franklin's funeral.

When Franklin died in 1790, roughly 20,000 people attended his funeral—two-thirds of Philadelphia’s population at the time.

28. Ben Franklin and George Washington both had big egos.

Franklin was told by friends early in his life that he should start to consider humility a virtue, while Washington reportedly had to corral his predilection for arrogance.

29. George Washington's famous hairdo wasn't a wig.

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While Washington may have curbed his ego, he still made time to look good. His famous white 'do was not a wig, but his actual hair, powdered white and carefully styled each morning.

30. George Washington had a tree-shaking temper.

While he looks out at you from the $1 bill with total calm, Washington could unleash a hellacious temper if you caught him on the wrong day. Leading the Battle of Monmouth in 1778, Washington used so much profanity that General Charles Scott, who witnessed the event, said he cussed "until leaves shook on the trees … never have I enjoyed such swearing before or since."

31. George Washington helped ensure the presidency would be a short-term gig.

Later in life, Washington's newfound modesty helped usher in a significant principle of the U.S. presidency. Despite the public's desire for him to run for a third presidential term—which he would've won with ease—Washington elected to leave after two terms so he could resume being a regular citizen, avoiding the kind of long-term rule associated with monarchs.

32. George Washington gave up the presidency to make whiskey.

Once he returned to private life in 1797, Washington opened a whiskey distillery at Mount Vernon, which quickly became the largest whiskey distillery in America.

33. George Washington wasn't optimistic the Constitution would last.

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Before taking on the presidency, Washington was wrapped up in the Constitutional Convention, a gathering of minds intended to elaborate on the famous document that would provide concise guidelines for future lawmakers. But Washington was unsure whether it would have any lasting impact. Walking with a friend just before the convention came to a close in 1787, he said, "I do not expect the Constitution to last for more than 20 years."

34. George Washington suffered from a host of medical problems.

In fact, it was Washington himself who didn't last that long. Plagued by a series of ailments including malaria, smallpox, tuberculosis, and diphtheria, the Founding Father died in 1799 at age 67. Suffering from a severe sore throat, he asked doctors to bleed him. They did, with five pints being removed from his body in a single day.

35. Alexander Hamilton begged George Washington to let him fight.

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Washington's onetime assistant, Alexander Hamilton, had a heartier constitution. Relegated to writing Washington’s letters, Hamilton pleaded with the then-general to let him see some action on the battlefield. Hamilton faced the British in the Battle of Yorktown in 1781 and came away with a victory.

36. Alexander Hamilton was the subject of the country's first political sex scandal.

Alexander Hamilton’s health was also robust enough to carry on an affair with a married woman, Maria Reynolds, while serving as U.S. treasury secretary in 1791. When her husband threatened to go public with the scandal, Hamilton wrote and circulated a pamphlet detailing his side of the story. The Reynolds Affair became the country's first major political sex scandal.

37. The Reynolds Affair was wrapped up by Alexander Hamilton's nemesis.

In an odd footnote, when Maria Reynolds later sued her husband for divorce, her lawyer was Aaron Burr.

38. Alexander Hamilton launched the Coast Guard.

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Beyond setting up the country's banking and financial systems, Alexander Hamilton was also concerned with protecting America’s coastlines. To help suffocate smuggling and enforce tariff laws, Hamilton organized a marine service; it later became known as the United States Coast Guard.

39. Alexander Hamilton's son died in a duel defending his father's good name.

Dueling was part of the Hamilton family long before Alexander's fateful encounter with Aaron Burr. Three years prior, Hamilton's son Philip challenged a lawyer named George Eacker to a pistol fight after Eacker was overheard criticizing his father. Eacker shot Philip, who died the next day.

40. Alexander Hamilton probably acted as a lawyer in the country's first murder trial.

In 1799, Hamilton's life gained one of its most interesting footnotes. As a practicing lawyer in New York, Hamilton teamed with future dueling foe Aaron Burr in what is believed to be the United States' first murder trial on record. After the body of Elma Sands was discovered, a grand jury indicted her boyfriend, Levi Weeks, for the crime. The wealthy Weeks enlisted Hamilton, Burr, and Henry Livingston for his defense. He was acquitted, though public opinion largely declared him guilty.

41. Alexander Hamilton also founded a newspaper.

Hamilton founded another cultural touchstone—the New York Post—in 1801. Then titled the New York Evening Post, it’s one of the longest continually published newspapers in the U.S. When he felt like opining, Hamilton would dictate articles to editor William Coleman.

42. The Federalist Papers went a long way in shifting public opinion on independence.

Hamilton, however, had used his own hand to author the Federalist Papers, a series of essays sent to newspapers in the 1780s to rally support for ratifying the Constitution. Hamilton used the pseudonym Publius, collaborating with James Madison and John Jay.

43. James Madison and Alexander Hamilton hated each other.

There was little love lost between treasury secretary Hamilton and fourth president James Madison, who frequently sparred with over economic strategy. Onetime friends, their acrimony set the tone for Madison’s tenure in office.

44. James Madison's wife was a celebrated hostess.

Said to be shy and reserved, Madison apparently had a counterbalance in wife Dolley, who entertained the whole of Washington. At the time, the city was not exactly a hotbed of partying, and her lavish affairs helped endear congressional members to the idea of Madison as president.

45. James Madison is our tiniest president.

To date, Madison remains our smallest president at 5 feet, 4 inches and 100 pounds.

46. There's a $5000 bill with James Madison's face on it.

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Madison is also the president to grace the little-known $5000 bill, part of a series of high-value denominations printed between 1928 and 1945. The bills were mainly used to settle large transactions between banks.

47. Another vice president's wife wrote a book on James Madison.

Although Madison had two vice presidents die in office, he had better luck with future VP Dick Cheney: The former vice president’s wife, Lynne, wrote a well-received biography of Madison in 2014.

48. Sam Adams was a child prodigy.

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While all of the Fathers had formidable intellects, Sam Adams had quite an early start. He was admitted into Harvard College at age 14 and earned a bachelor’s degree in 1740.

49. Sam Adams wasn't exactly a brewer.

In terms of Founding Father extracurricular activities, Sam Adams is frequently credited with being a beer brewer. That's not really true, though. Adams' father did make malted barley that was sold to breweries, and his son inherited the business and became known as a "maltster." But politics soon dominated Adams' time, and the business fell by the wayside.

50. You can drink at a pub where the Founding Fathers hung out.

Adams may not have been a brewmaster, but like a lot of Founding Fathers, he didn't mind pulling up a chair at a pub. You can enjoy a beer at the same location as Founding Fathers Paul Revere, John Hancock, and Adams. The Green Dragon Tavern in Boston is said to have been the preferred watering hole of the men—a place where politics could be discussed without the hassle of sobriety.

14 Retro Gifts for Millennials

Ravi Palwe, Unsplash
Ravi Palwe, Unsplash

Millennials were born between 1981 and 1996, which means the pop culture they grew up with is officially retro. No matter what generation you belong to, consider these gifts when shopping for the Millennials in your life this holiday season.

1. Reptar Funko Pop!; $29

Amazon

This vinyl Reptar figurine from Funko is as cool as anything you’d find in the rugrats’ toy box. The monster dinosaur has been redesigned in classic Pop! style, making it a perfect desk or shelf accessory for the grown-up Nickelodeon fan. It also glows in the dark, which should appeal to anyone’s inner child.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Dragon Ball Z Slippers; $20

Hot Topic

You don’t need to change out of your pajamas to feel like a Super Saiyan. These slippers are emblazoned with the same kanji Goku wears on his gi in Dragon Ball Z: one for training under King Kai and one for training with Master Roshi. And with a soft sherpa lining, the footwear feels as good as it looks.

Buy it: Hot Topic

3. The Pokémon Cookbook; $15

Hop Topic

What do you eat after a long day of training and catching Pokémon? Any dish in The Pokémon Cookbook is a great option. This book features more than 35 recipes inspired by creatures from the Pokémon franchise, including Poké Ball sushi rolls and mashed Meowth potatoes.

Buy it: Hot Topic

4. Lisa Frank Activity Book; $5

Urban Outfitters

Millennials will never be too old for Lisa Frank, especially when the artist’s playful designs come in a relaxing activity book. Watercolor brings the rainbow characters in this collection to life. Just gather some painting supplies and put on a podcast for a relaxing, nostalgia-fueled afternoon.

Buy it: Urban Outfitters

5. Shoebox Tape Recorder with USB; $28

Amazon

The days of recording mix tapes don’t have to be over. This device looks and functions just like tape recorders from the pre-smartphone era. And with a USB port as well as a line-in jack and built-in mic, users can easily import their digital music collection onto retro cassette tapes.

Buy it: Amazon

6. Days of the Week Scrunchie Set; $12

Urban Outfitters

Millennials can be upset that a trend from their youth is old enough to be cool again, or they can embrace it. This scrunchie set is for anyone happy to see the return of the hair accessory. The soft knit ponytail holders come in a set of five—one for each day of the school (or work) week.

Buy it: Urban Outfitters

7. D&D Graphic T-shirt; $38-$48

80s Tees

The perfect gift for the Dungeon Master in your life, this graphic tee is modeled after the cover of the classic Dungeons & Dragons rule book. It’s available in sizes small through 3XL.

Buy it: 80s Tees

8. Chuck E. Cheese T-shirt; $36-$58

80s Tees

Few Millennials survived childhood without experiencing at least one birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese. This retro T-shirt sports the brand’s original name: Chuck E. Cheese’s Pizza Time Theatre. It may be the next-best gift for a Chuck E. Cheese fan behind a decommissioned animatronic.

Buy it: 80s Tees

9. The Nightmare Before Christmas Picnic Blanket Bag; $40

Shop Disney

Fans of Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas will recognize the iconic scene on the front of this messenger bag. Unfold it and the bag becomes a blanket fit for a moonlit picnic among the pumpkins. The bottom side is waterproof and the top layer is made of soft fleece.

Buy it: Shop Disney

10. Toy Story Alien Socks; $15

Shop Disney

You don’t need to be skilled at the claw machine to take home a pair of these socks. Decorated with the aliens from Toy Story, they’re made from soft-knit fabric and are big enough to fit adult feet.

Buy it: Shop Disney

11. Goosebumps Board Game; $24

Amazon

Fans that read every book in R.L. Stine’s series growing up can now play the Goosebumps board game. In this game, based on the Goosebumps movie, players take on the role of their favorite monster from the series and race to the typewriter at the end of the trail of manuscripts.

Buy it: Amazon

12. Tamagotchi Mini; $19

Amazon

If you know someone who killed their Tamagotchi in the '90s, give them another chance to show off their digital pet-care skills. This Tamagotchi is a smaller, simplified version of the original game. It doubles as a keychain, so owners have no excuse to forget to feed their pet.

Buy it: Amazon

13. SNES Classic; $275

Amazon

The SNES Classic is much easier to find now than when it first came out, and it's still just as entertaining for retro video game fans. This mini console comes preloaded with 21 Nintendo games, including Super Mario Kart and Street Fighter II.

Buy it: Amazon

14. Planters Cheez Balls; $24

Amazon

Planters revived its Cheez Balls in 2018 after pulling them from shelves nearly a decade earlier. To Millennials unaware of that fact, this gift could be their dream come true. The throwback snack even comes in the classic canister fans remember.

Buy it: Amazon

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Why Do Presidents Serve Four-Year Terms?

Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States by Howard Chandler Christy, 1940
Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States by Howard Chandler Christy, 1940
United States Capitol, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In 1947, Congress proposed the 22nd Amendment, which would officially limit each U.S. president to two four-year terms. But while the two-term maximum was new, the length of each term wasn’t—presidents had been serving for four years at a time ever since George Washington’s tenure.

Why Are Presidential Terms Four Years Long?

In May 1787, representatives from every state except Rhode Island gathered in Philadelphia for the Constitutional Convention, where they planned to update the Articles of Confederation and give more power to the practically impotent federal government. What they ended up doing was drafting a new document—the Constitution—and basically overhauling the entire political system. Chief among the changes was the creation of an executive branch to provide checks and balances for the legislative and judicial branches.

Since the delegates were wary of ending up with a monarch-like ruler, there was a lively debate over how long the president should be allowed to serve. Some, like North Carolina’s Hugh Williamson, supported a single seven-year term, with no opportunity for reelection. That way, he argued, they could avoid an “elective king,” who would “spare no pains to keep himself in for life, and … lay a train for the succession of his children.” If a president could only serve one term, Williamson wasn’t against a 10- or even 12-year term. His colleagues proposed other lengths, from a modest six years all the way to “for life.” Alexander Hamilton was among those who advocated for a lifelong term, thinking it would prevent the president from being too focused on reelection to make good decisions.

They were having just as much trouble deciding whether Congress or the general population should choose the president. These discussions dragged on through the summer, until the delegates appointed an 11-member “Committee on Postponed Matters” to come up with a final solution [PDF]. Under the committee’s plan, the president would be elected by an electoral college—a clear compromise between letting Congress pick someone and leaving it entirely up to the voters. The president would serve for four years, and could run for reelection. In early September, the exhausted delegates approved the plan. (North Carolina was the only state to vote against the four-year term.)

Why Can a President Only Serve Two Terms?

Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1936.Harris & Ewing Photograph Collection, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division // No Known Restrictions on Publication

Though the Constitutional Convention had agreed not to set term limits for the president, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson established a precedent by bowing out after just two. Most future presidents followed suit, and the ones who didn’t failed to win a third term anyway. Ulysses S. Grant, for example, had taken a break after his second term ended in 1877, and campaigned for a third one in 1880. He nearly won the nomination at that year's Republican National Convention, but lost it to James Garfield. Theodore Roosevelt also declined to seek a third term after his two were over, only to change his mind a few years later. He ran as a third-party candidate for his newly established Progressive Party in 1912, but Democrat Woodrow Wilson came out on top.

Things changed in the 1940s, when Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt clinched his third, and then fourth, presidential victory. Between the fallout from the Great Depression and U.S. involvement in World War II, it was an especially turbulent era for the nation, which likely influenced voters to favor consistency over someone new. That said, some people (Republicans in particular) were uncomfortable with such a long reign. Thomas Dewey, who ran against Roosevelt in 1944, called it “the most dangerous threat to our freedom ever proposed.”

Roosevelt died in office just months into his fourth term, and members of Congress soon began working on an amendment to prevent the kind of political dynasty that Williamson had been worried about in 1787. They introduced the 22nd Amendment in March 1947, and it was ratified in February 1951.

Can a President Serve More Than Eight Years?

There is a way for the president to spend a couple of extra years in the Oval Office. The 22nd Amendment states that no person who has been 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.” In other words, if a vice president (or another person in the line of succession) ends up serving out less than two years of a term for someone who resigned, died, or was impeached, they can technically serve for two terms of their own. In that case, they will have spent 10 years as POTUS.

Why Does the President Have Term Limits, But Congress Doesn’t?

While term limits for Congress did get discussed during the Constitutional Convention, the delegates ultimately decided not to set those boundaries on the legislative branch. As James Madison explained in The Federalist Papers (No. 53), some Founding Fathers thought there were advantages to long-sitting senators and representatives.

“A few of the members, as happens in all such assemblies, will possess superior talents; will, by frequent reelections, become members of long standing; will be thoroughly masters of the public business, and perhaps not unwilling to avail themselves of those advantages,” he wrote. “The greater the proportion of new members, and the less the information of the bulk of the members the more apt will they be to fall into the snares that may be laid for them.”

In other words, he predicted that career politicians would become experts, while high turnover rates would lead to confusion and corruption. While many people disagree with this line of thinking today, the fact that congressional term limits weren’t originally included in the constitution has made it difficult to enact them now. Some states have tried to do it in the past, but the Supreme Court ruled them unconstitutional in 1995 (in a 5-4 vote). To reinstate them, we’d need to pass a whole new amendment.

How Can You Change Presidential Term Limits?

Since repealing an old amendment doesn’t have its own process, altering the two-term limit (or the four-year term length) would also require a new amendment. For a proposed amendment to get passed, two-thirds of both the Senate and the House of Representatives must vote in favor of it. After that, at least three-fourths of the states must ratify it.

There is one other way to pass a new amendment, but it’s never been done before. If two-thirds of state legislatures agree to call for another constitutional convention, they could draft their own amendment without congressional approval. (They would, however, still need 38 of 50 states to ratify it.)

Though the president may sign amendment certifications as a witness, the gesture is entirely ceremonial. The White House has no authority over or involvement in the amendment process—not even by executive order.