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?
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.