CRS Scholar: 22nd Amendment's Roots in Partisanship, Civil Rights OppositionHistorians in the News
tags: term limits, presidential history, Ulysses S. Grant, Donald Trump, 22nd Amendment
The history of the 22nd Amendment — and frequent calls for getting rid of it — has been long and sordid.
Let's go back to the beginning.
The framers of the Constitution hotly debated how — or whether — to set term limits on a president. Most framers actually didn't want them, in part, because they wanted the country to have flexibility during an emergency.
There were some 200 attempts, in one way or another, in the years following the Constitutional Convention, to pass legislation setting a limit on a president to no avail — until the mid-20th century, following the 1945 death of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who eschewed the tradition and was elected four times.
The 22nd Amendment was finally ratified in 1951, making permanent something that had become a convention when George Washington decided not to serve more than two terms.
But since the 1980s, there have been multiple efforts to repeal it, and presidents have wondered out loud what it would be like if they could run for a third term, confident they would win again. One even spoke out against the 22nd Amendment. (More on all that below.)
Limiting a president to two terms became a controversial national subject in the late 19th century after Ulysses S. Grant was reelected in 1872, according to The Twenty Second Amendment: A Practical Remedy or Partisan Maneuver, a paper written in 1990 by Stephen W. Stathis, a former longtime specialist in American history at the Congressional Research Service.
Powerful Grant allies began pushing the idea of a third term, and it became an issue in the 1874 midterms. Grant didn't comment on his intentions, which — combined with a lagging economy, white resistance to Reconstruction in the South and ethics scandals — led to Republicans losing a whopping 94 seats that year. It is considered to be the first midterm wave election.
The political winds appeared against a Grant third term, and shortly after the midterm drubbing, he said he "would not accept a nomination if it were tendered, unless it should come under such circumstances as to make it an imperative duty — circumstances not likely to arise."
In 1875, the House passed a resolution endorsing the two-term convention, saying departing from that would be "unwise, unpatriotic, and fraught with peril to our free institutions."
But that didn't have the teeth of an amendment or legally bar a president from doing so if they chose to. In fact, in 1880, Grant would try again — and came pretty close.
He led after 35 ballots at the 1880 Republican nominating convention that year. On the 36th, those opposed to him joined forces and handed the nomination to James Garfield instead.
Ironically, Republicans wound up leading the effort to enact the 22nd Amendment, beginning in 1946 when they regained the House. It was largely as a response to the unprecedented four terms won by FDR, who served during the Great Depression and World War II, from 1933 until 1945.
FDR broke the two-term norm, his supporters argued, because of the need for consistent leadership through World War II. But setting a term limit on the presidency became one of Republicans' first priorities after his death.
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