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    Send your questions about campaigns and elections.
    Constitution Avenue

    By Ken Rudin
    Special to
    Tuesday, March 23, 1999

    Question: What was the argument, process, and date of the decision to limit the president to two terms in office? – Joel Rubin, Rockville, Md.

    Answer: The argument has its roots in the first week of the Constitutional Convention in 1787. At first the delegates suggested a seven-year term, with the president ineligible for reelection. But soon they argued that a president who couldn't run again could in fact become unresponsive to the populace. Plus, argued Gouverneur Morris of Pennsylvania, "Shut the Civil road to Glory & he may be compelled to seek it by the sword."

    Thomas Jefferson, the third president, specifically argued for a two-term tradition at the close of his second term. While many bills limiting a president's tenure in office were considered during the next century, few presidents even ran or were nominated for a second term.

    GOP retribution against the late FDR meant that Ike and Reagan could not seek a third term. (Collection of Ken Rudin)
    That changed in 1940, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt, stymied by southern Democrats in Congress and concerned about the war in Europe, agreed to run for a third term. While many Republicans – and not a few Democrats – were furious with the breaking of tradition, the country decided that the world was an unstable place and that Roosevelt was the right man at the right time. FDR was victorious that year, and in fact won a fourth term in 1944.

    Roosevelt died in 1945. Within weeks of assuming control of both houses of Congress in 1947, Republicans decided enough was enough. The House passed a constitutional amendment that limited presidents to two terms. One month later, the Senate followed. In each house, the GOP vote was unanimous. On March 24, 1947, Congress sent the amendment to the states for ratification. It wasn't until Feb. 27, 1951 – nearly four years later – that the 22nd Amendment became part of the Constitution.

    Ironically, while the amendment was seen as a GOP move against a deceased Democratic president, so far the impact has been greater on Republicans. Two Republican presidents, Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan, fell subject to the 22nd Amendment in 1961 and 1989 respectively. And Richard Nixon would also have been a victim of the amendment in 1977, had he survived Watergate.

    Fifty years after the amendment's passage, it will finally claim its first Democrat – Bill Clinton, who must leave office in 2001.

    Question: How did the founding fathers solve the problem of staggering the terms of the new nation's senators so that one-third of the upper house would be up for reelection every two years? Did some states volunteer to have their first senators serve for less than six years to achieve this election rotation? – John J. Hogan, Easton, Mass.

    Answer: Article I, Section 3, Paragraph 2 of the Constitution, referring to the senators, provides that "immediately after they shall be assembled in consequence of the first election, they shall be divided as equally as may be into three classes. The seats of the Senators of the first class shall be vacated at the expiration of the second year, of the second class at the expiration of the fourth year and of the third class at the expiration of the sixth year, so that one-third may be chosen every second year."

    Unlike the debate to limit presidential terms, which took over 150 years to resolve, this decision was made early, prior to the first meeting of Congress in 1789. As for which senators would serve only two years, or four years, or all six years, their names were chosen by lot.

    Alaska's two new senators had their terms in office decided by lot in 1959. (Collection of Ken Rudin)
    In later years, with newer states, the system didn't vary. For example, with Alaska's entry to the union as the forty-ninth state in 1958 came two new senators. But the decision of who would serve how long didn't come until after they were sworn in. Democrat E.L. Bob Bartlett, by a flip of the coin, was designated the "senior senator" over the other Democrat elected in 1958, Ernest Gruening. With their fellow senators and the spectators in the galleries watching intensely, Gruening reached into a small wooden box holding three slips of paper -- each one representing a two, four, or six-year term. He took the slip to Vice President Nixon, who announced that Gruening would serve a four-year term. Bartlett then followed, and his slip revealed he would hold a two-year term.

    Question: As you point out in your Feb. 5 column, Article II of the Constitution states that "no person except a natural born Citizen... shall be eligible to the Office of President." Were all of the early presidents natural-born citizens? Or have all presidents since the ratification of the Constitution been natural-born citizens? – George A. Rud, Phoenix, Ariz.

    Answer: Every President was born in what is now a state. But eight of the first nine presidents – Washington, John Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, John Quincy Adams, Jackson, and William Henry Harrison – were all born under British rule. The first president not born a British subject was Martin Van Buren (born in 1782).

    Got a question? Ask Ken Rudin:

    Ken Rudin, political editor at National Public Radio, is also the creator of's ScuttleButton contest.

    © Copyright 1999 Ken Rudin

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