House Debate on the 22nd Amendment

What is argument for the amendment? What is the argument against it? Does either argument presuppose the existence of a modern presidency?
Based on Federalist No. 72 (1788) and on the Letter to the New Jersey Legislature (1807), how might Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson have argued had they been present in 1947?

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Introduction

Franklin Roosevelt was elected president four times. In the elections of 1946, Republicans gained twelve seats in the Senate and fifty-five seats in the House to gain control of Congress, the first time this had occurred since FDR had taken office. They wasted little time in proposing an amendment to the Constitution limiting presidential tenure to two terms. No Republican voted against the amendment; the Democrats who voted for the amendment were largely conservative southerners.

In the debate in Congress, both supporters and opponents of the amendment argued that their respective positions were the better fit for constitutional tradition. Supporters argued that Roosevelt had violated the customary two-term limit that had existed going back to Washington and Jefferson, and opponents argued in response that the custom was actually to leave the option of multiple terms available. Most of the debate did not engage Hamilton’s argument against a term limit in Federalist No. 72 (1788).

—Jeremy D. Bailey

Source: Congressional Record, 80th Congress, First Session, Volume 93, Part 1 (Washington D.C. : United States Government Printing Office, 1947), 842-43, 844, 853-54.


Mr. McCORMACK.[1] Mr. Speaker, this is one of the most important questions that any Member of this body will have to pass upon and I hope each Member will determine the question in accordance with his conscience. It is not my purpose to discuss politics in connection with the proposed amendment to the Constitution, an amendment which will not have any effect upon you and me of this generation but which might have a very important effect upon generations to come after you and I are dead and gone. If this amendment is incorporated in the Constitution, it will make the Constitution rigid. It ties the hands of future generations of Americans and deprives them of the opportunity to meet any problem that might confront them.

Of course, we have lived through the experience ourselves, but I can picture two generations from now, or one or three generations from now, when Americans may be enveloped in a war with their back to the wall. We will not be here. We will have passed on. But we will have imposed this prohibition upon them. They may be with their back to the wall with a President approaching the end of his second term. Let us assume the people of that future generation have complete confidence in their President. I do not know what his party may be. I do not care. That future President will be compelled to terminate his service as President of the United States when he may be the best man qualified to lead the people of our country at that time in meeting the crisis that confronts them. I beg of you as we sit here today to realize just what we are doing. I believe in custom. A custom is one thing, but a rigid prohibition is another thing. If this amendment becomes a part of the Constitution – and you cannot say, “We are sending it to the several State legislatures”; that is not the question; that is not the answer – if this amendment becomes a part of the Constitution, it imposes upon Americans for all time until and unless that Constitution is reamended the rigid hand of a rigid prohibition that no matter what crisis may confront America in the future when a President’s second term is drawing to a close they cannot reelect him so that he may continue his service to the Nation which might be vitally necessary at that particular time.

I think it is too great a risk to take. For myself, I do not want to take it. Let us see what some of the eminent m