But we can do better than remembering it with a quip, however immortal. Given the new and hard-to-check ways in which presidents can hold on to power—or even tee it up for their relatives—we ought to take a moment to appreciate what motivated the amendment’s champions. They were on the right side of history, animated by a coherent and nonpartisan philosophy we would do well to reflect upon today: anti-Caesarism, the belief that American government must never be transformed into an emanation of one man. Nor one family.
Given the growing tendency to treat spouses and children as presidents in waiting, it might be time not just to honor the spirit of the 22nd Amendment on its anniversary, but expand it.
In the most immediate sense, the “partisan revenge” interpretation of its origin story is right. Roosevelt’s Republican opponents did resent losing four straight elections to “That Man in the White House.” But they weren’t just acting in a fit of pique. In running for a third term, Roosevelt had broken the venerable norm of a two-term limit set by George Washington; in winning a fourth one, he had smashed it to bits. His critics worried about Roosevelt’s seemingly unchecked hold on the White House, and his willingness to use presidential power to keep himself there—and, in fact, so did many of his admirers.
So once Republicans regained control of Congress, it was more or less a given that they would move to codify the restraint the nation had once taken for granted. When the Republican-controlled 80th Congress convened in 1947, less than two years after Roosevelt’s death, it immediately took up two proposals to limit incumbents’ eligibility for the presidency. One resolution, offered by Rep. Everett Dirksen (R-Ill.), would have limited presidents to a single term, to last six years instead of four. The other, introduced by Rep. Earl Michener (R-Mich.), chair of the House Judiciary Committee, would have imposed a simple two-term limit. Congress chose Michener’s plan, and after debating particulars (with special attention to the treatment of someone who succeeded to the presidency), supermajorities including all Republicans and many, mostly Southern Democrats sent a revised version of the amendment to the states in March.
Support was not limited to the right. The New York Times’ Washington bureau chief, Arthur Krock, noted that Democrats had supported a two-term limit in 1928, when they wanted to ensure Calvin Coolidge would be leaving the White House. He also cited Thomas Jefferson’s support for limits on “perpetuations of power” based on worries that one man could become so politically ensconced as to be unbeatable. His newspaper’s editorial board, even then no bastion of conservatism, was also cautiously supportive of the amendment. With the amendment in place, it noted approvingly, “No man, whatever his motives might be, could hope to build his personal power to irresistible proportions.”
What troubled many about FDR’s long tenure were the New Yorker’s repeated attempts to turn the machinery of the federal government into an extension of his personal political operation. Most famously, in 1938 the president had decided to vigorously campaign against conservative members of his own party, an effort that the national media branded as a “purge.” Going well beyond an endorsement, workers employed by the Works Progress Administration, the New Deal’s leading infrastructure agency, were used as political foot soldiers in these and other primary elections across the country, including pressuring WPA officials to donate to favored candidates.
A Senate special committee created to investigate these allegations found pervasive abuses and recommended that Congress prohibit political contributions by recipients of federal relief funds or administrators of those funds. Senator Carl Hatch (D-N.M.), distressed by corrupt spending in his own state, rallied his colleagues to prevent “a system by which we can use funds from the Public Treasury to control the votes of the people of the Nation,” which he said would mean “democracy in America is dead.” Representative Edward Rees (R-Kan.) warned that current practice would “foster and approve the most gigantic political machine that is known in any nation anywhere.” In spite of administration protestations that federal employees would be deprived of their constitutional speech rights, in 1939 Congress passed the Hatch Act, which prevents federal employees from using government resources for partisan political ends or electioneering.