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How FDR Became the Only President Elected To Serve Four Terms

Why was Roosevelt allowed to remain in office for 12 years? 

Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt in an open car returning from his third inauguration
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  • Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt returning to the White House from FDR's third inauguration.Photo Credit: FDR Library Photograph Collection

Currently, U.S. presidents are allowed to serve two elected four-year terms and an additional two years on a previous president’s term. This means that if the president passes away, resigns, or is impeached, the vice president could carry out the rest of the presidential term, and if there were two years or less left of the term, the new president could still be qualified to run for two full terms in addition to the time already served, allowing a total maximum of 10 years in office. 

These parameters are described in the 22nd Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. But some individuals may be curious as to what events led to the 22nd Amendment and why America’s 32nd President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was the only president elected to serve four terms. 

Below, you’ll learn more about the leader who navigated the U.S. through the Great Depression and World War II and gain insight into how our current electoral process was decided.         

Journey to the Presidency

In his younger years, Franklin Delano Roosevelt studied law at New York's Columbia University. Upon passing the bar exam in 1907, he decided to leave school before completing his degree and worked for a New York City law firm, where he practiced law for three years. It wasn’t until 1910 that he decided to pursue work in politics and was elected to the New York State Senate as a Democrat. 

Once reelected to the State Senate in 1912, he showed support for Woodrow Wilson’s candidacy at the Democratic National Convention, which eventually led Wilson to appoint Roosevelt as the Assistant Secretary of the Navy in 1913, which he held until 1920. Although Roosevelt was yet unaware, the experience he gained through this role would be incredibly useful as a Commander-in-Chief during WWII. In 1920, Governor James M. Cox of Ohio was running for president and chose Roosevelt as his running mate, but ultimately Republicans Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge won the election. 

FDR photographed in 1912
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  • FDR in 1912.

    Photo Credit: Wikipedia

After his defeat, Roosevelt took a brief break from politics, and while vacationing at Campobello Island, New Brunswick, he contracted polio, which left him permanently paralyzed from the waist down. Rather than give up his political aspirations, he was determined to continue to be involved and eventually became the Governor of New York in 1928. 

Roosevelt was reelected as governor in 1930 but began setting his sights on a loftier goal—running for president. Subsequently, two years later, Roosevelt won the nomination as the Democratic Party candidate for president and campaigned for relief, recovery, and reform of the American economy during the Great Depression. It was this promise to the public that garnered favor, allowing Roosevelt to defeat Herbert Hoover in 1932.    

Fireside Chats with FDR

Franklin D. Roosevelt was regarded as a charismatic leader who knew the importance of easing citizens’ minds while keeping them informed about his efforts throughout the Great Depression and when WWII erupted. He was the first president who was able to effectively utilize the radio to reassure the public, discuss current issues, explain his programs, and, in turn, prevent the press from misconstruing his words through broadcasts that were nicknamed “Fireside Chats” by CBS radio broadcaster Robert Trout. 

Eight days into his presidency, Roosevelt went on air for the first time and updated Americans on the federal government's plan to tackle the banking crisis by implementing a “bank holiday.” But rather than address citizens with an authoritative, grave quality, he spoke as though he were speaking to a group of friends. 

He used a calm, natural cadence and chose not to overcomplicate his vocabulary to reach a wider audience. In fact, according to The White House Historical Association, “70 percent of the words Roosevelt used were among the 500 most commonly-occurring terms in the English Language,” which allowed citizens to feel more connected to their president than ever before. 

Suddenly, Americans were flooding The White House with letters and packages, feeling moved to respond to Roosevelt's statements—whether it was criticizing his plans or expressing gratitude towards him for taking the time to talk to them.   

Time In Office 

FDR’s First Two Terms

In his first inaugural address on March 4, 1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt uttered what would become the famous words that would give hope to many Americans during this bleak time in history: “First of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself…”

Understanding that he had taken office in the throes of the Great Depression, in which the nation saw an unprecedented economic disaster due to factory closings, bank failures and increasingly high levels of unemployment, Roosevelt quickly got to work implementing programs and projects under The New Deal. During his first two terms as president, Roosevelt enacted a multitude of programs that aimed to create more jobs for the American people and provide monetary support for those unemployed in the meantime. 

surrounded by onlookers, FDR signs the Social Security Act
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  • FDR signs the Social Security Act on 4 August 1935.

    Photo Credit: Wikipedia

During a period that would be known as “The First 100 Days,” the president took steps to end Prohibition, since he believed that legalizing alcohol again would not only create new jobs but that the tax revenue from alcohol sales would benefit the economy. Then he passed legislation that created agencies such as the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA) and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in hopes of reducing export surpluses of crops, raising prices, and employing young men through projects that would improve the country’s public lands, forests and parks. 

Furthermore, in 1935, Roosevelt created the Works Progress Administration (WPA), which employed laborers, artists, writers, musicians and authors. Within the same year, he passed the Social Security Act of 1935, which provided Americans with guaranteed pensions and unemployment insurance and provided support for those unable to work due to disability. Although some citizens had qualms with these sweeping reforms, many Americans viewed Roosevelt as a capable leader who would navigate the nation through this difficult period.

After claiming victory over his opponent Alfred M. Landon in 1936, he entered his second term as president and started to focus on dealing with opponents of The New Deal, especially those within the Supreme Court. However, his strategy to add new justices to the Supreme Court backfired, as he was criticized for “court packing” and attempting to hinder the separation of powers. 

FDR’s Third and Fourth Terms 

Roosevelt’s defeat of Wendell Willkie, the Republican nominee for the 1940 election, marked the first and last time in America’s history that a president would win more than two consecutive presidential elections. Despite efforts to keep America out of World War II, which had begun in 1939, the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941 propelled the nation into war against the Axis powers. 

On January 1, 1942, the Allied powers issued “The Declaration of the United Nations,” which formalized their intention to work together to defeat the Axis powers, and became the basis for the peacekeeping organization of the United Nations. 

Meanwhile, due to mass xenophobia, shortly after the Pearl Harbor attack, Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942, which ordered approximately 110,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans living on the West Coast to relocate to incarceration camps in the western interior of the U.S. for the next three years.   

FDR and Winston Churchill seated on a ship deck
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  • FDR and Winston Churchill on deck the HMS Prince of Wales, 10 August 1941.

    Photo Credit: Wikipedia

The Allied forces successfully invaded North Africa and Italy in 1943, and France on June 6, 1944, known as the D-Day invasion of Normandy. Six months later, the Allied forces invaded Germany, and it appeared that the Axis powers' defeat was imminent.

Even though by 1944 Roosevelt had been placed on a restricted diet and limited work schedule due to a diagnosis of reduced lung capacity, hypertension, acute bronchitis and acute congestive heart failure, he accepted his reelection for a fourth term and won against Thomas E. Dewey. 

By March 1, 1945, the president’s health had drastically declined, and Roosevelt subsequently chose to address Congress to discuss the success of the Yalta Conference while seated in his wheelchair for the first time publicly. He apologized for giving his speech from a seated position but deemed it necessary due to his exhaustion over his recent 14,000-mile journey. This would be his final address to Congress.

On April 12, 1945, during a vacation in Warm Springs, Georgia—a mere 11 weeks into his fourth term—he suffered from a cerebral hemorrhage and died. Following Roosevelt’s death, Vice President Harry S. Truman assumed office and resolved to use atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to hasten the war’s conclusion. On September 2, 1945, after immense loss and destruction, WWII came to an end—a day that Roosevelt, after working tirelessly during his final years as president, was unable to witness.  

Implementing the 22nd Amendment

While Harry Truman was in office, Congress proposed the 22nd Amendment, which would place limitations on future presidents’ terms. Up until then, presidents had either respected the two-term unofficial rule set forth by President Washington, who decided not to seek reelection for a third term, or were unable to win reelection for a third time. 

For instance, Ulysses S. Grant lost a third campaign in 1880, Theodore Roosevelt lost his bid for a third nonconsecutive term in 1912, and Woodrow Wilson lost in 1920. Even Harry Truman, who was exempt from the new rule due to being grandfathered in, campaigned for a third term in 1952, but ultimately withdrew after he was defeated in the New Hampshire primary. 

Consequently, before Roosevelt, there hadn’t been a president who had remained in office for 12 years. However, due to the chaos and instability of the era and since there was no law in place to prevent third-term presidents, the public decided that they preferred to continue supporting Roosevelt to steer them through this period of crisis. 

There were certainly those who would have much rather welcomed a fresh face into office. When Roosevelt ran for a third term, some of those who had previously supported him left his campaign, and one-third of Americans voted against him. Even Roosevelt’s vice president during his first and second terms, John Nance Garner III, became an adamant opponent of Roosevelt's New Deal policies and chose to enter the 1940 race as the Democratic nominee for president. However, Garner was ultimately unsuccessful and was then replaced by the more liberal Democrat, Henry A. Wallace, as Roosevelt’s running mate.

It was this criticism and fear of tyrannical rule from Democrats and Republicans alike that eventually led to the 22nd Amendment. Ever since the law was enacted, some presidents have been vocal about their discontentment and have made efforts to amend or repeal it as they believe that the 22nd Amendment infringes upon the democratic process, while supporters disagree and contend that the law prevents abuses of power and upholds democracy.

An undoubtedly complex debate—only time will tell the 22nd Amendment’s future, but as of now it remains in place and must be honored and adhered to by America’s leaders.