The Third Term


On the evening of July 16, 1940, Thomas D. (for Democrat) Garry sat sweating in front of a microphone in the basement of Chicago Stadium. Garry, Chicago’s Superintendent of Sewers, had orders from his boss, Mayor Edward Kelly, to use his leather lungs to shout out, on cue, three words over and over. Above Garry’s head, Kentucky Senator Alben Barkley was finishing the keynote address to the delegates at the 1940 Democratic National Convention. The signal for Garry to shout his three words would come after Barkley finished reading a statement from the President of the United States.

In 1796, at the end of his second term, President George Washington announced that he would not seek a third term. For the new republic, Washington’s decision set a precedent — an unwritten law for future chief executives to quit after two terms. Washington’s successor John Adams served only one term, so it fell to Thomas Jefferson to carry on the tradition at the end of his second term, which he did. Presidents James Madison, James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, Ulysses S. Grant, and Grover Cleveland all served two full terms and upheld the tradition of declining a third term. In 1908 Theodore Roosevelt followed in their footsteps, but four years later he ran for a third term on a third party ticket. TR lost and in the process split the Republican vote, electing Democrat Woodrow Wilson who would himself become a two-term president and a respecter of the two-term tradition. Then came 1940 and FDR.

Early in the year, the war in Europe lingered in the “sitzkreig” stage. The Untied States officially took a neutral position, and President Roosevelt remained publicly noncommittal about a third term. One cartoonist drew FDR as a an Egyptian Sphinx, 1940 model — smiling but saying nothing. Roosevelt told his good friend, Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morganthau, that he had no intentions of running unless “things get very, very much worse in Europe.” In April things got very much worse. The German spring offensive that swept through Denmark, Holland, Belgium, and culminated with the fall of France, pushed many of Roosevelt’s supporters to work behind the scenes for a third term; Roosevelt did nothing to stop them. With the world going to hell, the president’s supporters believed the nation needed a seasoned leader in the White House.

Many other democrats, however, firmly believed in the two-term-only tradition, no matter how dire the world situation. Three members of Roosevelt’s cabinet viewed FDR’s continued silence right up to the convention as encouragement to run for the nomination themselves — Vice- President John Nance Garner, Secretary of State Cordell Hull, and Postmaster General Jim Farley.

When the convention opened in Chicago on July 15, FDR maintained his sphinx like pose. Although his June appointment of Republican Henry Stimson as secretary of war and Frank Knox, the 1936 Republican VP candidate, as secretary of the navy appeared to many observers as the shrewd machinations of a President creating a bipartisan war cabinet, rather than a man about to ride off into the sunset.

Roosevelt knew he could have the nomination easily, but he refused to ask for it; he wanted a draft from the floor of the convention. On the second night of the convention Senator Barkley read a statement from Roosevelt: “The President has never had, and has not today, any desire or purpose to continue in the office of President, to be a candidate for that office, or to be nominated by the Convention for that office. He wishes in all earnestness and sincerity to make it clear that all the delegates to this Convention are free to vote for any candidate. That is the message I bear to you from the President of the United States.”

When Senator Barkley on the podium stopped speaking, Superintendent Garry in the basement began chanting: “We Want Roosevelt! We Want Roosevelt! We Want Roosevelt!” The chant echoed through the hall, electrifying the crowd; thousands of voices picked it up and roared it out. The demonstration went on for an hour; FDR had the draft he wanted.

Yet, the entire Chicago charade, engineered by New Deal reformers and big city bosses, left a poor taste in the mouths of many. Life magazine represented that view: “At Chicago last week, in a time of world democratic crisis, the greatest democracy treated the world to one of the shoddiest and most hypocritical spectacles in its history.”

During the campaign, Republican candidate Wendell Willkie used the third term as an issue. Buttons appeared reading, “No Third Term” and “Two Times Is enough For Any Man.” It was all to no avail. Many people, who in more peaceful times might have voted against FDR because of the third term issue, feared placing a new leader in the White House while Hitler menaced the world. The president won by five million votes and 449-82 in the Electoral College.

Four years later, during the final offensives of World War II, FDR ran and won a fourth term. He lived only ten weeks into that term, dying of a cerebral hemorrhage on April 12, 1945. The 22nd Amendment to the Constitution, limiting presidents to two terms, was ratified in 1951.