February 29, 2024

Hankering for History

Hanker: To have a strong, often restless desire, in this case for–you guessed it–history!

Why did FDR Serve 4 Terms as President?

11 min read
FDR - 4 term president

The United States went ahead of many nations when they instituted a democracy in the midst of empires and wars over colonies. As a result, although they did have some historical examples to draw upon, they invented much of what we see as “normal” in democracies today.

One of these “inventions” was a presidential leader of a democratic republic. Set against the emperors and kings of that time period, most notably the British king, even the choice of the word “president” would outline what the United States wanted to do as a democracy. In a way, it was a daring exercise in sovereignty; they were telling more or less “absolute” monarchs that they held the right to self-govern as a whole, not because a leader said so.

Here, we will look at the first democracy, Athens; what a president is and what they would be expected to do in its simplest form (obviously the modern forms are much more complex); the precedent of two-term presidencies in the United States and the hesitancy against additional terms; FDR and his 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th terms; and the role of crisis leadership.

The United States’s hand was far-reaching once it successfully navigated independence and nation-building, setting independence movements in motion all the way to World War II and today. Democracy is young but deeply valued by citizens all over the world.

Athens, the first democracy

Harsh Draconian laws

The road to democracy for Athens was in no way smooth (which we generally see has been the case all over the world). The “Draconian Laws,” better known as “Draco’s Law Code.” Around 621 BCE (Before Common Era), a legislator named Draco was appointed by the leaders of the polis (plural) to draft a standardized law for the entire region. 

At that time, each polis (singular) was a self-governed city-state that was part of a larger whole comprising the Athenian people. There were three social classes, the aristocratic Eupatrids being at the very top. In the absence of a standardized legal system, those with power often took advantage of those with less. However, such a system (if we could call it that) led to infighting and ceaseless vendettas. 

As a result, Draco responded by drafting a set of laws that were so harsh even minor offenses today were punishable by death. Theft could cost you your life, even if the item stolen was not valuable. Debt could cost you your freedom, as one would need to sell themself into slavery to pay it back. Draco figured that if the punishments were heavy enough, crime in general would be deterred. He codified the law for the first time, and for the first time no city-state could act as they pleased according to their own laws.

Solon and the personal debt crisis

While the Athenians were now finally living under one law, they began to feel the effects of the Draconian measures especially on classes with less power. Theft would mean death, so borrowing for survival would have been a more attractive option. Unpaid debt, however, would mean bondage and slavery. The Draconian laws hit lower and poorer classes hard, and politics could not be completely kept out of the picture.

An aristocrat named Solon became one of the highest appointed men in the land, an archon, roughly 40 or 50 years after Draco’s laws were passed. At this point, so many Athenians had fallen into debt that a small landed aristocracy held all of the power. In essence, this also drained the region of productive members of society. Athens was entering a personal and regional debt crisis they could not recover from.

Solon was tasked with rewriting the laws and reversing the debt crisis. He did this by canceling all debt, ending slavery and debt bondage, and ranking the different social classes according to their production capacity. 

Cleisthenes, the “Father of Democracy”

Around 120 years after Draco, the city-states were doing much better, as were the people. However, because there were still differently-ranked social classes, those with more power continued to take advantage of those with less.

In response to the complaints of the working-class about the aristocrats, the leader Cleisthenes instituted a demokratia (demos + kratos = people + rule). He developed and codified (wrote into law) a system by which the people had a say in decisions concerning the whole region through representatives or by serving themselves. 

These “citizens” were free males over the age of 18. However, it was a start, and laid the foundations of what we would eventually know as democracy. 

What is a president and what would they do?

For Athens, it took 120 years to go from Draconian to democratic. The newly fledged United States proposed to go straight from a royal colony to a democracy in less than 5 years. (More or less. The Constitution was only finalized in 1787, though the revolution had started in 1776.)

This would mean the US would go from a “king” to a . . . what? They proposed to be a sovereign (independent, self-governing) nation with a less-than-lofty title. 

The “presiding officer” 

The word they chose literally meant “to sit before.” “President” basically meant “chief presiding officer.” Heads of colleges and heads of colonies could have the title, but simply as a position of keeping order and making final decisions. 

The 1774 Continental Congress had a “president,” which may have given the attendees their idea for the final title of the executive power. (Maybe.) What we do know is that when George Washington was elected and preparing for his inauguration, there was some debate. 

How could they give the leader of this new nation a title that made him equal with kings and yet not a king? (They even considered calling George Washington “His Highness” for a moment.) In the end, Congress went for simplicity, contrasting their “President” with the many titles a royal monarch usually came with. 

This set a precedent for the heart of the kind of democracy the United States wanted to build. The highest authority in the land was a presiding officer. He listened to the representatives of the people (Congress) and made decisions in line with the will of the people. Such a leader would surely uplift the demokratia as the complete opposite of despotic monarchical rule. 

Trivia: Who was the first president? (Debated)

The concise version is that George Washington is the first President under the United States Constitution, and the first leader of the executive branch. While there were others titled “President” under the Articles of Confederation, they were Presidents of Congress. There was no executive branch, therefore they were heads of Congress and no more. 

What about Pasquale Paoli of the Corsican Republic?

Some argue that Pasquale Paoli was president of the Corsican Republic, under a Constitution that lasted from 1755 to 1769. However, a closer look at the Corsican Constitution shows that there were many “presidents” who were “presiding officers,” not heads of state or of executive branches of government. 

Pasquale Paoli was once a head of state, with the title of General, and then later again with the title of “viceroy.” If ever he held the title of “president,” it would not have been comparable to George Washington as head of state and of the executive branch of government. 

Pasquale Paoli himself is incomparable to George Washington. George Washington, as a general in the revolution, headed the newly sovereign state with integrity. Pasquale Paoli was also the leader in the Corsican revolution, but he was later known for aligning with kingdoms whom he felt would uphold his personal power. 

At one point, England also ruled over Corsica, by his agreement. Despite a constitution worth seeing as democratic, it set no known precedent for later democracies. Because it was still tied heavily to colonizers, the system of government did not last. 

The president who set the precedent for two terms: George Washington in 1796

Unlimited term limits

When the Constitution was first written and debated, there were some discussions on term limits. However, when the Constitution was passed, there were only limits on the number of years per term (4 years), but not on the number of terms that could be served.

One interesting perspective on this is that the framers of the Constitution had no concept of what limited government terms would look like. Having come from monarchic rule from a continent of monarchical rule, it was probably beyond their imaginations. How on earth would a head of state provide stability and consistency for the nation without continual service?

The original framers of the Constitution suggested lifetime appointments to the Presidency. In other words, a President would serve until he (at the time, only “he”) died. The next President would then be appointed until his death. However, because that would make the President much like lifetime-serving monarchs, this idea was released.

They finally decided in 1787 that the Presidents would only serve for 4 years at a time. However, possibly as a compromise, they put no limits on how many terms a President could serve. 

The election of George Washington

George Washington took part in encouraging the creation of the American Constitution today, as the Articles of Confederation (and Presidents of Congress) were not beneficial to the new nation. He was then unanimously elected as President in 1789. He served two terms, tired of the factions clearly forming at the time, and declined to serve a third.

Despite their original ideas about lifetime appointments for Presidents, there was still a general worry about what a head of state might get up to if he was in position for too long. It is implied that by stepping down without seeking reelection to a third term, George Washington acted honorably and set an example perfect for a new democracy. 

The crisis-era leader

It could also be observed that George Washington was still in a way a crisis-era leader. The challenge for any nation reaching for independence is international credibility. (Pasquale Paoli and the Corsicans learned this the hard way, when they were already operating under a constitution but the Genoese coolly sold the land to the French.) 

The American people may have been comfortable with Washington serving at least two terms because it is easier for a long-term president to bring the consistency needed to be internationally credible. There is evidence that Washington was even asked later to run for a third term, but he declined. 

This need for consistency is something that came out most clearly in the presidential term of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR). 

Why stop at two terms?

Despite the general approval of George Washington’s hard stop at two terms, there were some presidents who still considered three terms. Ulysses S. Grant was one, but he was not reelected as party leader. 

Grover Cleveland served two non-consecutive terms, the only president to do so. He was straightforward and used federal power in a way that was not always liked. He was not reelected as party leader. 

Theodore Roosevelt aggressively pursued a third term, despite the party favorite being his friend. By his actions, he reawakened the general disfavor towards pursuit of anything longer than two terms. Embedded in United States history is the pre-independence monarchical rule; Roosevelt shook those fears free. He was later shot just to prevent his candidacy.

Woodrow Wilson and crisis leadership

Woodrow Wilson, interestingly enough, was considered a strong candidate for a third term in the presidency. (Also, funnily enough, he won the presidency in 1912 because Theodore Roosevelt’s pursuit of a third-term split his party’s votes.) He was the World War I-era leader, and championed the entrance of the United States into the post-war League of Nations. 

President Wilson’s third-term nomination for the presidency was cut short because friends and politicians alike intervened out of concern for his health. However, it does show that there is a strong desire for the continuity of a head of state when the nation is close to a crisis situation or one threatening national security. 

Franklin Delano Roosevelt and four presidential terms

Depression, recession, and fireside chats

Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) was elected in 1933. By that time, the United States was in the grip of the depression that had begun in 1929. The year 1933 saw the collapse of the commercial banking system, a national banking holiday, and massive economic reforms. These would hold until another collapse in 1937.

FDR was a man perfect for crisis leadership. Because he campaigned through the radio at a time when many of his opponents freely used print and the press, his voice was known throughout the nation. To keep the citizens informed in a way that brought him close to them, he instituted “fireside chats” during his presidency, addressing them through radio. 

These “fireside chats” were referred to as such by one radio host, and the term stuck. The press could not misquote the president, break his words apart, or put their own spin on it. FDR spoke to the people in his own words, with his own voice. Their president was closer to each one of them, individually, than ever before in history.

By 1937, the nation was in recession, and FDR had been re-elected for his second term just the year before. War was brewing in Europe, and would break out on September 1, 1939, with Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland. 

A world war

FDR passed the first “Neutrality Act” as early as 1935, and would pass 2 more before 1937. The American people knew him as a president doing his best to keep them out of a war that could be as costly as the previous one. In 1940, he was reelected for a third term—the first-ever third-term president in American history.

On December 7, 1941, Japanese planes attacked the American naval base in Pearl Harbor in the territory of Hawaii. By December 9, 1941, FDR’s fireside chat concerned war and Japan. The United States had officially entered what would later be called World War II. 

FDR led the nation into massive industrialization and militarization for the next three years. On June 6, 1944 (D-Day), American and British troops landed in France as part of Operation Overlord. On November 7 of the same year, FDR was elected to his fourth term as President of the United States of America. 

FDR would not finish his fourth term. Due to long-term issues with polio, he passed away in 1945. Harry S. Truman would take over as president. 

Crisis leadership and term continuity

As we can see, resistance to despotic rule and desire for democratic decision-making give way when there is a strong perceived need for consistency in crisis leadership. In moments when stability and predictability are crucial for survival, even fear of dictatorship takes a back seat. 

This is not to say FDR should not have gone for four presidential terms. Could it be that he took advantage of the global crisis to retain power for twelve years? Whether or not that happened, it is equally clear that the nation also desired the continuity a consecutive-term president could give them. 

In short, FDR served four terms as United States president first because he could, by law. Second, he was able to serve four terms by the will of the people, the demokratia that elected him, according to their needs. Because of the unlimited terms, he could provide the continuity of leadership they wanted at that time.

Two-term presidency

Despite the benefits of the unlimited terms of presidency in times of crisis leadership, FDR’s 12 years in office, reawakened old fears of despot-like power. In 1951, the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution limited every president’s terms to two maximum. They could only run once more after their first term, unless they came to the presidency in a way other than election. (As vice presidents, for example, like Harry S. Truman.) 

The demokratia continues to protect itself through Amendments such as this. 

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