A Third Term?

U.S. National Archives

“Today all private plans, all private lives, have been in a sense repealed by an overriding public danger. In the face of that public danger all those who can be of service to the Republic have no choice but to offer themselves for service in those capacities for which they may be fitted.

Those, my friends, are the reasons why I have had to admit to myself, and now to state to you, that my conscience will not let me turn my back upon a call to service.”

FDR, Address to the Democratic National Convention, July 1940

As President Franklin D. Roosevelt neared the end of his second term speculation began about his successor. There was no constitutional barrier to a third term at that time. But no president had ever exceeded the two-term precedent established by George Washington. 

FDR seemed ready to follow tradition. He began planning for retirement, establishing a library in Hyde Park for his papers and discussing potential Presidential candidates with advisers. Yet he made no formal announcement of his intentions.

By late 1939, with war underway in Europe and Asia, the press began speculating that Roosevelt might seek a third term. FDR seemed to enjoy keeping the pundits guessing about his decision. In 1940 the “third term” question became a burning political issue.

This papier-mache depiction of FDR as the Great Sphinx of Giza was created as a humorous commentary on the President’s prolonged refusal to say whether he would run for a third term in 1940. It was the centerpiece for a satirical skit at the annual dinner of the Gridiron Club (the organization of White House correspondents) on December 9, 1939. Roosevelt attended the dinner as guest of honor.

The Sphinx sculpture was constructed by James D. Preston, former superintendent of the Senate Press Gallery. FDR was so delighted with the sculpture he had it shipped to the Roosevelt Library, where it was put on display in 1941.

The Third Term Decision

“This is no ordinary time, no time for weighing anything except what we can best do for the country as a whole.”

Eleanor Roosevelt, Speech at the 1940 DNC, July 18, 1940

Throughout the spring and early summer of 1940, while war raged in Europe, FDR refused to reveal whether he would run for a third term. When the Democratic Convention opened in Chicago in July, delegates were in a sour mood as they waited for a sign. FDR insisted that the delegates “draft” him. He did not want to be seen as actively seeking to break the two-term tradition.

This standoff persisted until FDR’s supporters stage-managed a dramatic “Draft Roosevelt” floor demonstration. The delegates quickly nominated the President. But they balked at FDR’s choice for Vice President— the liberal Secretary of Agriculture Henry Wallace. The war in Europe loomed threateningly over the American psyche and ideological differences concerning neutrality, and a host of other political issues exposed fissures in the Democratic Party ranks. The Convention was at a standstill and bordered on outright revolt.

FDR (who was in Washington) and Frances Perkins (on the ground in Chicago) encouraged Eleanor Roosevelt to immediately fly to Chicago to bring the party together. She agreed to do so, and when she appeared on stage that night she called for unified action, saying [excerpt]:

“You must know that this is the time when all good men and women give every bit of service and strength to their country that they have to give. This is the time when it is the United States that we fight for, the domestic policies that we have established as a party that we must believe in, that we must carry forward, and in the world we have a position of great responsibility.

We cannot tell from day to day what may come. This is no ordinary time. No time for weighing anything except what we can do best for the country as a whole, and that responsibility rests on each and every one of us as individuals.”

The effect of her words was transformative. A silence marked by respect and admiration followed her message, somberly and palpably shifting the atmosphere. Balloting began immediately after she sat down and the Convention went on to nominate Henry A. Wallace to run alongside Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1940 election.

Eleanor Roosevelt delivered this historic speech using only a single page of notes.

1940 Election Campaign

“The fact which dominates our world is the fact of armed aggression . . . aimed at the form of Government, the kind of society that we in the United States have chosen and established for ourselves.”

FDR, Radio Address to the Democratic National Convention  

The 1940 election was the most challenging and divisive of FDR’s career. Two powerful issues dominated the campaign. Roosevelt’s decision to seek a third term inflamed his opponents—and some former supporters—who charged he wanted to become a dictator. And the President’s efforts to aid countries fighting the Axis Powers led to charges he would drag America into war.

FDR made two politically risky decisions during the campaign. Straining traditional notions of neutrality, he transferred 50 aged American destroyers to Britain in return for leases on British bases in the Atlantic. And he supported legislation instituting the nation’s first peacetime draft.

Overseas events decisively influenced the election. Hitler’s conquest of France in June heightened concern about Germany. 

Public opinion began turning in Roosevelt’s direction and his Republican opponent Wendell Willkie backed the President’s controversial decisions. In November, he was reelected.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt's 1940 Campaign Trip to Pittsburgh

1940 Election Results

FDR’s 1940 victory was narrower than his landslide triumphs in 1932 and 1936.

Yet he was reelected by a comfortable margin. While Republicans picked up five Senate seats, Democrats still controlled Congress with large majorities.

The President could claim a mandate to provide assistance to Great Britain and other nations resisting Hitler. But he still needed to proceed with caution. His own words during the campaign would later haunt him. In October, seeking to rebut accusations that he would pull the nation into war, he told a crowd in Boston, “I have said this before, but I shall say it again and again and again: Your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars.” He ignored advice to add the words “except in case of attack.”

Snapshots of a Nation

Though the war cast a threatening shadow over America in 1940, the nation’s economy was increasingly vibrant.

Much of the improvement resulted from huge increases in defense spending as American industry produced weapons and supplies for foreign nations and America’s own military. The Federal budget increased by an astounding 50 percent between 1940 and 1941. Virtually all of the increase was for military spending.

The 1940 census revealed that America’s population had grown only 7.3 percent during the preceding decade—the lowest rate of population growth in the country’s history. The low growth rate reflected the hardships of the Depression years, which led to declining marriage and birth rates and a virtual end to immigration.

The 22nd Amendment

The Framers of America’s Constitution did not put a limit on the number of terms a president could serve. But George Washington chose to serve only two before retiring. That precedent was followed by every subsequent president until FDR, who was elected to a total of four terms.

After Roosevelt’s death, Republicans mounted a campaign to pass an amendment to the Constitution placing a cap on the number of terms a president could serve. The 22nd Amendment, limiting presidents to two terms, was ratified in 1951.

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Exhibit created by the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum — http://fdrlibrary.org/

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