Colgate University Libraries


Rob Sobelman


Every four years for the past 218 years, the United States of America has elected a president. In the history of the United States, only the thirty-second president was elected for more than two terms. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt ran a unique reelection campaign against Wendell Willkie in 1940 to win an unprecedented third term. The campaign was waged in the midst of spreading war across Europe and growing fear of American entrance into international hostilities. Due to the intensity of the political issues that were debated, the campaign season was particularly compelling. However, the campaign was not unique because it was run during a time of uncertainty; it was unique because it was posing a question to the American people that had never been posed before: is the two-term tradition bigger than the presidential candidates? Despite facing an opponent who attempted to liken a third term for Roosevelt to an American adoption of dictatorship, as referenced in the campaign collateral above, Roosevelt was able to overcome the third-term issue and win reelection. The longstanding tradition that no president would be elected for more than two terms was shattered by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in November of 1940. Most historians attribute the ability of Roosevelt to win an unprecedented third term to the success of the New Deal and the fear of changing leadership in the context of prospective imminent war. The debate over foreign and domestic policy in the 1940 presidential campaign season most likely decided the election for voters. However, the campaigns themselves were not guided by these policy positions. This paper will argue that the third-term issue pervaded all political debate and was the single biggest factor shaping the strategy and rhetoric of both the Roosevelt and Willkie campaigns. A misunderstanding of the importance of the third-term issue in the Roosevelt and Willkie campaigns of 1940 has led to an analytical gap between Roosevelt’s reelection to a third term and the ratification of the Twenty-Second Amendment just 11 years later.