Ask a Scholar: Declining the Second Term

Dear Ask a Scholar,

Has there ever been a president who did not run for a second term by choice?

- Suzanna Smith

Answered by Jason Jividen

Several U.S. presidents have chosen not to run for a second elected term in office.  After serving one term, James K. Polk chose not to seek reelection in 1848.  Polk had promised not to run for a second term and claimed to have achieved his major policy goals after four years.  He was in poor health near the end of his term and died of cholera shortly after he left office in 1849.  Rutherford B. Hayes also chose not to run for a second term in 1880, following through on his earlier promises to serve only one term as president.  

Theodore Roosevelt had succeeded to the presidency following the assassination of President McKinley in 1901.  Roosevelt was reelected in 1904, and following the example set by President Washington, he promised not to pursue a third (or second elected) term as president.  Roosevelt did not run in 1908, but he did run as a Bull Moose Progressive in 1912, losing to Woodrow Wilson.  
Calvin Coolidge succeeded to the presidency when President Harding died in office in 1923. Coolidge would be elected in 1924, but declined to run for a second elected term in 1928.  Harry Truman ascended to the presidency when Franklin Roosevelt died in office in 1945.  Truman would be elected in 1948 in an upset victory over Thomas Dewey.  The 22nd Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified in early 1951, which declared that “No person shall be elected to the office of the President more than twice, and no person who has held the office of President, or acted as President, for more than two years of a term to which some other person was elected President shall be elected to the office of the President more than once.” Yet the Amendment also contained language that exempted the current president from this requirement.  Thus, Harry Truman would have been eligible to seek a third (second elected) term in the 1952 presidential election.  However, he too declined to run.  

Finally, Lyndon Johnson became president after the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963.  Johnson’s first term lasted only fourteen months, and he was elected for a second term in a landslide victory in 1964.  Under the 22nd Amendment, Johnson was eligible for a second elected term.  But, in the face of a fragmented Democratic Party, Johnson declined to seek reelection in 1968, famously declaring on television, “I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President.” 

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Dr. Jason Jividen is Assistant Professor of Politics at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, PA, where he also serves as Fellow in Civic and Constitutional Affairs for Saint Vincent’s Center for Political and Economic Thought. His teaching and research interests include various topics in ancient and modern political philosophy, the principles of the American Founding, Lincoln’s political thought, and American Progressivism. Dr. Jividen is author of Claiming Lincoln: Progressivism, Equality, and the Battle for Lincoln’s Legacy in Presidential Rhetoric (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2011), which critically examines the attempt of progressive and modern liberal U.S. presidents to appropriate the Lincoln image into their political rhetoric.

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