Civic Literacy Curriculum
This curriculum guide is intended to cover both questions 36 and 37
Q36: We elect a president for how many years?
A. two (2)
B. four (4)
C. six (6)
D. eight (8)
Q37: Which is not a reason the President of the United States can only serve two terms?
A. Because of the 22nd Amendment passed after Franklin Roosevelt’s four terms
B. To keep the president from becoming too powerful
C. So that senators and presidents serve the same number of terms
D. All of the above
The American states had experimented with different selection mechanisms for their chief executives, the state governors. Some states chose them by election, others had the state legislature choose them. Many had extremely short terms, since states remained vigilant about quasi-monarchical power after bad experiences with royal appointees during the Revolution.
The Founding Fathers determined, in addition to choosing a president through the Electoral College rather than direct majoritarian election, that elections for president would take place every four years. This time limit would give the President enough time to be effective, yet prevent him or her from being in power for too long.
Initially, Presidents could be re-elected to an unlimited number of terms, but the historic norm was to follow George Washington’s example and only serve two, establishing the principle that it was not an office for life. Franklin Roosevelt broke this norm and was elected for four terms (but died very early during his fourth). Concern about the concentration of executive power during such a long presidency led to the Twenty-Second Amendment, which formalized the two-term limit.
This restriction would hopefully ensure that America would never end up a quasi-monarchical president, and would thus avoid dictatorships as we have seen in other countries, even those that did not formally have a monarchy. America would avoid a Napoleon Bonaparte, a Joseph Stalin, a Francisco Franco, a Mao Zedong, or a Kim Jong Il.
Although initially, states had some variation in when they selected presidential electors, since 1845, presidential elections have always taken place in the month of November, specifically the Tuesday after the first Monday in November.
Part of the concern that animated both re-election of the president and eventually the Twenty-Second Amendment was the need to ensure that Americans would have a president who filled an office under the Constitution for fixed terms, rather than a ruler-for-life. In other words, it sought to ensure a republican office, not a monarchy. In these exercises, students will read two short pieces from future presidents, James Madison, and Abraham Lincoln, explaining why fidelity to the Constitution was essential to avoid the common fate of monarchy.
For Madison, the structural parts of the Constitution, federalism and the separation of powers are linked; ignoring the proper balances will lead either to consolidation of power in the federal government and monarchy or to separation and anarchy. For Lincoln, fidelity to the Constitution among the citizens would ensure that no ambitious “Bonaparte” could take power here. He observed that there was a growing tendency for people to claim the need to set the Constitution and laws aside to achieve their goals, and that they might turn to a strongman social reformer to sweep aside the rule of law to achieve his faction’s vision of justice. Lincoln argued the Constitution allowed for reforms but insisted that those reforms be made through the proper rule of law.
- Provide each group with a copy of Abraham Lincoln’s Lyceum Address
- Provide each group with a copy of the 3-2-1 Worksheet.
- If you are also assigning James Madison’s letter, provide each group with that and a second 3-2-1 worksheet.
- A rubric is available if this is a graded activity.
The Teaching Materials for this exercise includes a rubric.
- This activity works well as an individual assignment. However, depending on the age and/or skills level of the students, you may want to have them work in pairs.
- If that is the case, divide the class into pairs based on the students’ individual levels. Group A is the group that needs some extra support. Group B is the core group that has the core knowledge to complete the activity. Group C is the enrichment group who have mastered the material and are prepared to extend their knowledge. Pair those who need support (Group A) with those who have core knowledge and/or have mastered the material (Groups B and C).
- Lincoln’s Lyceum address is longer, but written in easier language than Madison’s shorter letter. Lincoln is more appropriate for A or B groups or students; Madison for B or C.
- Explain to the students that today they are going to read from future presidents, thinking about how following the Constitution avoids the monarchical problems the Founders feared.
- After they complete the reading, they will fill out a 3-2-1 Worksheet where they write down three facts that they learned, two questions that they have, and one opinion about the topic.
- Circulate throughout the room to help students as needed.
- If you wish, once the students complete the worksheet, use it as a springboard into a class discussion. Questions you might also ask include:
- Does Lincoln think that the Constitution and laws are perfect? How should reform happen?
- Why does even Lincoln, an anti-slavery leader, warn his fellow opponents of slavery that breaking the Constitution and rule of law to end its evil is still unacceptable? Is he right?
- What, according to Madison, is the relationship between federalism and the separation of powers? Why would changing one risk the other? Do you agree with his worry?
Below are two discussion prompts that can be used by teachers in a classroom setting.
- The first discussion prompt will be one that is designed to support students that are not really understanding the content in a way that would help them to answer the test question.
- The second discussion prompt will be one that is designed to further student understanding of the content by making real-world connections, including connections to current events and historical events.
A four-year term for the president was, like all other decisions, the result of a compromise between the Founding Fathers and their various theories regarding the creation of a new government. For them, it seemed to be the best choice: just long enough for the president to get things done, yet short enough to prevent significant damage should the president be a poor executive, either incompetent or power-hungry. Later on, four elections of Franklin Roosevelt helped convince Congress that a two-term limit should be added, which the 22nd Amendment instituted.
When the Founding Fathers considered the presidency, they knew that this was not a position to be created quickly or with little thought. One of their goals was to ensure that the president did not become a king. As a result, they set limits to how long a president could serve. How many years are in a presidential term? Why can the president only serve two terms?
Four years for a president seems to be a reasonable length of time, though perhaps that is because it is all we know. Two terms, or eight years, also seems rather reasonable. But, again, that is all we know. Think about the responsibilities and challenges of the presidency. Do you think that a four-year term with a two-term limit is a good idea, or should we consider changing it? Why do you think this way? Use current and past events to support your answer.