Constitutional Topic: Presidential Terms – The U.S. Constitution Online – USConstitution.net

Constitutional Topic: Presidential Terms


The Constitutional Topics pages at the USConstitution.net site are presented
to delve deeper into topics than can be provided on the Glossary Page or in the FAQ
. This Topic Page concerns presidential terms – the beginning and
ending of the President’s service. The primary sources for information about
presidential terms in the Constitution come from Article 2, Section 1, Amendment 12, and Amendment 20.

Sources used in the creation of this page include EyeWitness to
, InfoPlease, The
U.S. Senate
, When Did the Constitution
Become Law?
and Astrology

Note: This page is not about the length of the President’s
term. That value is set to four years and has never changed. George
Washington deliberately set a precedent to serve no more than two terms. This
precedent was broken by war-time President Franklin Roosevelt and
reestablished in the 22nd Amendment.

In the beginning…

The first President, George Washington, was sworn into office on April 30,
1789. He had been chosen by the Electoral College, by what most people felt
was a foregone conclusion, the February before. Why April 30th? The date is
certainly not spelled out in the original Constitution. The date was set more
by circumstance than anything else.

When New Hampshire ratified the Constitution, word was sent to the
Confederation Congress, which then decided, in effect, to dissolve itself. It
set the dates for the next series of events to take place under the new
Constitution: On January 7, 1789, states would choose electors. On February 4,
1789, the electors would cast their ballots for President. On March 4,
1789, the new legislature would meet to begin business.

Mostly because of poor weather, it was not until April 6, 1789 that a quorum
of Congress arrived in New York City to count the electoral votes. Once the
counting was done, word of Washington’s election was transmitted
to him
. He received the notice on April 14 and replied that
same day
, accepting his election. After making ready, Washington left his
home at Mount Vernon on April 16. He arrived in New York on the 23rd and
basically cooled his heels while the House and Senate worked out the details of
the inauguration. The 30th was the date arrived at during those

During Washington’s first term, the Congress passed a law setting March 4
as the date for future inaugurations. When Washington took his second oath
of office, then, it was on March 4, 1793. His first term was almost two months
shy of a full four years. Subsequent inaugurations were held on March 4 as a
matter of law, until the second inauguration of Thomas Jefferson on March 4,

What the 12th Amendment says

On June 15, 1804, the 12th Amendment was ratified. One provision of the
12th Amendment finally set in the Constitution itself the date that an incoming
President was to take office, although the language by which it does so is

The person having the greatest Number of votes for President,
shall be the President … if the House of Representatives shall not choose a
President whenever the right of choice shall devolve upon them, before the
fourth day of March next following, then the Vice-President shall act as

The amendment mentions March 4 as the deadline by which the House of
Representatives must choose a President if there is no clear winner in the
electoral college. The language makes sense when you realize that by this time,
only four inaugurations into the new system, March 4 was taken as a given for
the day of the inaugural. Though the amendment never specifically says, “the
President’s term shall begin on March 4,” this obtuse reference to the date
should be taken as its equivalent.

As to the time of the term’s beginning, we must recall that the world moved
a little slower 200 years ago. Exact times were not of much concern when it
took a month to cross the Atlantic and two weeks for a letter to move from
Boston to New York City. The Constitution is clear enough on this one point:
the President was not able to perform his duties until the Oath of Office was
administered. Should there ever be a question, the exact time of the term’s
beginning would have to be the time the oath was given, at least until there
was a law stating something different.

In 1851, the Senate adopted a resolution that stated that an incoming
session began at noon – and the outgoing session expired at that same time. This
decision was due to confusion at the beginning of the session that had lingered
for some time – was the cut-off at noon on the 4th, or at midnight on the 4th?
The question became a minor crisis in 1851 when Jefferson Davis, later to
become President of the CSA, refused to do any business
after midnight. The start of the President’s term was then generally accepted
to begin at the same time as the Senate session. Still, however, this was more
a matter of common agreement than anything else.

March was chosen for several key reasons. For one, it was important that
the President be inaugurated during good weather (or at least when there was
more potential for good weather). It also coincided, as noted, with the start
of the Congressional session. But it also created a lengthy period of time
when an outgoing president was in charge and a new president waited in the
wings. These so-called “lame duck” presidents could cause quite some mischief
for incoming presidents, particularly if the two were political enemies. To
reduce the lame duck period to a reasonably short period, the 20th Amendment
was passed in 1933.

The 20th Amendment changes things

In the 20th Amendment, the 20th of January was set as inauguration day. Not
only that, noon on that day was set as the exact start time of the term. The
amendment is clear: at noon on the 20th, the incoming president’s term begins.
The president is still required to take the oath of office to perform the
duties of the presidency, but regardless of when that oath is taken, at noon,
the president-elect is officially the president. Franklin Roosevelt’s second
term was the first to begin on January 20th, cutting his first term short by
six weeks.

The only time we need to worry about the exact time a President’s term
begins today is if the term begins as the result of a death. However, we now
have a fall-back for this situation, too. In 1967, the 25th Amendment was passed that specifically states
that when a President dies or is otherwise removed from office, the Vice
President becomes President. This is the same sort of cut-off as “noon on
January 20” is. The transition is seamless – the new President must take the
Oath of Office before he can act as President, but even before the oath is
given, he (or she) is the President.

The following is a list of the dates each President was sworn in. It is
excerpted from The Constitutional Timeline. Added
to this list is the day. Notes follow the list.

Thu 1789/04/30 George Washington
Mon 1793/03/04 George Washington
Sat 1797/03/04 John Adams
Wed 1801/03/04 Thomas Jefferson
Mon 1805/03/04 Thomas Jefferson
Sat 1809/03/04 James Madison
Thu 1813/03/04 James Madison
Tue 1817/03/04 James Monroe
Mon 1821/03/05 James Monroe (Note 1)
Fri 1825/03/04 John Quincy Adams
Wed 1829/03/04 Andrew Jackson
Mon 1833/03/04 Andrew Jackson
Sat 1837/03/04 Martin Van Buren
Thu 1841/03/04 William Harrison
Sun 1841/04/04 John Tyler (following death of Harrison)
Tue 1845/03/04 James Polk
Mon 1849/03/05 Zachary Taylor (Note 2)
Tue 1850/07/09 Millard Fillmore (following death of Taylor)
Fri 1853/03/04 Franklin Pierce
Wed 1857/03/04 James Buchanan
Mon 1861/03/04 Abraham Lincoln
Sat 1865/03/04 Abraham Lincoln
Sat 1865/04/15 Andrew Johnson (following death of Lincoln)
Thu 1869/03/04 Ulysses Grant
Tue 1873/03/04 Ulysses Grant
Sat 1877/03/03 Rutherford Hayes (Note 3)
Fri 1881/03/04 James Garfield
Mon 1881/09/19 Chester Arthur (following death of Garfield)
Wed 1885/03/04 Grover Cleveland
Mon 1889/03/04 Benjamin Harrison
Sat 1893/03/04 Grover Cleveland
Thu 1897/03/04 William McKinley
Mon 1901/03/04 William McKinley
Sat 1901/09/14 Theodore Roosevelt (following death of McKinley)
Sat 1905/03/04 Theodore Roosevelt
Thu 1909/03/04 William Taft
Tue 1913/03/04 Woodrow Wilson
Sun 1917/03/04 Woodrow Wilson (Note 4)
Fri 1921/03/04 Warren Harding
Thu 1923/08/02 Calvin Coolidge (following death of Harding)
Wed 1925/03/04 Calvin Coolidge
Mon 1929/03/04 Herbert Hoover
Sat 1933/03/04 Franklin Roosevelt
Wed 1937/01/20 Franklin Roosevelt
Mon 1941/01/20 Franklin Roosevelt
Sat 1945/01/20 Franklin Roosevelt
Thu 1945/04/12 Harry Truman (following death of Roosevelt)
Thu 1949/01/20 Harry Truman
Tue 1953/01/20 Dwight Eisenhower
Sun 1957/01/21 Dwight Eisenhower (Note 5)
Fri 1961/01/20 John Kennedy
Fri 1963/11/22 Lyndon Johnson (following death of Kennedy)
Wed 1965/01/20 Lyndon Johnson
Mon 1969/01/20 Richard Nixon
Sat 1973/01/20 Richard Nixon
Fri 1974/08/09 Gerald Ford (following resignation of Nixon)
Thu 1977/01/20 James Carter
Tue 1981/01/20 Ronald Reagan
Sun 1985/01/20 Ronald Reagan (Note 6)
Fri 1989/01/20 George H. W. Bush
Wed 1993/01/20 William Clinton
Mon 1997/01/20 William Clinton
Sat 2001/01/20 George W. Bush
Thu 2005/01/20 George W. Bush