A Precedent-Breaking Inauguration

On January 20, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt made history by being the first President to be inaugurated for a third term.

Franklin D. Roosevelt at his third inauguration, January 20, 1941. (Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library & Museum)

The previous year, Roosevelt had been elected President for the third time, and the inauguration marked the start of his third term in office. No other President in American history had been elected more than twice.

Around noon, on a sunny, yet chilly, day in Washington, Chief Justice of the United States Charles E. Hughes administered the oath of office on the East Portico of the U.S. Capitol.

Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Third Inaugural Address, January 20, 1941. (Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library & Museum)

Then Roosevelt delivered his third inaugural address.

At the time, Nazi Germany was taking over Europe, and Imperial Japan was sweeping through the South Pacific. It appeared as if fascism was triumphing over democracy.

The future of democracy was in grave question.

In Roosevelt’s speech, he addressed that dire prediction and said democracy is not dying. He looked back at our charter documents to remind the nation of the roots of our democracy—the Bill of Rights as “inviolate,” and how democracy’s “vitality was written into our own Mayflower Compact, into the Declaration of Independence, into the Constitution of the United States, into the Gettysburg Address.”

Near the conclusion, he quoted George Washington in our nation’s first ever inaugural address, “The preservation of the sacred fire of liberty and the destiny of the republican model of government are justly considered. . . deeply, . . . finally, staked on the experiment intrusted to the hands of the American people.”

Aerial photograph of Franklin Roosevelt’s third inauguration, January 20, 1941. (National Archives Identifier 12010955)

After the address, the President and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt were driven past thousands of cheering supporters lined up along the parade route on Constitution and Pennsylvania avenues to the White House.

In 1945, Roosevelt again made history by being sworn-in for a fourth term, but because the country was in the middle of World War II, it was in a simple ceremony at the White House with no parade.

Unless we amend the Constitution, Franklin D. Roosevelt will remain the only President to serve more than two terms—the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1951, limits Presidents to two terms in office.

You can listen to Roosevelt’s third inaugural address on the FDR Library’s website.

Visit our website to learn more about the National Archives inauguration-related events and activities.

And check out our past Pieces of History posts on Presidential Inaugurations.

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