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The 20th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution

I had an interesting query a few months ago from a patron about a proposed constitutional amendment which the patron believed President Lincoln had signed.  This was unusual in itself since Article V of the U.S. Constitution does not require presidents to sign constitutional amendments passed by Congress.  The key to this query was the date on which the  Constitutional amendment had been signed by the President.  Research revealed that the Corwin amendment was signed on March 2, 1861 when President Buchanan was still in office.  Until the ratification of the Twentieth Amendment in 1933, presidential terms began on March 4 and not January 20th.  Likewise this amendment reset the date of a new Congress.

Presidential terms and new congressional sessions did not originally coincide with the beginning of the calendar year.  From 1789 throughout the 19th and first third of the 20th centuries, presidents were inaugurated on March 4 which was also the date on which a new Congress commenced.   Initially, in September 1788 the Continental Congress had set the date for the first Congress under the newly adopted Constitution for ” that the first Wednesday in March next to be the time … for commencing proceedings under the Constitution” which happened to be March 4, 1789.  Then in 1792, Congress passed a law, (ch. 8, 1 Stat. 239 (1792)), firmly setting the presidential and vice-presidential terms to begin, and end, on March 4 as well.  However, by 1932 the five month lag between elections and the start of a Congressional session and presidential term was problematic.  As the  Senate Judiciary Committee report on the Twentieth Amendment noted in 1789, modes of travel and methods of communication in the country were limited and time consuming.  The time it took before the results of an election might be known could take months.  However due to modern methods of communication and transportation, by 1933 the results of elections were known within hours and the lengthy delay between election and new government was more likely to raise problems than solve them.  With the enactment of the Twentieth Amendment, the 74th Congress began January 4, 1935 while President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s second inauguration took place on January 20, 1937. 

Composite image of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first and second inaugurations

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