OTD in History… July 18, 1940, Democrats nominate Franklin D. Roosevelt for a record third term as president
By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS
On this day in history July 18, 1940, the Democratic Party nominates President Franklin Delano Roosevelt for a record third term as president, making Roosevelt the first president to go beyond President George Washington’s precedent of only two-terms for a president. With the world plunged into another world war in Europe and Nazi German gaining and the Fall of France, Roosevelt decided he would run again and break the long-held unwritten rule. Roosevelt, however, looked to be drafted to the Democratic nomination, to make it appear as he was doing a duty and not ambitiously pursuing a third term.
Throughout the primaries, Roosevelt remained evasiveness as to whether he would run for an unprecedented third term. He ignored reporters’ questions and political endorsements. His name was placed on several ballots and beat his leading opponent, Vice President John Nance Garner in the primaries. Despite Roosevelt’s pre-convention statement that he had “no desire or purpose to continue in the office,” orchestrated support capitulated Roosevelt to the nomination for an unprecedented 3rd time. Harry Hopkins was in charge of the Roosevelt “draft” at the Democratic National Convention, in Chicago, Illinois, where he maintained direct contact with the president at the White House. Thomas F. Garry, the city’s Superintendent of Sewers was placed in front of a microphone in a room under the auditorium and ready to scream pro Roosevelt chants to drum up support for the draft movement.
Kentucky Senator Alben Barkley, the permanent chairman’s gave his speech on the second day, when he mentioned Roosevelt, Chicago Mayor Ed Kelly gave the sign to Garry to commence. He yelled, “We want Roosevelt! The world wants Roosevelt!” and other pro-Roosevelt slogans over the speech’s remaining 22 minutes. After his speech, Barkley announced the President’s decision on the nomination: “The President has never had and has not today any desire or purpose to continue in the office of the President, to be a candidate for that office, or to be nominated by the convention for that office. He wishes in all earnestness and sincerity to make it clear that all delegates to this convention are free to vote for any candidate. This is the message I bear to you from the President of the United States.”
The majority of delegates, 86 percent then nominated Roosevelt for a third term on the first ballot, however, not by acclamation, which was Roosevelt’s desire. Roosevelt did not accept the nomination in person this time; instead, he delivered a radio address. He stated he did not want to run again, but the world war called for personal sacrifice. Roosevelt expressed, “These plans, like so many other plans, had been made in a world which now seems as distant as another planet… Those, my friends, are the reasons why I have had to admit to myself, and now to state to you, that my conscience will not let me turn my back upon a call to service. The right to make that call rests with the people through the American method of a free election. Only the people themselves can draft a President. If such a draft should be made upon me, I say to you, in the utmost simplicity, I will, with God’s help, continue to serve with the best of my ability and with the fullness of my strength.”
Historian Richard Moe argues in his book Roosevelt’s Second Act: The Election of 1940 and the Politics of War, “There has been an inclination by many to conclude that the decision was inevitable, that he had decided long before July 1940 to break the two-term tradition established by Washington and Jefferson and regarded as inviolable for a century and a half. Several presidents, among them FDR’s boyhood hero and distant cousin Theodore, had tried to breach the tradition, but none had succeeded. There was nothing inevitable about Franklin Roosevelt’s decision. He made it as he made all of his major decisions — virtually alone and not before the last possible moment, which is to say not until he had to.” (Moe, xiv)
Roosevelt would go on to win the election in a decisive victory against Republican Wendell Willkie, becoming the first president elected to a third term. In 1944, with World War II still in the balance, and American involvement, Roosevelt again ran for his fourth and last term, winning against New York governor Thomas Dewey. Roosevelt made history but early in his fourth term on he died April 12, 1945. Vice President Harry S. Truman took over. Republicans in Congress made sure no president would ever run for more than two terms passing the 22nd Amendment to the U.S. Constitution on March 21, 1947, and ratified in 1951.
SOURCES AND READ MORE
Boller, Paul F. Presidential Campaigns: From George Washington to George W. Bush. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2004.
Jeffries, John W. A Third Term for FDR The Election of 1940. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2017.
Moe, Richard. Roosevelt’s Second Act: The Election of 1940 and the Politics of War. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.
Bonnie K. Goodman has a BA and MLIS from McGill University and has done graduate work in religion at Concordia University. She is a journalist, librarian, historian & editor, and a former Features Editor at the History News Network & reporter at Examiner.com where she covered politics, universities, religion and news. She has a dozen years experience in education & political journalism.