The Oglethorpe commencement speech was Roosevelt’s last major policy statement before the Democratic National Convention. He and his politically savvy staff had been preparing for this occasion for many months, and he approached the convention with a lead in delegates, though not the two-thirds majority he would need to win the nomination.
The Republicans preceded the Democrats to Chicago. On June 16, they nominated Hoover, as expected, in a convention noted primarily for what it lacked: debate, new ideas, and any sense of optimism. He made no acceptance speech to the delegates. According to a tradition followed by both parties, the nominee-designate would wait to accept the nomination until he was formally notified of it, a span of several weeks; no candidate of either party had ever accepted at the convention itself. The Democrats who arrived on June 27 and filled the tiers of Chicago Stadium were a different crowd, boisterous and sanguine, younger, freer-spending. The change in tone prompted Anne O’Hare McCormick of the New York Times to write, “To the Republicans politics is a business, while to the Democrats it’s a pleasure.”
Roosevelt’s operatives would have called it not a pleasure but very hard work. His longtime aide Louis McHenry Howe plotted strategy behind the scenes even when laid low by asthma and bronchitis, and two New York Irishmen, big, bald James Farley and suave Edward J. Flynn, worked the delegates. Roosevelt had about 551 votes, 200 short of nomination, and there were powerful forces aligned against him. House Speaker John Nance Garner, “Cactus Jack” from Uvalde, Texas, was also seeking the nomination, and he was backed by newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst. Backing Smith was Raskob, who in addition to being a financier was chairman of the Democratic National Committee. The shift of a single state’s delegates could produce an avalanche of defections, so Flynn and Farley’s task was to keep delegations pledged to Roosevelt on board while convincing others to shift in his direction. The job required a poker face, a steady hand, and a horse trader’s sense of possibilities.
Smith continued denouncing Roosevelt, but he could not dent the front-runner’s delegate count. Indeed, Roosevelt added to it. The first vote, completed at six-thirty the morning of July 1 after an all-night session, left him just a hundred votes short of nomination. Then his momentum stalled and a compromise candidate seemed likely to emerge. However, nobody wanted a repeat of the 1924 convention, which had cast an astonishing 103 ballots before it decided on John W. Davis as the nominee. The break came when Garner signaled his willingness to join Roosevelt on the ticket as the vice presidential candidate. This moved the Texas delegation to Roosevelt and brought Hearst and California with it. The logjam was broken, and Roosevelt was nominated on the fourth ballot with only Smith’s delegates refusing to support him. Smith himself left the convention bitter and angry as word circulated that Roosevelt would break with tradition and come to Chicago to personally accept the nomination.
Roosevelt boarded a Ford Trimotor airplane the next morning, July 2, for the flight from Albany to Chicago. It was a rough flight that required two refueling stops, and he arrived two hours late. But this did not faze the delegates. Excited by the unprecedented appearance of their nominee, they were poised to respond, and the instant Roosevelt took the stage, a red rose in the lapel of his navy suit, they leaped to their feet in a thunderous standing ovation. As Arthur Krock of the New York Times wrote, “The great hall seemed to surge upward.”
Roosevelt immediately expanded on the theme of change. The “unprecedented and unusual times” demanded unprecedented acts, he said. “Let it from now on be the task of our party to break foolish traditions. We will break foolish traditions and leave it to the Republican leadership…'to break promises.”
He quickly turned to the depression and renewed his populist campaign themes. “There are two ways of viewing the government’s duty,” he said. “The first sees to it that a favored few are helped and hopes that some of their prosperity will leak through, sift through, to labor, to the farmer, to the small business man. That theory belongs to the party of Toryism, and I had hoped that most of the Tories left this country in 1776.”
The Democrats, by contrast, “must be a party of liberal thought, of planned action, of enlightened international outlook, and of the greatest good to the greatest number of citizens.”
He recounted the events of the depression: the piling up of surpluses that had flooded markets without reducing prices, the flow of profits into excess plant capacity and stock speculation, the crash, the plant shutdowns, the loss of jobs and purchasing power, the bank failures and contraction of credit, the inexorable rise of unemployment. To produce change, the top and the bottom of the economic pyramid had to be treated together. “Statesmanship and vision,” he said, “require relief to all at the same time.”
Roosevelt called for emergency public works to provide jobs. He had said early in his campaign for the nomination that such a plan was a “stopgap,” and he gave no specifics other than the reforestation of millions of acres of marginal and unused land, which he said would employ a million men. He also called for an end to Prohibition and to tariffs that had choked world trade, but it was to the theme of jobs that he returned. “What do the people of America want more than anything else?” he asked the delegates packing the convention floor and the galleries above. “To my mind, they want two things: work, with all the moral and spiritual values that go with it, and with work, a reasonable measure of security—security for themselves and for their wives and children. Work and security—these are more than words. They are more than facts. They are the…'true goal to which our efforts at reconstruction should lead.”
He blamed the Republicans for clinging to “sacred, inviolable, unchangeable” economic laws while “men and women are starving.” They gave the people no hope. He would give them hope again, he said, his confident voice ringing through the hall as he uttered one more phrase for the ages: “I pledge you, I pledge myself, to a new deal for the American people…. This is more than a political campaign. It is a call to arms. Give me your help, not to win votes alone, but to win in this crusade to restore America to its own people.”
The delegates drowned Chicago Stadium in their applause. They shouted and cheered, jumped on chairs and wept, and from beneath the din rose the notes of the organ sounding yet another note of hope, the Roosevelt campaign song: “Happy Days Are Here Again.”