Democrats Unite Behind Alcohol, Waver on Roosevelt

Republicans departing their convention in June 1932 left their mark on Chicago, just as the Democrats were arriving.

Civic leaders had spent $150,000 to host the Republican convention, anticipating its 10,000 visitors would keep cash registers clanging. No such luck. Most enterprises wound up “singing the blues,” as shopkeepers’ convention income proved negligible, the New York Times reported.

“Even hotel bellboys complained of restraint in tips.”

And just as the Democrats rolled into town for their convention, a dozen Prohibition agents raided the Swedish Club -- which for 70 years had been “the decorous rendezvous for visiting members of Congress” -- and confiscated $50,000 worth of liquor. None of the members or guests was arrested, but Democratic wets had been warned.

As the convention began, supporters of Franklin D. Roosevelt considered the New York governor’s nomination inevitable. But two other candidates -- former New York Governor Al Smith and Texas Congressman John Nance Garner -- held trump cards.

True, Roosevelt had the most pledged delegates, 485, and claimed 103 undecided, for 51 percent of the 1,154 delegates. Yet this majority was almost worthless because a nominee needed two-thirds of the votes. Hundreds of delegates were pledged to support “native sons” from Virginia, Maryland, Illinois and Missouri, and Smith’s forces were laboring to deny Roosevelt support from the New York contingent.

The effort to prevent Roosevelt from winning the nomination lost momentum when appeals of contested delegations from Louisiana and Minnesota went to floor votes. In both cases, Roosevelt won, gaining 32 total delegates.

The next night, Smith spoke for repealing Prohibition. He had listened on the radio to the Republican debate on the issue a week earlier, where he said the sentiment of “popular resentment sweeping all over the country and demanding the repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment” was strong.

But the Republican delegates couldn’t take an aggressive stance against Prohibition because eastern Republicans widely rejected its repeal. Democrats were not so limited. Smith called for them to adopt a “radical wet plank,” and they did.

Then the convention turned to picking a candidate. Ten men received nominations, six of them current or former governors. On the first roll call, Roosevelt scored 666 votes, Smith 201 and Garner 90. On the second vote, little changed except for Oklahoma replacing Governor William “Alfalfa Bill” Murray with Will Rogers. On the third vote, Roosevelt and Garner gained a few votes and Smith lost 11.

That evening’s adjournment brought fears of repeating the party’s 1924 stalemate, when Democrats took 17 days and 103 contentious roll calls to nominate a candidate, John Davis, who was then defeated by Republican Calvin Coolidge in a landslide. But those fears soon faded. Texan Sam Rayburn, Garner’s campaign manager, realized his candidate was an unlikely winner and overnight offered 90 delegates to Roosevelt.

The next day, on the fourth ballot, Roosevelt tallied 945 votes, with only the Smith forces holding out to the bitter end. Smith’s antagonism remained, not least because Roosevelt backed continuing investigations into New York City political corruption, in which Smith was implicated.

Setting that hostility aside, “everything points to the presidential campaign turning on the repeal of the 18th Amendment,” the Economist wrote, and turning out well for the Democrats.

(Philip Scranton is a Board of Governors professor of the History of Industry and Technology at the University of Rutgers at Camden and the editor-in-chief of Enterprise and Society. He writes "This Week in the Great Depression" for the Echoes blog. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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