Sixty-two years ago today, President Franklin D. Roosevelt accepted the Democratic Party’s nomination for the presidency, officially breaking the two-term precedent George Washington had set. In his speech to the delegates on July 19, 1940, Roosevelt’s reasoning for seeking and accepting the position was, not “the call of Party” alone, but the need for continuity in foreign and defense policy given the circumstances in Europe and Asia and the threats they posed to security of the United States. Roosevelt told the delegates:
Like most men of my age, I had made plans for myself, plans for a private life of my own choice and for my own satisfaction, a life of that kind to begin in January, 1941. These plans, like so many other plans, had been made in a world, which now seems as distant as another planet. Today all private plans, all private lives, have been in a sense repealed by an overriding public danger. In the face of that public danger all those who can be of service to the Republic have no choice but to offer themselves for service in those capacities for which they may be fitted.
Indeed, the critical situation in foreign affairs played an important role in Roosevelt’s ability to control the 1940 convention. Following his failed attempt to purge anti-New Deal Democrats in the 1938 mid-term election campaign, Congress passed the 1939 Hatch Act, which barred federal employees from participating in campaigns. The Roosevelt administration had been making use of federal workers in local and state political activity, including in some of the 1938 purge campaigns. These workers were part of a New Deal organization that operated independent of the Democratic Party machinery. The New York Times reported on August 6, 1939 that the Hatch Act was a “direct outgrowth of strong arm federal politics, of partisan use of the money appropriated and the powers delegated to the executive by Congress…it was the child of ‘the purge’.”
Although Roosevelt had faced a “no third term” movement for the nomination from critics within his own party in the aftermath of the failed purge, the president carefully maneuvered to broaden his coalition in the 1940 campaign. This effort centered especially on building broad support for his internationalist and interventionist foreign policies. The president also strategically brought prominent Republican internationalists into his fold. Most deftly, following the 1940 presidential campaign, Roosevelt tapped Wendell Wilkie, the recently defeated Republican presidential candidate, to serve as the president’s personal emissary to Winston Churchill. Earlier in 1940, the president appointed Frank Knox, the Republican vice presidential nominee in 1936, to his cabinet and drafted Henry Stimson, also a Republican leader, to serve as his new Secretary of War. The reconstruction of his coalitional base of support was indeed another way in which Roosevelt sought to transcend partisan politics.