On June 27, 1936, Franklin Delano Roosevelt delivered a speech at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia accepting his party’s nomination for the presidency. The 1936 election was critical for FDR – it was not enough to win re-election, he was also determined to use the campaign and his personal popularity to strengthen the Democratic Party. As Miller Center Democracy and Governance Studies Director Sidney M. Milkis has documented in his book, The President and the Parties, while FDR sought to effect structural changes within the Democratic Party, he also used the 1936 re-election campaign to define a new understanding of government.
Perhaps the most important organizational achievement within the party was the abolition of the two-thirds rule, which was adopted in 1932 and required the support of two-thirds of the convention delegates in order to be nominated as a Democratic presidential or vice presidential candidate. The rule originated in the South to protect its interests from Democratic candidates unsympathetic to its problems. While the Roosevelt administration sought to assure party regulars publicly, FDR closely directed DNC Chairman James Farley to work behind the scenes to change the nomination rules. The efforts centered on encouraging state parties to pass resolutions against the two-thirds rule and stacking the membership of the rules committee, which would report the recommendation to the Philadelphia convention.
FDR’s acceptance speech at the 1936 Democratic National Convention captured the essence of the New Deal creed, which Roosevelt had first articulated in the Commonwealth Club address in September 1932. Progressive reform constituted a redefinition of the foundation of American politics and pronounced a new understanding of individualism that conceived of the state as the guarantor of programmatic rights. In his acceptance speech, FDR took a stand against economic despotism and reaffirmed the need for a new definition of the social contract within a changing social order:
The brave and clear platform adopted by this Convention, to which I heartily subscribe, sets forth that Government in a modern civilization has certain inescapable obligations to its citizens, among which are protection of the family and the home, the establishment of a democracy of opportunity, and aid to those overtaken by disaster.
In addition to reaffirming the New Deal manifesto, Roosevelt’s Philadelphia convention speech also intended to rouse New Deal supporters for a militant partisan campaign. FDR sought to curb the most abusive practices of business by ameliorating conditions of economic inequality:
Today we stand committed to the proposition that freedom is no half-and-half affair. If the average citizen is guaranteed equal opportunity in the polling place, he must have equal opportunity in the market place…
An old English judge once said: "Necessitous men are not free men." Liberty requires opportunity to make a living-a living decent according to the standard of the time, a living which gives man not only enough to live by, but something to live for.
Roosevelt castigated his business critics referring to them in his speech as “economic royalists who complain that we seek to overthrow the institutions of America.” He told the convention that “privileged princes of these new economic dynasties” had used their political and legal privileges to create a new form of despotism. FDR pronounced that, “as a result the average man once more confronts the problem that faced the Minute Man”:
Against economic tyranny such as this, the American citizen could appeal only to the organized power of Government… The royalists of the economic order have conceded that political freedom was the business of the Government, but they have maintained that economic slavery was nobody's business. They granted that the Government could protect the citizen in his right to vote, but they denied that the Government could do anything to protect the citizen in his right to work and his right to live.
With the Philadelphia convention address, Roosevelt thus set out a campaign to reaffirm the social contract and enlisted New Deal supporters in a war upon entrenched privilege. And, as Milkis writes, “More important, FDR provided a means for partisan identification with the New Deal based on a powerful and enduring understanding of rights.” Felix Frankfurter wrote to Roosevelt that the speech had “given us something not only to win with, but to win for.” Roosevelt won sixty percent of the popular vote – the largest plurality ever by a presidential candidate – and carried all but two states in 1936 election, providing confirmation of his leadership and the New Deal program. The Democratic Party also strengthened its hold on both chambers of Congress, marking the emergence of a new majority party. However, the Roosevelt administration and the New Deal coalition would face struggles after 1937 that would cast doubt on the viability of the Democratic Party as a vehicle of progressive reform and would make party politics less important.
For further details on the transformation of the Democratic Party, see especially chapter three of Sidney M. Milkis, The President and the Parties: The Transformation of the American Party System since the New Deal.