The Good Luck Charm: Franklin D. Roosevelt and the 1920 Democratic National Convention

by Kevin Thomas, Special Events Coordinator

Franklin D. Roosevelt and James Cox in Dayton, Ohio campaigning for Vice-President and President respectively.

August 9, 1920. The lawn of Springwood was choked by the crowd. Nearly five thousand had gathered to witness the moment – when the young Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Franklin D. Roosevelt, addressed them as the Vice Presidential Candidate for the Democratic Party. He had been nominated over a month earlier, at the party’s convention.

Roosevelt stood on the steps of his Hyde Park, New York home, and addressed the crowd. He challenged the notion that Americans had lost interest in reform or the world beyond the oceans that protected them. He warned the nation against rejecting the League of Nations, thus endangering the hard won peace. With family and friends gathered around him, he encouraged Americans not to return to the state of mind from before the war [World War One] – instead he declared the nation “must go forward or flounder.”

Americanism – Recording made under the heading of “Nation’s Forum” by Columbia Phonograph Co. Franklin D. Roosevelt delivers excerpts from his Vice-Presidential acceptance Speech, given at Hyde Park, NY, August 9, 1920. (4 min.)

This past Sunday, June 28, marked the start of the centennial of the 1920 Democratic National Convention that nominated Roosevelt as its Vice Presidential Candidate. Held in San Francisco, California, it was a significant convention for several reasons. It was the first time a major political party in the country chose to hold its convention west of Rocky Mountains. It was the first time the Democratic Party was without a major front-runner entering the convention in many years. In fact, the party seemed to be without a leader at all, with the ailing incumbent President Woodrow Wilson, remaining out of the public eye. The convention would also be the first time future President Franklin D. Roosevelt would appear on a national ticket.

The convention was particularly significant for women, as 1920 would be the first year women would be able to vote in the Presidential race nationwide. The 19th Amendment would be ratified later that summer, making this possible.

As the convention convened, twenty-four candidates received votes on the first roll call. No one received the necessary 729 votes for nomination. As each new ballot was called, four front runners began to emerge: Former Treasury Secretary William Gibbs McAdoo (son-in-law to President Woodrow Wilson), Incumbent Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, New York Governor Alfred E. Smith, and Ohio Governor James M. Cox. President Wilson chose not to endorse a candidate – it is believed he may have coveted the nomination himself. After the 44th ballot, Governor Cox was assured of victory, and a motion was made and adopted to declare him the nominee unanimously.

Cox and the party’s leaders convened to select a running mate. Cox wanted Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Assistant Secretary of the Navy. He believed the Roosevelt name was charmed, and would provide the boost needed for an uphill battle against the favored Republican ticket of U.S. Senator Warren G. Harding of Ohio, and his running mate Governor Calvin Coolidge, of Massachusetts. Roosevelt was 38 years old, and considered very young for the Vice Presidency. Roosevelt was selected, and his nomination was made in acclamation on the convention floor.

Cox & Roosevelt Campaign Button, 1920

The general election for President that fall turned out to be a landslide victory for the Republicans Harding and Coolidge.

While the 1920 Democratic Convention is not remembered for producing a successful candidate that year, it did help to launch Franklin D. Roosevelt as a national campaigner.

Roosevelt campaigned very hard that fall, traversing the country, gaining national attention, and vital experience, which would aid him in the years ahead. That campaign season also provided Roosevelt with another important outcome – a loyal and dedicated group of friends and staffers.

Several weeks after the election, in December 1920, FDR met with these men to say thank you, and presented each with a set of gold cuff links, engraved with his initials, “FDR,” and the initials of the recipient.

Later known as the “Cuff Link Gang,” they would support Roosevelt in different roles, but primarily in friendship, through many years of trials, such as his battle with Polio, and in emerging as a presidential candidate in his own right a decade later. The Cuff Link Gang would make a point to meet each year around the time of FDR’s birthday, January 30, to reminisce over a private dinner and to play cards. Often their gathering would carry a theme, such as in 1934, which poked fun of critics who labeled FDR a “Caesar.” The theme for that year’s gathering was a Roman toga party, complete with Roosevelt as Emperor. By this time, the club had expanded to accommodate new friends and staff, including several women, as well as Eleanor Roosevelt and some of her friends.

While the 1920 Democratic National Convention holds significance for Franklin D. Roosevelt – the convention was also significant for another, perhaps less remembered reason – it was the first time that a major political party in the United States placed a woman in nomination for President. Laura Clay and Cora Wilson Stewart, both Kentucky delegates, were placed in nomination, and each received votes, also a first.

Eleanor Roosevelt, Louis Howe, and Stanley Presinol during the 1920 campaign.