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The National Political Emergence of FDR

Written by Michael Burgess, former Director of the New York State Office for the Aging, and author of numerous books and articles on New York State History.

One hundred years ago in the summer of 1920 Franklin D. Roosevelt emerged on the national political stage when he became the Vice-Presidential nominee in San Francisco at the Democratic national convention on the ticket with Ohio Governor James Cox. Just a year earlier his cousin, the popular former President Theodore Roosevelt had died, and a new Roosevelt was an attractive electoral prospect to the Democratic Party. 1920 was an historic election as women voted for the first time following the official adoption of the 19th amendment to the Constitution on August 26, 1920.

Franklin Roosevelt was serving as the Assistant Secretary of the Navy and had been thinking of running for Governor or Senator from New York State. However, he had also tried to convince the respected Herbert Hoover who had led war relief efforts to run as a Democrat and perhaps Roosevelt would be his running mate. Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt met with Hoover in March 1920. Colonel Edward House, a top aide to President Woodrow Wilson, said: "It's a wonderful idea. A Hoover-Roosevelt ticket is probably the only chance the Democrats have in November." Hoover later announced though that he would seek the Republican nomination but he lost to Warren G. Harding who later appointed Hoover as Secretary of Commerce.

Roosevelt had only served briefly in public office when he came to Albany as a State Senator from Hyde Park in 1911. He was picked by President Wilson to be the Assistant Secretary of the Navy in March 1913, a post Theodore Roosevelt also had held in 1897-98. Franklin then failed to win the Democratic nomination to run for the United States Senate in 1914, the first election after the ratification of the 17th Amendment in April 1913 had approved the direct election of Senators rather than their selection by State Legislatures.

In 1920 the Wilson Administration was winding down with a sick president whose efforts were failing to gain Congressional passage of his proposal for a League of Nations in the aftermath of the end of World War I.  The country was looking for normalcy after the war which was followed by a pandemic and racial unrest. The Spanish Flu had besieged the world and the United States in 1918-1920. In July and August 1919 racial riots swept across Chicago and over twenty other cities as African Americans migrated north and veterans returned home to discrimination.  

As Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Franklin Roosevelt had toured Europe to inspect United States forces and the battlefields in the fall of 1918 as the war was drawing to a close.  He returned on a ship, the USS Leviathan, where the virus was rampant and he became one of hundreds who got the flu and double pneumonia.  

With the country looking for change, the Cox-Roosevelt ticket was easily defeated by Republican Warren G. Harding. Roosevelt had survived the Spanish flu but his political ascension would be bookended by another epidemic. In the summer of 1921, while enjoying time at the family home on Campobello Island, off the coast of Maine, he contracted polio which was killing thousands every year. Within days he was paralyzed in the lower half of his body.

He tried to remain involved in politics as he recuperated and gained back some of his strength.  He had already begun to assemble a talented team of political advisers led by Louis Howe, a journalist who became enamored with Roosevelt in his Albany years. Howe continued to plan for a future candidacy and believed Roosevelt would be President someday. Eleanor became more active in Democratic politics to represent her husband's interests. Franklin would be strong enough to re-appear at the 1924 Democratic national convention to place the name of New York Governor Al Smith in nomination for President. 

Polio continued to sideline Roosevelt himself though from being a candidate. It was not until 1928 when Smith was running unsuccessfully as the Democratic nominee for President that Roosevelt was prodded by Smith to run for Governor.  As Smith lost to Herbert Hoover, including defeat even in New York, Franklin Roosevelt squeaked by a small 26,000 vote margin to become the state's new Governor. After the start of the Great Depression, his bold action as Governor of the largest state in the country made him an instant favorite to run for President in 1932.