No One Expected Roosevelt's Revolution

Our whole class voted for Hoover

On election day in November of 1932 the students in my high school homeroom were polled by our teacher on who we thought would be elected president. It was, as I recall, a nearly unanimous vote: Herbert Hoover would be reelected.

Well, as you will not be surprised to learn, Mr. Hoover's opponent - a fellow named Franklin D. Roosevelt - won that year and won big.

The people in my hometown of Urbana, Ill., had always voted Republican since Abraham Lincoln and the beginning of the GOP. We had heard no pro-Roosevelt talk by our parents. Thus we kids thought this automatic backing of a Republican presidential candidate would happen again.

But my friends and neighbors were hurting badly from the deepening Great Depression. Many were out of work. Many had lost all they had saved in failing banks. They, like people all over the United States, were suffering. So, while they were still "talking" Republican and giving the impression to their youngsters that they would vote Republican - they didn't.

At the polls they somehow put aside their strong feelings about Democrats - based mainly on anti-South attitudes going back to the Civil War - and quietly voted for Roosevelt. As one of those defectors in recent years explained his vote to me:

"I really didn't vote for Roosevelt. I was crying for help. Hoover wasn't getting us out of this hole. I was simply turning to Roosevelt in desperation."

It was this desperation from people all around the United States that shaped the Roosevelt landslide. Most of the voters didn't know much about FDR. They may have had a glimpse of him on a newsreel. And they may have read that he was a former New York governor and someone who had helped run the Navy in World War I. But to most Americans he was an unknown quantity.

Even those who might be called "informed" voters - those who had made an effort to follow what Roosevelt was saying during the campaign - didn't find any indication that he intended to put the federal government to work to solve our pressing problems. Indeed, Roosevelt gave no hint that he would become a daring creator of a New Deal. To the Republicans who tiptoed over and voted for the Democratic candidate, Roosevelt sounded very much like a conservative. And he looked like one: a man of wealth and privilege. Also he bore a revered Republican name.

On the day following the devastating defeat of the Republicans in 1932, I was walking along Main Street in Urbana and met up with the Republican County chairman. He was very downcast; but when I spoke to him, he looked up and said, "Congratulations."

This remark was meant for my father who, as the GOP candidate for county surveyor, had been one of two survivors in our county of the Democratic landslide. Dad had squeaked by with a dozen-vote victory edge. I've since written of this as the time my dad "beat" Roosevelt.

BUT I remember the chairman's sad demeanor for another reason: It was such a contrast to the hope I was hearing from just about everyone else in the days that followed. Republicans were joining Democrats in looking toward their new leader to lift them out of their troubles. This smiling, jaunty new president had, from the start, roused a depressed people - at least a little but visible bit - out of their despondency.

I remembered a few years later, when FDR was well into what some historians have described as his "peaceful revolution," that one of my high school teachers - I think it was my civics teacher - had predicted right after that 1932 election that Roosevelt would "try some new things." He didn't say what they would be and couldn't possibly envision the exciting days of government innovation that lay ahead. But I've often thought of how right he was!

As visitors stream in to view the new Franklin D. Roosevelt memorial, I think back on that time when that largely unknown fellow took over the reins of a troubled nation.

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