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On this day: FDR breaks precedent with his third term

On this day (Nov. 5) in 1940, Franklin Delano Roosevelt won an unprecedented third term as president with an impressive 54.72 percent of the popular vote to Republican candidate Wendell Willkie’s 44.77 percent.

The Electoral College vote was even more impressive with the Democratic Roosevelt-Wallace ticket garnering 449 votes out of the 531cast (84.6 percent) to the Republican Willkie-Charles McNary ticket’s 82 (15.4 percent).

The outcome was not as one-sided as FDR’s 1936 second term election in which he received 60.8 percent of the popular vote and an overwhelming 98.5 percent of the electoral vote, or his almost as one-sided 1932 election over the somewhat undeservedly discredited Herbert Hoover, in which the victorious New York governor received more than 57 percent of the popular votes cast and 88.9 percent of the electoral votes. But the 1940 presidential election represented widespread, general national approval of most of Roosevelt’s innovative New Deal policies and after the outbreak of World War II on Sept. 1, 1939, his war preparedness policies.

However, with the breaking of the two-term policy first observed by George Washington, Roosevelt incurred the wrath of many who resented what they felt were his “socialistic tendencies” (i.e., the New Deal) and his executive “high-handedness.”

Many Americans especially opposed his 1937 “court-packing” scheme and his 1938 attempted, but unsuccessful, purge of several conservative Southern Democratic senators (mostly notable Walter George of Georgia and Millard Tydings of Maryland).

Also, the sitting chief executive was blamed, by some, for what has been called the “Roosevelt recession of 1937-1938,” an economic downturn caused in part by FDR pursuing, somewhat surprisingly and unexpectedly, conservative budget-balancing policies to counter what has been described as a mild business recession.

However, FDR recovered much popular approval when he asked Congress for a huge relief and public works appropriation that, when overwhelmingly passed, along with increased military and naval spending, brought a measure of economic stability and prosperity. However, this resumption of “pump-priming” policies brought about a growing split within the Democratic Party between conservatives, mostly Southerners, who favored an end to New Deal reforms, and liberals who supported a continuation of the innovative but increasingly controversial relief and reform policies of the so-called first New Deal (1932-1935).

The political split within the Democratic Party was much in evidence at the party’s 1940 National Convention held in Chicago. The fight was over the vice-presidential nomination.

Conservatives wanted to renominate John Nance Garner, who had served two terms as vice president and up to 1937 had been a loyal FDR supporter. However, he opposed FDR’s “court-packing” scheme and a possible third term and therefore became persona non grata with the president and the party’s liberals. The liberals were able to secure the vice presidential nomination for leftist-leaning Henry A. Wallace.

FDR’s third term (1941 to 1945) was his most noteworthy. Under his leadership, the U.S. became a mighty economic and military power. His legacy is that of a practical, but not always successful, domestic reformer and that of a leader, along with Joseph Stalin and Winston Churchill, who led the Allied coalition that decisively defeated Nazi Germany and imperialistic Japan.

• Crystal Lake resident Joseph C. Morton is professor emeritus at Northeastern Illinois University and author of “The American Revolution” and “Shapers of the Great Debate at the Constitutional Convention of 1787.” Email him at

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