Rachel Barnhart next to the granite block memorial for FDR across from the former Convention Hall (Geva Theatre) where Roosevelt spoke on September 23rd, 1920 from Rachel’s Rebel Roots
In keeping with our Presidential visits to Rochester series, on September 23rd, 1920, Democratic Vice Presidential candidate Franklin Delano Roosevelt spoke at the Convention Hall (now Geva Theatre) and later dined at the Rochester Country Club (now the Country Club of Rochester).
As reported by Jim Memmott, Franklin Delano Roosevelt visited Rochester as President and presidential candidate on many occasions. But his 1920 campaign stop is often overlooked, briefly noted in a story on the Convention Hall. Roosevelt’s first official Rochester address was in 1919 before the state convention of the American Legion when serving as Assistant Secretary of the Navy under Woodrow Wilson (October 10, 1919 Speech)
In 1920, Roosevelt was James C. Cox’s running mate against Republicans Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge. Harding and Coolidge won handily, carrying Monroe County with over 60% of the vote. When Roosevelt spoke at the Convention Hall, he must have known defeat was likely.
Roosevelt would run and win for the presidency 4 times. Only FDR and Richard Nixon ran for national office 5 times, Nixon in ’52, ’56, ’60, ’68 and ’72. George H.W. Bush ran 4 times (1980 – 92). Grover Cleveland (1884 – 92) and William Jennings Bryan (1896, ’00 and ’08) were nominated by the Democratic Party three times each.
The most significant features of the election of 1920 were (1) the first national election after the 19th Amendment had established women’s suffrage and (2) the debate whether the United States should join the League of Nations.
As for the election itself, Cox and Roosevelt ran as the heirs to Woodrow Wilson (who, though ailing, had harbored hopes for a third term renomination ). But the nation had wearied of Wilson’s progressivism and idealistic internationalism, and turned to the Republican Harding. The closest parallel election is 1948 when Truman ran as Roosevelt’s heir. Unlike Roosevelt himself in 1920, Truman prevailed over Dewey.
As for women’s suffrage, the election of 1916 is generally seen as the first election when the women’s vote was substantial, playing a significant role in Wilson’s victory. Following passage of the 19th Amendment, in 1920, 26.8 million women women voted (up from 18.5 million in 1916). Exact numbers don’t exist but the women’s vote in 1920 probably mirrored Harding’s 60% – 34% margin.
The debate over the U.S. joining the League of Nations was a central campaign issue. Formed in conjunction with the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, the League was meant to ensure that World War I was to be — in Wilson’s words — the War to End All Wars. But despite Wilson’s herculean efforts, the U.S. Senate never ratified the Treaty of Versailles. As a further blow to Wilson’s internationalist policies, on March 19, 1920, the Senate’s also rejected the League of Nations treaty.
Thus, the election of 1920 became a last-ditch effort by the Democrats to bring about the Senate’s reconsideration. A Cox/Roosevelt victory would have no doubt forced a Senate re-vote. For League proponents, the summer and fall of 1920 was now or never.
As the Democratic vice presidential nominee in 1920, Franklin Roosevelt made more than eight hundred speeches in support of the League of Nations. But in contrast to Wilson, who had emphasized the idealism of the League idea, Roosevelt argued for it in terms of “practical necessity.” He told audiences at campaign rallies that if the United States did not join the League, it “would degenerate into a new Holy Alliance” dominated by the European states.
But the Democrats lost and joining the League was never again seriously considered.
Today, superseded by the United Nations in 1946, the League of Nations feels like a historical relic.
Should the United States have joined the League of Nations? is still an exam topic students in A.P. American History classes research on the internet, master and then promptly forget. Alternative History sites do answer queries like, “What would have happened if the U.S. had joined the League of Nation like Woodrow Wilson wanted to?” Although the jury is still out, most answers say U.S. participation in the League would not have prevented the Second World War.
Today, when the League of Nations is invoked, the thwarted enterprise is cast as another failure of globalism or another example of the impossibility of pacificism in a world of realpolitik.
In other parts of the world, the legacy of the League is not a historical relic. From the perspective of the middle east, debates about the League of Nations are not about isolationism or pacifism, but about colonialism and its enduring consequences. After the Ottoman Empire collapsed, under its Mandate Policy, the League granted the British control of Palestine and Mesopotamia (later known as Iraq) and the French control of Syria (later divided into Lebanon and Syria).
From the perspective of the Middle Eastern scholar Imane Drissi El-Bouzaidi, the Mandate system was mainly an extension of centuries of Euro-imperialism. Used as tool to pursue European interests, nationalism for France and capitalism for Britain, the Mandate system “masked colonial policy, violated the cultural and minority rights of people in the Mandates, and led to violent resistance which still persists in the region.” To see the legacy of the Mandate Policy, look no further than present day Baghdad or Damascus. And even how Clinton and Trump — as they massage their foreign policy messages — still face that “violent resistance” engendered by the League of Nations that the United States did not join.
Of course, it’s just a historian’s parlor game to speculate on what would have happened if Cox and Roosevelt had won in 1920 and the Senate had reconsidered and ratified the League of Nation’s treaty. Would Franco in Spain have faced the entire American army and not just the Lincoln Brigade? Could Hitler’s march into the Sudetenland have been forestalled? Or even Kristalnacht? Or could England have been prevented from launching the first strategic bombing campaign by the Royal Air Force during the Great Iraqi Revolt of 1920 – 22? Or would there have been no Battle of Maysaloun (1920) when the French Army — battled tested in the trenches of the Western Front only two years prior — defeated al-Azmeh’s outgunned Syrian forces in less than a day.
The other tantalizing historian’s parlor game question is: what would have happened to Roosevelt had he become Vice President in 1920? During the losing campaign, Roosevelt acquitted himself well, earning political capital in the Democratic Party that bolstered his presidential nomination 12 years later. Maybe a Cox/Roosevelt administration would have been a dismal failure in which Roosevelt would be another footnote in the less than momentous history of American vice presidents. And perhaps Roosevelt’s political career would have gone no further.
No four term FDR. No face on the dime. And Rachel not standing next to the granite block bearing his name
in Washington Square Park.
The Presidential Visits Series