Few people believed that President Harry S. Truman had a chance of winning the 1948 presidential election. The three great national polling organizations all predicted that Governor Thomas E. Dewey of New York, his Republican opponent, would win by a wide margin. The press was equally certain of a Dewey victory, for the odds against the incumbent seemed insurmountable. Truman's own party had split, with Democrat Strom Thurmond running in the South as a 'Dixiecrat' and former vice president Henry Wallace running as the candidate of the newly formed Progressive Party. It was expected that Wallace would drain vitally needed liberal votes away from the president. Among Democratic politicians and his own campaign staff, it seemed that the only person who thought Truman could win was the candidate himself.
Of course, there were many who wondered how Harry Truman had ever made it into the White House in the first place. The son of a Missouri mule-trader-turned-farmer, Truman differed markedly from his predecessor, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Truman, who had served as a captain of artillery in World War I, was a failed businessman whose haberdashery in Kansas City had closed during a recession in 1922. While overseas, however, Truman had met Jim Pendergast, whose family was a Democratic political dynasty in Kansas City. With the support of less-than-reputable political boss Tom Pendergast, Truman was elected eastern judge of Jackson County and then, in 1934, United States Senator. Though Truman himself was a person of impeccable personal honesty and political integrity, many in Washington looked down on him as 'the Senator from Pendergast.' Only during his second term in the Senate, when he headed a committee investigating the national defense program, did he gain a reputation for hard work and diligence and the respect of his fellow senators.
In 1944, Franklin Roosevelt picked Truman as his running mate to replace Vice President Henry Wallace, whose extreme liberal views were far out of alignment which those of Democratic party leaders. When Roosevelt died on April 12, 1945, Truman became president. It was not a job he had ever aspired to, and he confided to his diary and in letters to his family his doubts about his abilities.
By 1948, however, Harry Truman had grown with the job and was determined to seek a full term in his own right. He also sought vindication for the rebuff his party had suffered at the polls in the 1946 congressional elections, when the Republicans gained an overwhelming majority in both the House and the Senate.
The Republicans had selected Truman's opponent, Thomas Dewey, in June on the third ballot at their convention at Philadelphia's Convention Hall. For his running mate, Dewey picked California governor Earl Warren. Roosevelt had defeated Dewey in 1944, but Truman's hopes looked slim. 'Barring a political miracle, it was the kind of ticket that could not fail to sweep the Republican Party back into power,' Time magazine proclaimed.
The Democratic convention opened on July 12 in the same Philadelphia hall the Republicans had used, but the mood in the building had darkened. The decorative flags and bunting had not been changed and now looked bedraggled and shop-worn. The Associated Press noted that 'The Democrats act as though they have accepted an invitation to a funeral.' Until a few days before the convention there had been an active movement to deny the nomination to Truman. A diverse group of party leaders, headed by James Roosevelt, son of the former president, had pushed hard for General Dwight Eisenhower. The Eisenhower boom ended only when the general stated unequivocally that he would not accept the nomination if it was offered.
The Democrats were further fractured when a coalition of liberals led by Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota inserted a strong civil rights plank, modeled after Truman's own proposals to Congress, in the platform. Delegates from the conservative South, intent on maintaining segregation there, were adamantly opposed to the plank. Before the nominating process even began, Alabama's Handy Ellis announced that his state's presidential electors were 'never to cast a vote for Harry Truman, and never to cast their vote for any candidate with a civil rights program such as adopted by the convention.' Half of the Alabama delegation and the entire Mississippi contingent walked out. Two days later, disaffected southern Democrats met in Birmingham, Alabama, to nominate Governor Strom Thurmond of South Carolina for president. The new party officially called itself the States' Rights Democrats; the press dubbed them 'Dixiecrats,' and the name stuck. The 'Solid South'–a traditional Democratic stronghold–seemed lost to Truman. Meanwhile, on July 27, the Progressive Party nominated Henry Wallace for president.Truman, who picked Senator Alben Barkley of Kentucky as his running mate, was undeterred by the defections from his party. For his convention acceptance speech, the president used only an outline written in short, punchy sentences. He electrified the audience when he said, 'Senator Barkley and I will win this election and make the Republicans like it–don't you forget it.' It was the first time during the convention that anyone had spoken of actually winning. Truman then praised the higher wages, higher farm income, and greater benefits for Americans he claimed as Democratic accomplishments, and went on to condemn the Republican Congress. He spoke with scorn of the recently adopted Republican platform, contrasting the programs it contained with congressional inaction on similar programs he had proposed.
Truman roused the convention to a standing ovation when he announced his intention to call Congress back into special session to 'ask them to pass the laws to halt rising prices, to meet the housing crisis–which they say they are for in their platform.' When this special session did convene it accomplished little, as Truman expected, but it gave the president a campaign issue. The country's woes, he asserted, were the result of the 'do-nothing' Republican Congress.
This article was written by Michael D. Haydock and originally published in the December 2000 issue of American History Magazine. For more great articles, subscribe to American History magazine today!