Philadelphia Politics and the Presidential Campaign of 1932

Reception to President Hoover-Reyburn Plaza, October 31, 1932 (PhillyHistory,org)
Reception for President Herbert Hoover at Reyburn Plaza, October 31, 1932 (PhillyHistory,org)

Herbert Hoover wasn’t in Philadelphia long during his campaign swing for re-election in October 1932, and he didn’t have much to say. In fact, Hoover’s entire visit lasted only 30 minutes. Still, Philadelphians turned out in a major way for the Republican incumbent—an estimated 30,000—“the biggest assemblage massed in the central city district in years” reported The New York Times.

Proof positive that “William S. Vare, the…still powerful leader of the Philadelphia Republican organization, really had determined…to send his machine all the way down for the President.”

“It was Mr. Vare’s show,” wrote The Times. “His political henchmen were there in person and had enough support to throng Reyburn and City Hall Plazas and nearby streets.” The crowd cheered Vare when he rose to introduce the President. Then “boos” echoed across the plazas as Hoover rose to speak and continued throughout his very brief remarks. (Hoover “took no notice” of the “boos” and the next morning they were explained away as the handiwork of Communists.)

He looked over the crowd, paused, and then took a few moments to praise William Penn, the Liberty Bell, and “the greatness of this city and of this Commonwealth”—anything to avoid acknowledging the fact that the Great Depression had left at least one in four Philadelphians unemployed. Anything to keep from reminding the crowd that only two months earlier, police attacked 1,500 jobless “hunger marchers” in an incident come to be known as the “Battle of Reyburn Plaza.”

The President turned away from the podium and with his entourage walked back to Broad Street Station to take a train to New York City were a crowd at Madison Square Garden—only 21,000 this time—heard Hoover’s major speech. This was no ordinary presidential campaign, he said. Americans were in the midst of “a contest between two philosophies of Government.” Hoover’s opponent, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was “appealing to the people in their fear and their distress…proposing changes and so-called new deals which would destroy the very foundations of the American system of life.”

“We are told that we must have a change, that we must have a new deal.” But this, Hoover declared, would “alter the whole foundations of our national life;” it would undo “generations of testing and struggle.” This new deal, he stressed, would rock “the principles upon which we have made this Nation.”

Roosevelt would be risky. “Be safe with Hoover,” implored the campaign slogan.

Meanwhile, Roosevelt’s “brain trust” crafted a campaign strategy around not committing “any gaffes that might take the public’s attention away from Hoover’s inadequacies and the nation’s troubles.”

Three years into the Great Depression, Hoover was deeply unpopular, even in Philadelphia, with 553,435 voters registered Republicans and 85,236 Democrats. By summer, Roosevelt had developed a strong lead in the polls. But by late October, that lead had shrunk and Hoover had a narrow chance of winning Pennsylvania, If only he could dominate in its most populous city.

That’s where Vare came in. Come election day, only 39% of the nation’s voters got behind Hoover; Roosevelt won by a landslide with 57%. His command of electoral votes was even more stunning: 472 to 59. Roosevelt carried 42 states, earning 206 more than the 266 electoral votes needed to win. But he didn’t carry the Keystone State. Of Hoover’s 59 electoral votes, 36 were from Pennsylvania.

Thanks to the Vare machine.

By the time of Roosevelt’s inauguration day in early March 1933, more than 9,000 American banks had failed, industrial production had been cut in half and at something like 13 million wage earners were without jobs –more than 280,000 in Philadelphia.

What could the freshly minted president possibly say?

“This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

Now that would be a speech worth getting out for.

[Sources: Lawrence Davies, “Vare Gears Machine To Win Philadelphia,The New York Times, November 6, 1932;  “Reds Blamed for Boos At Philadelphia,” Associated Press, Philadelphia October 31, 1932;  “Great Depression,The Encyclopedia of Greater PhiladelphiaUnited States Presidential Election of 1932, The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica; The American Presidency Project, Papers of Herbert Hoover; Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s First Inaugural Address, March 3, 1933.]