December 1939 marked an unusual moment in American politics. Although a raging world war consumed the European continent and the distant perimeter of the Pacific, the United States remained two years away from entry into the conflict. Instead, the domestic political landscape focused upon the approaching 1940 presidential election and what it portended for the future of the New Deal economic program.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the incumbent president, was approaching the end of his second term. While no formal mechanism prohibited him from seeking reelection, a longstanding convention dating to the presidency of George Washington had thus far dissuaded any president from seeking an extension of his term beyond the associated 8-year limit. A presumptive successor to Roosevelt for the Democratic nomination also waited in the wings, his own Vice President John Nance Garner.
“Cactus Jack” Garner, as he was known from an old campaign trail nickname, led the early polls among Democratic voters. Although he backed most of Roosevelt’s legislative agenda over the previous 8 years, including playing an important bridge-building role as presiding officer of the Senate during the New Deal legislative battles, he also hailed from a more fiscally conservative wing of the party that worried about the long-term strains of deficit spending and that exhibited reservations about executive overreach, exemplified in his break with FDR over the failed court-packing scheme of 1937.
After months of speculation and favorable poll numbers, Cactus Jack broke his silence on December 17, 1939 with the announcement that he would “accept the nomination for president” in 1940. The news practically elevated Garner to presumptive nominee, with no other clear contenders in the field. No contenders, that is, except for Roosevelt himself, who was quietly preparing to break with Washington’s convention and seek an unprecedented third term.
As Garner mapped out his campaign, he turned to counting the prospective electoral votes in a November contest against the Republicans. The Texan expected to retain the Democratic strongholds of the “solid south” and aimed to continue the sweep of the western states that propelled his previous ticket into office in 1932 and 1936. The Republicans’ best chances of an electoral upset relied on reconstituting its pre-Depression bases in the population-heavy regions of the Northeast and Midwest, much of which would depend on who they selected as their own nominee in the coming months.
Although his motives were likely more opportunistic than principled, Garner recognized a potential wedge issue that would help to secure an untapped voting block for the Democratic campaign: African-Americans in northeastern and midwestern states, who faced comparatively fewer encroachments on their right to vote than in the southern states of the Jim Crow era. Hoping to secure this voting bloc for his own presidential ambitions, Garner began circulating rumors in January 1940 that he would use his position as presiding officer of the Senate to secure a federal anti-lynching law.
The rumor signaled a reversal by Garner, who previously opposed such legislation and played a role in allowing a similar bill to die under a southern Democratic filibuster in 1937. His announcement was therefore more a matter of worldly politicking than virtue, though it nonetheless offered a chance to break a longstanding deadlock that had impeded such legislation for more than two decades.