The cartography, writing, and ramblings of one crazy winter lover who likes to blog about the fun and inconsequential.

1948 Presidential Election


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"My friends, to those who say that we are rushing this issue of civil rights, I say to them we are 172 years late. To those who say that this civil-rights program is an infringement on states’ rights, I say this: The time has arrived in America for the Democratic Party to get out of the shadow of states' rights and to walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights. People -- human beings -- this is the issue of the 20th century. People of all kinds -- all sorts of people -- and these people are looking to America for leadership, and they’re looking to America for precept and example." - Hubert Humphrey, July 14, 1948

The Heartland. Over a million square miles of rolling hills, windswept plains, and sleepy suburban towns snaking their way to glowing urban centers. Mythologized in American culture: from Fly-Over Country to Middle America, the qualities projected on the vast land between the oceans reflect as much on those doing the projecting as the land itself. And once, there was a man who made that land believe in him and won another four years in the White House off of them.

How does one describe Harry S. Truman? He, like yours truly, made his way in this world without a college degree. He worked odd jobs and slept in hobo camps before later becoming an artillery officer in the First World War, a judge, and from that a Senator from Missouri. He had only met FDR twice before Roosevelt died in office and he was tasked with helping end the largest war in human history. A man whose only war experience was as an artillery lieutenant and with no formal education had to choose whether to use atomic weapons on two cities in Japan. I don't know if he made the right decision. I don't know. I wasn't there, I don't know everything, and I don't imagine he did either. He may have been, in fact, the closest a normal person's got to the Presidency in recent history, and did so right as the Cold War kicked off. The most normal President in modern history given choices about spying on American citizens, the blockade of Berlin, and how to make a policy around the use of nuclear weapons. Hell.

Then came the 1948 Presidential Election. Thomas Dewey, who had run against Franklin Roosevelt in 1944 and given him a run for his money even for a popular President in wartime, was the Republican nominee and polls looked grim for Truman. Republicans had taken back Congress in 1946 for the first time since the Great Depression started, and Republicans in Congress were giving Harry a hard time. Truman's approval rating hit 36 percent and he got the nomination only because General Eisenhower refused to take it, and then came the Democratic National Convention.

There, a tepid pro-civil rights plank became a more fiery acceptance of civil rights thanks to then-Minneapolis Mayor Hubert Humphrey, whose headlining speech adorns this page. Truman backed the rhetoric and attacked Republicans on cutting services, welfare, unions, and for being a "Do Nothing Congress". Cheers erupted at the convention hall for the most part, while southern delegates from Mississippi and Alabama walked out in protest. Not long after, coupled with Truman integrating the armed forces and the federal agencies, South Carolina Governor Strom Thurmond announced he'd run a campaign to the right of President Truman in the Democratic Party, calling it a campaign for States' Rights, while of course focusing mostly on the right of states to refuse civil rights reforms and keep their precious segregation and bigotry. Not to be outdone, former Vice President Henry Wallace re-formed the Progressive Party to run to Truman's left on social and labor issues. Truman's poor handling of the mass strikes of 1946 in particular was a prime example of where Wallace wanted to hit him, traveling around the country preaching a more radical vision of politics.

So that's when Harry started the famous tour that likely helped save his Presidency. He took a train around the country, several thousand miles, and began holding campaign stops in every little town in the country. Most of these folks had never seen the President before; just heard him on the radio or read about him in the newspaper. Truman understood that. He understood that being able to face these people in person and deliver his message right to them from the back of a train car, he could win them over; maybe not all of them, but enough to matter. He talked to farmers, miners, laborers, and all the everyday people from coast to coast. 

Dewey was no slouch either, traveling around the country himself to make big speeches, but where Truman's crowds got more enthusiastic with cries of "Give 'em hell, Harry!", Dewey's got weaker. No matter the polls or the pundits, the outcome could be felt in the air. A good politician knows it, too. The way the country moves and people feel, the way the faces will look back at you and voices lift you up. You all know the famous newspaper declaring Dewey the preemptive winner, but it's hard not to believe that those truly connected to the campaigns didn't have an inkling of what was to come beforehand.

In the end, Harry Truman united a strange coalition Democrats have not seen since. While Republicans under Dewey returned to their strengths in the Northeast, winning New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and so forth, Harry Truman swept much of America's Heartland, from Appalachia to the Mountain West. He is one of only two Democratic Presidents to ever win without both Pennsylvania and New York, and the only one to do it without the entire south backing him, as four states cast their votes for Strom Thurmond instead. To boot, Congress swung back for Democrats as well on Truman's coattails as 75 seats in the House of Representatives flipped in favor of his party and sent many new Republicans packing. It was a greater victory than the party could have hoped for, and set the one on coalitions and civil rights for the next half-century to come.

Harry S. Truman wasn't a perfect man. I'm sure there are those reading this who don't believe he was a good man, to put it mildly. This essay is not a judgement of his moral character, but rather a simple recounting of an election unique in the 20th century, about a surprisingly ordinary man in an extraordinary office who managed to win it in a very unusual way. A Kansas City lawyer took an era and Presidency turned against him and won Flyover Country, Middle America, and Small Town USA in a way that a Democrat has not been done since, and I think that's worth a mention.

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