This Day in Indiana History - August 17, 1940 - Wendell Willkie Accepted The Republican Presidential Nomination At Elwood
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Successful lawyer and businessman Wendell Wilkie received the Republican nomination for President in 1940. He went on to a sound electoral defeat, even though his 22,000,000 votes were more than previous Republican candidates received were.
Wendell Wilkie (February 18, 1892 – October 8, 1944)
Wilkie was the son of Herman and Henrietta (Trisch) Wilkie of Elwood, Indiana. Henrietta and Herman were both lawyers, with Henrietta being one of the first women lawyers in Indiana. Wilkie's first name was Lewis; however, he always went by his middle name, Wendell.
Wilkie attended Culver Military Academy after his parents enrolled him there. Wilkie had shown a rebellious streak and walked with a stoop. His parents hoped Culver would eliminate both. He excelled at the Military School and went on to Indiana University where he continued to excel. He almost did not receive his diploma after giving a speech critical of IU during his commencement speech in front of the Indiana State Supreme Court in attendance in 1916. The University did grant the diploma.
After graduation, he joined his parent’s law firm. When World War I broke out, he enlisted in the United States Army. The Army installed him in artillery school and he did not reach the front until late in 1918. He saw no action and was discharged in 1919.
Before enlisting in the military, he had married Rushville librarian Edith Wilk. After his discharge, he considered a run for Congress but was dissuaded because at that time he was a Democrat and would be running in a Republican district. His mother convinced him to enter business, so he applied to Firestone Tire and Rubber Company in Akron, Ohio in the legal office. He got the job, but soon grew bored and joined an Akron law firm. He gained a reputation as a great trial lawyer and representative in cases involving public utilities. New York-based Commonwealth & Southern Corporation offered him a job in 1929, which he took and moved to New York. He rose quickly in that position and became president of that company in 1934. As president of Commonwealth & Southern, he began tangling with newly elected Franklin Roosevelt over the Tennessee Valley Authority's role in building dams and generating electricity. Their ensuing legal battle consumed several years and one meeting between Wilkie and Roosevelt. Commonwealth & Southern eventually lost the lawsuit and was forced to sell some of its assets to the Federal Government, but Wilkie drove a hard bargain for the purchase. The resulting publicity for him was favorable.
Wilkie had been an active Democrat for most of his life. His activism even led to his introduction of Democratic presidential nominee, Ohio Governor James M. Cox to an Akron campaign event in 1920. He had been active in the 1932 Democratic convention, becoming a delegate for Roosevelt's biggest rival for the nomination, Newton D. Baker. During 1938 and 1939, talk circulated of a Wilkie run for the Presidency. Most felt that Roosevelt would still run, but his popularity was lagging. On the eve of the 1940, election unemployment was still over 15% and the economy still not improved after eight years of Roosevelt's New Deal programs. War loomed on the horizon, as Adolph Hitler was on the move in Europe and the Japanese active in the Pacific. Wilkie had entertained visions of the Presidency. But he knew if Roosevelt decided to run for an unprecedented third term, he would win the nomination. Convinced that Roosevelt was anti-business and knowing his road to the Presidency was through the Republican Party, he quietly switched party affiliation in late 1939.
Dark Horse Candidate
Wilkie did not enter any primaries. The primaries at this time did not elect delegates; they merely served as what were called "beauty contests" to establish a candidate’s level of support. The real work of nominating was done at the convention. The Republican convention was in Philadelphia. Wilkie arrived with great fanfare in June and took rooms at the Benjamin Franklin Hotel. It was from there that he ran his campaign. After a good deal of political backroom deals, Wilkie emerged the nominee on the sixth ballot. Wilkie had gone from successful lawyer, businessman and Democratic activist to becoming the Republican nominee for President of the United States in 1940.
Wilkie had wanted the campaign to be about the economy, which was still faltering despite eight years of Roosevelt’s policies. Roosevelt wanted the campaign to be about the emerging conflict in Europe. Roosevelt had supported policies that lent aid to Great Britain in its battle against the Nazis. Wilkie had initially supported those efforts, which had contributed to his gaining the Republican nomination. The majority of Republicans during this time were isolationists, in direct contravention to his stance. When his campaign began faltering late in 1940, he switched to a more isolationist stance, to appeal to the majority of Republicans. He promised to keep the nation out of war, stating that Roosevelt would enter the war. Roosevelt countered when Wilkie's campaign started gaining more support. On election eve, national polls showed Wilkie with a four-point deficit, but gaining. However, Roosevelt went on to win 449 electoral votes to Wilkie's 82. The popular vote had been closer, 27,000,000 to 22,000,000.
Wilkie contacted with a gracious concession speech that led Roosevelt to say, "I'm happy I've won, but I'm sorry Wendell lost." Wilkie soon threw his war support behind Roosevelt and became instrumental in much of the war effort. He planned a visit to Britain and visited with Roosevelt just prior to his inauguration speech. During the meeting, Roosevelt asked him to be his unofficial representative to the British. His work to aid Roosevelt in the war effort led to trips to Ireland as well. On his return, he testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in favor of Roosevelt's Lend-Lease policy. He also led an effort to repeal the Neutrality Act passed in the 1930's. His support was so much needed by Roosevelt that he sought to include him in his administration. However, Wilkie wanted to maintain his independence and declined. He did consider a run again in 1944, but pulled out after a bad showing in early primaries. He died in 1944 of heart problems.
This article excerpted from the author’s book:
Exploring Indiana's Historic Sites, Markers & Museums - East Central Edition
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