History at Penn: FDR Accepts 1936 Democratic Re-nomination at Franklin Field

“Philadelphia is a good city in which to write American history,” Franklin D. Roosevelt said as he accepted the Democratic Party’s presidential re-nomination at Franklin Field 80 years ago.

Some of that more-recent history is being written this week as the Democrats meet in Philadelphia to become the first major party to nominate a woman for the presidency. 

At the time of the 1936 Democratic gathering, Franklin Field was located a very short distance from the now-gone Convention Center, where the party nominated FDR for a second term.   

But, as early as March of that year, organizers at the Democratic National Committee knew that, if Roosevelt decided to deliver an open-to-the-public speech accepting the party’s re-nomination, they were going to need a substantially larger venue, according to documents preserved by the University Archives and Records Center

That’s when Oliver Quale, Jr. the executive assistant to the secretary of the DNC, reached out to George A. Brakeley, the administrative vice president at Penn, to inquire about the availability of Franklin Field and make arrangements, including setting up additional seating on the field. 

Despite the sporadic summer rain the night of June 27, 1936, Franklin Field was filled with more than 100,000 people, and thousands more waited outside. 

Dani Holtz, a Ph.D. candidate at Penn who specializes in American political history, says that, of the various reports from FDR’s acceptance speech, Si Sheppard’s The Buying of the Presidency: Franklin D. Roosevelt, the New Deal, and the Election of 1936, provides the most vivid descriptions of that evening. 

“Sharpshooters were visible in the French windows of Weightman Hall,” next door to the Field, Sheppard noted. 

Roosevelt came to Philadelphia by train and the crowd waited well into the evening.

Just after 9:30 p.m., attendees heard “Your president has arrived,” and an orchestra played “Hail to the Chief.” But what they didn’t see behind the scenes, was that Roosevelt had taken a tumble, and the pages of his remarks flew in all directions. 

He managed to deliver a memorable speech that touched on efforts to achieve economic recovery, the importance of common sense, freedom, fair wages for workers, persistent economic inequality and conquering fear. 

Roosevelt also noted the innovative technology of the time, such as railroads, steam, electricity, mass production, the telegraph and the radio and how these things bring the nation toward a new civilization. 

“Clouds of suspicion, tides of ill-will and intolerance gather darkly in many places. In our own land, we enjoy indeed a fullness of life greater than that of most nations,” Roosevelt said. “But the rush of modern civilization itself has raised for us new difficulties, new problems which must be solved if we are to preserve to the United States the political and the economic freedom for which Washington and Jefferson planned and fought.” 

Roosevelt later added, “There is a mysterious cycle in human events. To some generations much is given. Of other generations much is expected. This generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny." 

Holtz adds that the “rendezvous with destiny” is a now-famous phrase that’s been much repeated. 

“In his speech at Franklin Field, Roosevelt used the ‘rendezvous with destiny’ line that Ronald Reagan would later lift and popularize on his own,” Holtz explains. 

She adds that before Roosevelt left Penn’s campus, he drove a victory lap around Franklin Field’s horse-shoe track. 

“Escorted by a squadron of mounted troopers, Roosevelt … rode through a snowstorm of torn-up paper fluttering down from the stands to an intense and sustained ovation,” Sheppard wrote. 

All of that torn-up paper has a place in Penn’s history, according to the University Archives and Records Center. 

Through letters preserved at the Center, researchers and budding historians would see that Penn billed the Democratic National Committee for the expenses it incurred relating to Roosevelt’s acceptance speech. 

While a specific amount was not cited in the documents, the bill did include the extra time spent by employees before and during the event, as well as the massive clean-up and repair of the Field itself. 

“The loose paper and debris were ankle deep all over the place,” Brakeley wrote in a preserved document.

“It was a wonderful event” and “a truly significant moment” in Penn’s history, Mark Frazier Lloyd, the director of the Archives, says. 

National Democratic conventions also took place in Philadelphia in 1948 and 1952. 

National Republican conventions were held here in 1856, 1872, 1900, 1940, 1948 and 2000.

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