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1940 Wendell Willkie Campaign Buttons
The 1940 election was the most challenging and divisive of FDR’s political career. The President’s decision to seek an unprecedented third term inflamed his opponents—and some former supporters—who charged he wanted to become a dictator. And his efforts to aid countries fighting the Axis Powers led to charges he would drag America into war.
These issues made the 1940 election a particularly colorful one for campaign memorabilia. FDR’s Republican opponent in 1940 was Wendell Willkie, a business leader with no experience in political office. Willkie and the Republicans focused considerable criticism on Roosevelt’s attempt to win a third term. While there was no constitutional barrier to a third term in 1940, no president had ever exceeded the two-term precedent established by George Washington. The fifteen Willkie campaign buttons seen above include many with a “third term” theme. There are also buttons aimed at Eleanor Roosevelt—reflecting the First Lady’s high profile in Washington.
Despite an often bruising campaign, Willkie and Roosevelt became allies after the election. A committed internationalist, Willkie supported FDR’s controversial efforts to aid the Allies and later traveled the globe on behalf of the President during World War II. He also worked with Eleanor as an advocate for human rights. Undeterred by this cordial relationship with the Roosevelts, Willkie ran a brief campaign in 1944, failing to obtain the Republican nomination. He died just a month before FDR was elected for a fourth term.
After President Roosevelt’s death in 1945, Republicans mounted a campaign to pass an amendment to the Constitution placing a cap on the number of terms a president could serve. The 22nd Amendment, limiting presidents to two terms, was ratified in 1951.
A key element of FDR’s economic revival plan during his First 100 Days in office was the National Industrial Recovery Administration (NRA).
The NRA sought to end cut-throat competition that was reducing wages and prices to disastrous levels. It encouraged businesses in hundreds of industries to create codes of “fair competition.” The codes set maximum hours and minimum wages, guaranteed union rights, and prohibited child labor. Companies adopting the codes were exempt from anti-trust laws.
Participating businesses proudly displayed the NRA’s blue eagle symbol—with the slogan “We Do Our Part”—on their products. At some companies employees and even customers wore NRA buttons, like the fifteen displayed above, to proclaim their participation in the program and show their support.
The NRA was also promoted in parades and rallies that became community events. These activities gave Americans a psychological lift, but the NRA proved ineffective. Its codes were unwieldy and, sometimes, ludicrous—including regulations for industries like shoulder pads, dog food, and burlesque theaters. Many codes favored larger businesses and encouraged monopolistic practices that hindered economic recovery. Few mourned when the NRA was declared unconstitutional in 1935.
Button Vest (MO 1973.44)
This unique vest is among the many unusual gifts admirers sent to President Roosevelt. Lined with brown silk faille, it is completely covered with buttons of all sizes, shapes, and colors. On the back, “FDR 1944” is formed in white buttons.
The donor of this singular piece, Luella Smith of Inglewood, California, was a descendent of the van Stoutenburg Family, which—like the Roosevelt family—settled in the Dutch Colony of New Amsterdam. In the letter below, Mrs. Smith claims to have “adopted” both Franklin and Eleanor, hinting at the history between the two families. When Roosevelt ancestors Claes Martenzen van Rosenvelt and Jannetje Thomas died, Pieter van Soutenburg adopted and raised the Rosenvelt children.