While reviewing some photographs for the new Project CHART website I came across this photograph of Brooklynites at the Republican National Convention in 1948. The most enduring image from this election shows Truman holding a newspaper that announces, erroneously, “Dewey Defeats Truman.” But I had never given much thought to events in the election prior to that misstep. One of the things that interested me specifically about the picture below was that these people were clearly campaigning for Governor Dewey--the convention did not begin with a presumptive nominee as it does today.
Brooklyn Eagle, June 24, 1948
These days it is very rare to see more than one candidate speak at a party’s convention, but in 1948 the Republican Convention was still very much up in the air and debates were an important part of the process. There were three serious candidates for the Republican nomination at the start of the convention in Philadelphia: Robert Taft, Harold Stassen, and Thomas Dewey, but many others were given opportunities to participate in debates. The Brooklyn Eagle even included a score sheet the week of the election so that readers could keep up with how many delegates each state won, and how their favorite candidates were doing after each vote.
Brooklynites were particularly charged in this election since Thomas E. Dewey was the governor of New York State at the time and the Brooklyn Republican Party had played a large role in getting Dewey elected in 1946. Brooklyn Republicans were also a powerful force in the national party. Brooklyn had eighteen delegates, which was more than twice as many as several states. Also, unlike many other counties, King’s County Republicans were united for Dewey, who in his days as a Federal Special Prosecutor had successfully incarcerated mobsters such as Dutch Schultz and Lucky Luciano. The Brooklyn Eagle anticipated the power of Brooklyn’s presence at the convention: “Their voting strength on the convention floor will be the largest single unit in New York State’s 97-man delegation. It is expected that it will lead the floor enthusiasm for Governor Dewey.”
When the Kings County delegation arrived on June 21st 1948, they carried the Dewey banner. Whether by accident or design the Brooklyn Delegation set up their headquarters in the Benjamin Franklin Hotel which was also the headquarters for Dewey’s biggest rival, Senator Taft. Kings County Republican Leader John R. Crews said “We are not concerned that this is Taft’s headquarters, we’re for Dewey and everybody knows it.”
Brooklyn Eagle, June 21, 1948
Crews may not have been concerned that they were stationed in Taft’s headquarters, but Taft should have been. On June 22nd, two members of Brooklyn’s delegation crashed an early morning speech Taft was giving to a breakfast group. They quickly began distributing printed copies of the Kings County Republican News which was filled with Dewey photographs and pro-Dewey headlines. They were quickly ejected from the meeting by hotel cops, but that didn’t stop them from distributing 5000 copies of their newspaper around the convention.
Brooklyn Eagle, June 22, 1948
Dewey did end up winning the Republican nomination after three rounds of voting, and most experts agree the King’s County delegates had a lot to do with it.
Not everyone in Kings County was a Republican though. The Democrats had a much smaller convention in Philadelphia due to Truman being the incumbent and presumed nominee. Brooklyn still managed to have a large presence there as well, showing that not everyone in the county supported their governor or the Republican Party. The delegates even carried signs with the lofty message “Brooklyn to be the all Democratic Boro.”
Brooklyn Eagle, July 12, 1948
Both Truman and Dewey were moderate, which created a very tight political race, and rifts in both political parties. The Democratic Party was so divided that it broke into three separate factions. Because of the Democratic split, top Republican officials believed that all Dewey had to do to win was avoid major mistakes. Dewey took that advice to heart and spoke only in platitudes, avoided controversial issues and stayed very vague about what he planned to do in office. Truman spent a great deal of his campaign ridiculing Dewey and the Republican controlled Congress without response. When he called Congress a “Do Nothing Congress” Dewey opted not to respond again, which drew great criticism and further alienated him from his party. Senator Robert Taft, his former opponent, fought back against these comments while pushing a very conservative agenda for the party. It’s difficult to say how Taft would have campaigned if he had been the nominee, but it would have been difficult for him to take a less aggressive approach than Dewey did.
Despite being the front runner in all the polls up to the election, and winning both Kings County and the State of New York, Dewey lost the national election to Truman by a large margin. While it is difficult to know how much influence those Brooklyn Delegates had, or what would have happened in a general election between Robert Taft and Truman, Brooklyn’s powerful presence at the convention certainly made its mark.
Amanda Cowell, CHART Project Coordinator.