The 1940 Democratic National Convention was held at the Chicago Stadium in Chicago, Illinois from July 15 to July 18, 1940. The convention resulted in the nomination of President Franklin D. Roosevelt for an unprecedented third term. Secretary of Agriculture Henry A. Wallace from Iowa was nominated for Vice President.
Despite the unprecedented bid for a third term, Roosevelt was nominated on the first ballot. Roosevelt's most formidable challengers were his former campaign manager James Farley and his Vice President, John Nance Garner. Both had sought the nomination for the presidency and soundly lost to Roosevelt who would be "drafted" at the convention. Henry Wallace was Roosevelt's preferred choice for the Vice-Presidency. His candidacy was opposed vehemently by some delegates, particularly the conservative wing of the party which had been unenthusiastic about Wallace's liberal positions. Nonetheless, Wallace was ultimately nominated with the votes of 59% of the delegates.
Throughout the winter, spring, and summer of 1940 there was much speculation as to whether Roosevelt would break with long-standing tradition and run for an unprecedented third term. The "two-term" tradition, although not yet enshrined in the U.S. Constitution as the 22nd Amendment, had been established by President George Washington when he refused to run for a third term in 1796, and the tradition was further supported by Thomas Jefferson. Roosevelt, however, refused to give a definitive statement as to his willingness to be a candidate, even indicating to his old friend and political kingmaker James Farley that he would not be a candidate again and that he could seek the nomination; Farley thus began his campaign.
Roosevelt told others of his plans not to run, including Cordell Hull, Frances Perkins, and Daniel J. Tobin. His wife Eleanor was opposed to a third term. Perhaps the most definitive evidence of Roosevelt's intention to not run for a third term is that in January 1940 he signed a contract to write 26 articles a year for Collier's for three years after leaving the presidency in January 1941. However, as Nazi Germany defeated France and threatened Britain in the summer of 1940, Roosevelt decided that only he had the necessary experience and skills to see the nation safely through the Nazi threat. His belief that no other Democrat who would continue the New Deal could win was likely also a reason. He was aided by the party's political bosses, who feared that no Democrat except Roosevelt could defeat the charismatic Wendell Willkie, the Republican candidate.
By the convention Farley and Vice President John Nance Garner were declared candidates, and Paul McNutt was a possibility. Roosevelt still did not want to declare openly for re-nomination, so his backers arranged a stunt at the convention. Roosevelt dictated a message on the phone to Kentucky Senator Alben Barkley, which Barkley read out to the convention during the first day's proceedings. It concluded
The President has never had, and has not today, any desire or purpose to continue in the office of President, to be a candidate for that office, or to be nominated by the convention for that office. He wishes in earnestness and sincerity to make it clear that all of the delegates in this convention are free to vote for any candidate.
One biographer wrote that Barkley's message "can scarcely be said to have conveyed the whole or literal truth". When it ended, the convention sat in shocked silence for a moment. The silence was then broken by a voice thundering over the stadium loudspeakers: "We want Roosevelt! We want Roosevelt!" The voice was Thomas D. Garry, Superintendent of Chicago's Department of Sanitation (the sewers department), a trusted henchman of Chicago Mayor Ed Kelly. Garry was stationed in a basement room with a microphone, waiting for that moment. Kelly had posted hundreds of Chicago city workers and precinct captains around the hall; other Democratic bosses had brought followers from their home territories. All of them joined Garry's chant. Within a few seconds, hundreds of delegates joined in. Many poured into the aisles, carrying state delegation standards for impromptu demonstrations. Whenever the chant began to die down, state chairmen, who also had microphones connected to the speakers, added their own endorsements: "New Jersey wants Roosevelt! Arizona wants Roosevelt! Iowa wants Roosevelt!"
The effect of the "voice from the sewers" was overwhelming. The next day Roosevelt was nominated by an 86% majority.
Incumbent Vice President John Nance Garner opposed Roosevelt's re-election, so the party had to choose a new vice presidential nominee. Though national delegates usually played the dominant role in choosing running mate, Roosevelt decided that the choice of running mate should be his prerogative. Roosevelt asked Secretary of State Cordell Hull to serve as his running mate, but Hull preferred to remain in his Cabinet position. Roosevelt also strongly considered South Carolina Senator James F. Byrnes, but the president instead settled on Secretary of Agriculture Henry A. Wallace. Roosevelt chose Wallace because of Wallace's positions on the New Deal and aid to Britain, and because he hoped that Wallace would appeal to agricultural voters. Though many Democrats disliked being forced to select Roosevelt's running mate of choice, Wallace won the vice presidential nomination on the first ballot over Speaker of the United States House of Representatives William B. Bankhead. The Roosevelt-Wallace ticket defeated the Republican ticket to win the 1940 election. Wallace was successfully nominated after First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt flew to Chicago to campaign, and gave what came to be known as her "No Ordinary Time" speech. Wallace was replaced by Missouri Senator Harry Truman for Roosevelt's successful 1944 re-election bid, and Wallace later ran a third party campaign in 1948. Roosevelt's decision to select his own running mate set a powerful precedent, and presidential candidates after 1940 became much more influential in the choice of running mates. James Farley could not be on the ticket as Vice-President, because both he and Roosevelt were from New York State, and if they had run together, the electors of the State of New York, pursuant to the Twelfth Amendment to the Constitution, could not have voted for them both. Others considered were Kentucky Senator Alben Barkley, South Carolina Senator James F. Byrnes, Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, and Speaker of the House William B. Bankhead of Alabama.