Wellesley’s First Presidential Candidate

The following article appeared in the Wellesley Townsman on April 27, 2015.

The closest Roger W. Babson would ever get to the Oval Office: Babson (left) with Secretary of Labor William B. Wilson outside of the White House in 1919. During World War I, Babson (1875 – 1967) served as Director of the Information and Education Service of the United States Department of Labor, advising the federal government on how to improve labor shortages within businesses that lost workers to the armed forces.  Source: Library of Congress

The closest Roger W. Babson would ever get to the Oval Office: Babson (left) with Secretary of Labor William B. Wilson outside of the White House in 1919. During World War I, Babson (1875 – 1967) served as Director of the Information and Education Service of the United States Department of Labor, advising the federal government on how to improve labor shortages within businesses that lost workers to the armed forces.
Source: Library of Congress

Now that Hillary Clinton has announced her second candidacy for the Democratic nomination for President of the United States, our town will once again be thrust into the national spotlight. And for good reason. Some of her most formative years were spent here as an undergraduate at Wellesley College.

What won’t be mentioned — and why would it? — is that she isn’t our first presidential candidate. No, that honor would go to Roger Ward Babson, founder of both Babson’s Statistical Organization and the college that bears his name.

It was seventy-five years ago, in 1940, that Babson ran for President as the nominee of the Prohibition Party, a small but loyal coalition of voters who believed (among other things) that the prohibition of intoxicating beverages would solve many of the country’s problems. Needless to say, he lost. In fact, it wasn’t even close. Babson could only muster 57,903 votes nationwide, a tally that was orders of magnitude smaller than those of the two major party candidates, Democratic nominee and incumbent Franklin Delano Roosevelt (27.3 million) and Republican nominee Wendell Willkie (22.3 million). That said, Babson did finish in fourth place, with roughly half as many votes as the Socialist Party candidate and nearly ten thousand more than the Communist Party’s nominee.

But there’s more to this story than vote totals. After all, Babson himself believed from the beginning that he had no chance to win, admitting publicly — much to the chagrin of Prohibition leaders — that he would be satisfied if he secured just one million votes. No, this is a story about a third party candidate who believed he had the prescription for restoring economic stability and improving social welfare throughout the nation.

The 1930s had been among the most tumultuous decades in world history. At home, the stock market crash in October 1929 — which it’s worth noting Babson had predicted one month before it happened — resulted in massive unemployment and poverty that, by 1940, was still widespread (albeit better than it was at the economic abyss). Meanwhile overseas, Nazi Germany was beginning its march throughout Europe and the Japanese already occupied large areas of China, putting the world on the brink of war yet again.

The political debate during the 1940 campaign therefore focused on two issues: whether a continuation of the policies enacted through FDR’s New Deal would be good for the economic health of the nation and how the United States should best prepare for possible international conflict.

There wasn’t, however, much room in this debate for third party politics. By and large, people either loved FDR or hated him. So it was either vote Democratic or try to get him out of office by voting Republican.

Despite this rigid dichotomy within American politics, there were a few third parties in existence at the time — most notably, the Communist, Socialist, Socialist Labor, and Prohibition Parties.

The last of these was undoubtedly the most misunderstood by the general public. Yes, the Prohibition Party’s primary focus was the advocacy for the prohibition of the production, sale, and consumption of alcoholic beverages — efforts that had been rewarded by the ratification of the 18th Amendment in 1919 and then subsequently repealed fourteen years later.

But this political party was always about more than just prohibition. From the beginning, it was among the most progressive parties in the nation, taking positions on a wide range of issues long before they were adopted by either of the major parties, including supporting women’s suffrage (1872), establishing income and inheritance taxes (1896), outlawing child labor (1908), and providing old age pensions and unemployment insurance (1916). Voters, however, couldn’t seem to get past its name. To them, the Prohibition Party was only about prohibition.

It therefore was the hope of party officials that someone like Roger Babson — a life-long Republican who was well-known for his investment reports and business acumen, as well as his weekly editorial column that appeared in hundreds of newspapers throughout the nation — could bring more attention to the Prohibition Party.

Babson had little problem making the switch from a member of one of the two major political parties to a third party candidate, explaining that, “Democracy is a three-legged stool — one leg is Sound Economics, which is emphasized by the Republicans; one leg is Social Action, which is emphasized by the New Deal Democrats; and the third leg is God-fearing religion, which both of these major parties are neglecting. The NEW Prohibitionists emphasize that all three legs are necessary to save democracy. They insist that neither Sound Economics nor the New Deal will solve our problems until hearts, purposes and desires of the American people are changed.”

It’s important to note that Babson wasn’t arguing for a theocracy. He was, however, a deeply religious man and believed that a moral awakening and spiritual revival were necessary prerequisites for the improvement in the quality of life for all Americans. Government without religion could only accomplish so much.

A large share of this burden fell on the individual and his or her determination and character. According to Babson, “World depression cannot be cleared up until people think less about having a good time and more about doing a good job…We have gone ‘good-time’ crazy. There are too many who are working just to get money for their play. Too few are playing with the purpose of building up health, energy, and capital for their work.”

But there was still plenty that government could do to foster such growth. First and foremost, it had to prohibit all those vices that could most undermine character: liquor, narcotics, gambling, and indecent or deceptive publications, “moving pictures,” and radio programs.

In addition, Prohibitionists believed that the federal government needed to aid in the overhaul of public school systems. Strong character and righteousness had to be taught; one couldn’t just absorb these qualities through osmosis. At the time, however, schools seemed more interested in just handing out diplomas than teaching children the lessons of proper behavior and character strengthening.

Whether the government could actually accomplish the goals set forth by the Prohibition Party is another story. In fact, this was arguably one of the primary reasons Babson received so few votes.

Nonetheless, Roger Babson gave it his all. Following the party’s convention where he was unanimously chosen as the Prohibition nominee alongside Edgar V. Moorman, a former Democrat and executive at a livestock food manufacturing plant in Illinois, Babson embarked on a nationwide campaign tour to promote his party’s agenda. But unlike the intense nature of modern presidential campaigns, Babson’s tour consisted of little more than giving a few dozen speeches and interviews with local media at various cities and towns throughout America, first in the Southeast before making a cross-country trek (via Cadillac coupe) to the Pacific Coast.

By September, two months prior to the election, Babson had already returned to New England. Yet there was little or no campaigning for votes in his hometown. Wellesley citizens — like most voters in the Northeast — held religiously to their political beliefs and were skeptical of third parties, in large part because they viewed not voting for a Democrat or Republican as a waste of a vote. Babson, however, disagreed, countering that “no vote was ever wasted which was cast for a principle.”

Alas, Wellesley — which was heavily conservative at the time — voted overwhelmingly for Wendell Willkie (75%) over FDR (23%). Babson received a paltry 15 votes (0.18%).

Nevertheless, he took his defeat in stride, even congratulating Roosevelt on his election win with his typical sharp wit: “Hearty congratulations. A defeated statistician, however, humbly reminds you that 1 per cent of the vote properly allocated would have elected Wendell Willkie. Therefore know you will work for coalition, both with Republicans and minority parties. Please keep well. Four great years are ahead.”

Of course, no one at the time could have predicted the attack on Pearl Harbor the following year, the subsequent entry of the United States into World War II, and the resulting revitalization of American industry and the end of the Great Depression. Nor could they have known that many Americans would be forced to adopt the principles that Roger Babson and the other Prohibitionists fought for: hard work, sacrifice, and character development.

So, in some way, although Roger Babson didn’t win the 1940 Presidential Election, he was able to see this country achieve what he so passionately believed.