Roosevelt campaigned vigorously on behalf of American entry into the League of Nations, but the Democrats lost in a landslide to the Republican ticket of Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge. Roosevelt then became vice president of a bonding company, Fidelity and Deposit Company of Maryland, and entered into several other business ventures.
In August 1921, while Roosevelt was on vacation at Campobello Island, New Brunswick, Canada, his life was transformed when he was stricken with poliomyelitis. He suffered intensely, and for some time he was almost completely paralyzed. His mother urged him to retire to the family estate at Hyde Park, but his wife and Howe believed it essential that he remain active in politics. For his part, Roosevelt never abandoned hope that he would regain the use of his legs.
Unable to pursue an active political career as he recovered from polio, Roosevelt depended on his wife to keep his name alive in Democratic circles. Although initially very shy, Eleanor Roosevelt became an effective public speaker and an adroit political analyst under Howe’s tutelage. As a result of her speaking engagements all over New York state, Roosevelt never faded entirely from the political scene, despite what seemed to be a career-ending affliction. In 1924 he made a dramatic appearance at the Democratic convention to nominate Alfred E. Smith, governor of New York, for president, and he repeated his nomination of Smith at the 1928 convention. Smith, in turn, urged Roosevelt to run for governor of New York in 1928. Roosevelt was at first reluctant but eventually agreed.
As he traveled by automobile around the state, Roosevelt demonstrated that his illness had not destroyed the youthful resilience and vitality that had led people such as Howe to predict great political success. He also showed that he had matured into a more serious person, one now with a keen appreciation for life’s hardships. On election day Roosevelt won by 25,000 votes, even though New York state went Republican in the presidential election, contributing to Herbert Hoover’s landslide victory in the 1928 presidential election over Smith.
Succeeding Smith as governor, Roosevelt realized he had to establish an administration distinct from that of his predecessor. Accordingly, he declined to appoint Smith’s cronies to state office and did not look to Smith, the “Happy Warrior,” for guidance. Smith, already stung by his defeat for the presidency, was hurt by Roosevelt’s apparent lack of gratitude, and a breach developed between the two men.
During his first term, Governor Roosevelt concentrated on tax relief for farmers and cheaper public utilities for consumers. The appeal of his programs, particularly in upstate New York, led to his reelection in 1930 by 725,000 votes. As the depression worsened during his second term, Roosevelt moved farther to the political left, mobilizing the state government to provide relief and to aid in economic recovery. In the fall of 1931 he persuaded the Republican-dominated legislature to establish the Temporary Emergency Relief Administration, which eventually provided unemployment assistance to 10 percent of New York’s families. His aggressive approach to the economic problems of his state, along with his overwhelming electoral victory in 1930, boosted Roosevelt into the front ranks of contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1932.
Because winning the nomination then required a two-thirds vote in the Democratic convention, even a leading contender could be stopped with relative ease. It soon became apparent that Roosevelt’s strongest opposition would come from urban and conservative Eastern Democrats still loyal to Smith; his strongest support was in the South and West. The opposition became stronger when John Nance Garner of Texas, speaker of the House of Representatives, won the California Democratic primary. But on the third ballot at the 1932 convention, Garner released his delegates to Roosevelt, who then captured the required two-thirds vote on the fourth ballot. Garner received the vice presidential nomination. Roosevelt then broke tradition by appearing in person to accept his party’s nomination. In his speech before the delegates, he said, “I pledge you, I pledge myself, to a new deal for the American people.”