President Harry S. Truman and the 1948 Election

U.S. National Archives

Preparing for the Election
After Republicans took control of Congress following the 1946 elections, most people doubted that President Truman would win the presidential election in 1948.

Well before the election, President Truman's General Counsel, Clark Clifford, prepared a 43-page memorandum on the strategy Truman and the Democratic Party should pursue in 1948, assuming the Republican nominee would be Thomas Dewey.

The memorandum acknowledged the fragile peace between the different factions of the Democratic Party, and laid down instructions for the campaign to follow. These included attacking the Republican-controlled Congress and strongly identifying as a liberal.

At the Democratic National Convention, Truman attacked the Republicans, promising to call Congress back into session to pass legislation to curb inflation, build housing, and ensure civil rights - all planks of both the Republican and Democratic Party platforms.

Truman called Congress back into session for July 26, and addressed them on July 27. Two weeks later the special session ended, with little of Truman's proposals accomplished. He used this as fuel to campaign against the "do-nothing" 80th Congress.

1948 Whistlestop Campaign, September-October 1948
During September and October, President Truman criss-crossed the country by rail, traveling over 22,000 miles, delivering speeches in towns all along the rail routes. When Republican Senator Robert Taft derisively referred to some of the small towns as "whistlestops," this energized the campaign as small towns eagerly sought to prove that they were still worthwhile.

Truman's first campaign stop took place in Detroit, Michigan on Labor Day. He reminded the labor union groups of his veto of the Taft-Hartley Act, legislation that restricted union's bargaining power.

After a quick return to Washington, Truman hit the campaign trail again, stopping at the National Plowing Match in Dexter, Iowa to talk to farmers. As a former farmer, Truman told them to remember the struggles they went through during the last Republican administration.

When Truman spoke to crowds out west, such as this one in Denver, Colorado, he spoke about Democratic proposals for land and water usage and conservation, public power, and housing issues.

In between his longer speeches off the train, Truman frequently stopped in small towns along the train route to give short speeches. These speeches usually mentioned some local issue or politician, the "do-nothing" Congress, and an encouragement to go vote.

Truman's wife and daughter also traveled on some of the campaign stops, and would put in an appearance with the President on the back of the train. Truman would always introduce his wife Bess as "The Boss," and his daughter Margaret as "The Boss's Boss." Truman stopped in San Antonio and met with Congressman and Senatorial candidate (and future President) Lyndon B. Johnson.

As Truman traveled the country, thousands of people turned out to hear him speak, including this group of "Housewives for Truman."

As the crowds grew larger and encouraged President Truman to "Give 'em hell," Truman responded enthusiastically. He later said he never gave anyone hell, he just told the truth and they thought it was hell.

With less than a month to go in the campaign, former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt finally reached out to President Truman to express her support for his candidacy. Privately, Mrs. Roosevelt expressed her lack of enthusiasm for Truman, as she did not feel he was a strong liberal.

Despite Truman's apparent success on the campaign trail, many newspaper and radio editorials and commentators felt that Republican Thomas Dewey was sure to win.

When the Democrats approved the inclusion of a civil rights plank in the party platform, many Southern Democrats walked out of the convention. They eventually ran their own slate of candidates under the "States Rights" party. Many feared the defection of the "Dixiecrats" would hurt Truman's chance to win.

On October 13, as the Presidential train traveled through Minnesota, Truman asked his aide, George Elsey, to take down some numbers. Truman calculated, in terms of Electoral College votes, how many the Democrats (White), Republicans (Black), and "Dixiecrats" (Red) would get. Truman still counted on winning.

Members of the press traveling with Truman saw the enthusiasm of the crowds, but they still felt a victory by Thomas Dewey and the Republicans was a foregone conclusion.

Election Day and Beyond, November 1948

President Truman returned home to Independence to vote on November 2, 1948. Truman woke up at his usual early hour, went for a walk, then walked down the street from his home to his polling place.

After voting, Truman returned to his home. At around 4 in the afternoon, during the shift change of Secret Service agents, he slipped out the back door of the kitchen and into the middle of the backseat of the car with two Secret Service agents on either side and another driving. The agents drove President Truman to The Elms Hotel and Spa in Excelsior Springs, Missouri.

After arriving at the hotel, Truman took a Turkish bath, had a ham sandwich and a glass of milk for dinner, listened to some of the election returns, and then went to bed.

A couple of times during the night, his Secret Servicemen woke him up to let him know more of the returns. When it became clear that President Truman won, they woke him up and drove him back to the Muehlebach Hotel, election headquarters in Kansas City.

Later that night, on November 3, Truman spoke on the steps of the Courthouse in Independence. He said, "I can't tell you how very much I appreciate this turnout to celebrate a victory--not my victory, but a victory of the
Democratic Party for the people."

The next day, Truman headed back to Washington on the train. When he stopped in St. Louis, someone handed him the Chicago Tribune newspaper with the incorrect headline, and staged one of the most iconic election photos in history.

Crowds gathered in front of the White House to see and greet the Truman family upon their arrival in Washington, D.C.

President Truman and the Truman family rode from Union Station to the White House in a motorcade with Vice President-Elect Alben Barkley.

The motorcade passed the Washington Post building, which, like many newspapers, predicted that Republican candidate Thomas Dewey would win. They hung a sign on the outside of their building, welcoming Truman home and offering to "eat crow" to atone for their incorrect prediction.

Truman wrote this note, which he never sent, to pollster Elmo Roper, who tried to explain how the polls got the election results wrong. Truman wrote, "Candidates make election contests, not pole [sic] takers or press comments...".

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