FDR’s Labor Day Visit To Delmarva

by Dana Kester-McCabe

In 1938 President Franklin D. Roosevelt visited the peninsula and gave a Labor Day speech in Denton, Maryland.

This is Labor Day Weekend. For many in the US, Monday - Labor Day itself - is a day off to enjoy the company of friends and family at parades and picnics, or to rest up for the first days of the school year. Here on Delmarva the holiday also signals the end of the lucrative summer tourist season. If you work in the hospitality industry there is a good chance you will be working on Labor Day. You may even be putting in overtime because a number of your coworkers have returned to their school or year round homes off the peninsula.

The purpose of Labor Day is to honor all workers, their contributions to our society, and their rights to safety and fair pay. It became a federal holiday by an act of Congress which was signed into law by Grover Cleveland in 1894. The legislation came about during a turbulent period when labor strikes were becoming more and more common and violent. The Pullman strike, by railroad workers in Chicago, resulted in deadly riots known as the Haymarket Massacre. The strike lasted several months until just days before the first observance of Labor Day.

Delmarva has its own piece of Labor Day history which is more about politics and less about workers rights. In 1938 President Franklin D. Roosevelt decided he was going to go on the campaign trail during midterm election primaries in support of candidates trying to oust incumbent in his own Democratic Party, who the President felt had not supported his New Deal legislation.

He took a swing through the Delmarva Peninsula campaigning for David J. Lewis against U.S. Senator Millard E. Tydings. Throughout his trip he was greeted with banners supporting Tydings who was a conservative Democrat and independent thinker who had voted against certain key bills including the Social Security Act.

In Crisfield where the president began his trip the reception was even cooler. The mayor, William Ward, a Republican skipped the event altogether telling the visiting press he would have met the President if he had been there on official business. But he said: "Mr. Roosevelt is coming as a politician and so I am not going to pay any attention to him." Nonetheless the town was decorated with American flags and police, fire, and other civic organizations turned out to honor their president. Most of the crowds were polite and expressed being honored by Roosevelt's now fourth visit to the region since taking office. The entourage traveled up the peninsula stopping briefly in several towns including making time for a brief speech in Salisbury.

In Denton they expected a crowd of up to 40,000. The speech was broadcast by radio stations around the world. The California State fair even played it live on loud speakers. It is not a terribly famous speech and I haven't yet found a recording of it. It touched on how not only industrial workers are an important part of our labor force, but farm workers are as well.

One pundit remarked in a subsequent column that this was actually FDR's way of courting the burgeoning Farm Labor Movement. As evidence he cited a private audience the next day between the President and a proponent of that movement, liberal Republican Governor Benson of Minnesota.

But despite the raw politics behind the trip the speech is about unity. Those who were there said that FDR was charismatic and held them in the palm of his hands as he spoke. He finished his talk with these words:

"The great test for us in our time is whether all the groups of our people are willing to work together for continuing progress.

Such progress, I need hardly remind you, comes ultimately from the rank and file of our citizens, and through the representatives of their free choice-representatives willing to cooperate, to get things done in the true spirit of "give and take"-not representatives who seek every plausible excuse for blocking action.

What you do, what I do, what any man or woman may do, is of small moment compared with what the people do. In this effort to preserve our democracy and our Union, I am confident that all who labor in the field and factory will carry on the good work, carry it through to a just and successful end."

2015 and 1938 are not so different. Perhaps that is the lesson to be learned from looking back at this minor event in our history. Despite ulterior motives and the rough game of politics, ultimately we are all one community of workers. Our future is our responsibility, here on Delmarva, and everywhere else.


Full Text of Franklin D. Roosevelt's Labor Day Address at Denton, Maryland
September 5, 1938

Maryland's Exciting Campaign Climax of FDR Support Issue
The Day - New London Connecticut - September 9, 1938

David John Lewis (May 1, 1869 – August 12, 1952)

September 5, 1938: The dat FDR came to Denton
Posted: Wednesday, September 3, 2008
By Abby Schmidt - The Times-Record

President Coming Monday
Crisfield Times September 1, 1938

F.R. Moves Against Foes - To Invade Maryland To Speak Against Tydings
August 29, 1938
The Reading Eagle

Attendance record Broken At State Fair
The Catalina Islander - September 4, 1938
President Roosevelt's address was broadcast over loud speaker at the California State fair.

News Behind The News
By Paul Mallon
Reading Eagle - Septemebr 14, 1938

Roosevelt In Maryland For Political Talk
The Gettysburg Times - September 5, 1938

No Reception
Daily Journal-World - Lawrence Kansas - Septemebr 5, 1938

Labor Day History
Department of Labor

Labor Day History

The Origins of Labor Day