The Top 10 Political Conventions That Mattered the Most

As the two parties bring together their faithful supporters, we look at those conventions in the past that truly made a difference in the country’s political history

Senator John F. Kennedy delivers his speech before the delegates at the 1960 Democratic Convention. (© Bettmann/CORBIS)

As the two main party conventions approach—the Republicans kick off today, August 27, in Tampa, Florida, followed by the Democrats in Charlotte, North Carolina, next week—pardon the nation’s collective yawn.

National conventions, once riveting political theater that held America in suspense for days, have been reduced to a made-for-television, political promo for the two parties. Since primary elections now routinely determine the candidates, this quadrennial dog-and-pony show offers a ho-hum pageant, in which windy speeches are delivered, party platforms hammered out and often ignored, and delegates don silly hats and hold up handmade signs extolling the virtues of candidates, causes and home states. Once the scene of bare-knuckle politicking and backroom deals, the modern conventions now provide comforting tableaus –full of sound and fury, but mostly signifying nothing. 

That is why the once-trumpeted network “gavel-to-gavel” coverage has gone the way of disco and leisure suits.

The convention had essentially become obsolete by the 1972 Democratic Convention in Miami. Following the party reforms of the early 1970s, state primary elections could provide enough delegates to choose the nominee. Senator George McGovern—who had helped write the Democratic Party’s new nominating rules — garnered a majority of Democratic delegates by the time the convention began. (McGovern was then crushed by Nixon in a landslide.) So we may never again have a repeat of 1924, when the Democrats took 17 days and 103 ballots in the longest convention ever to nominate John W. Davis –who was and remains an obscure congressman from West Virginia.

But once upon a time, conventions mattered. They chose the candidates, often with plenty of intrigue and horse-trading in the notorious “smoke-filled rooms” of yesteryear. And for that reason, some memorable conventions have changed the course of history. Here, in chronological order, are the Ten Most Consequential Conventions, also highlighting a few significant convention “Firsts.”

 1. 1831 Anti-Masonic Convention—Why start with one of the most obscure third parties in American history? Because they invented nominating conventions. The Anti-Masons, who feared the growing political and financial power of the secret society of Freemasons, formed in upstate New York; among their members was future president Millard Fillmore.

 Before the Anti-Masons met in Baltimore in September 1831, candidates for president were chosen in the Congressional caucuses of two major parties –then the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans (soon to be the Democratic Party). In December 1831, the short-lived National Republican party followed the Anti-Mason lead and met in Baltimore to nominate Henry Clay, the powerful Kentucky congressman. The Democrats followed suit, also in Baltimore, selecting Andrew Jackson, the ultimate victor, in May 1832.

“King Caucus” was dead. The political convention had been born. And the country never looked back.

2. 1856 Republican Convention—The first national convention of the Republican Party marks the beginning of the two-party system as we know it. Meeting in Philadelphia, the new party chose John C. Frémont –the “Pathfinder” who mapped the way West for a generation of pioneers. A popular hero, Frémont also provided the new party with its slogan: “Free Soil, Free Speech, Free men, Frémont.” The slavery issue had become America’s undeniable fault line, even if most Republicans, including Abraham Lincoln, sought only to end the extension of slavery, not abolish it outright..

Frémont also ignited the first “birther” controversy. Opponents claimed he was born in Canada–and worse, back then, he was Catholic! (Former president Fillmore, onetime Anti-Mason, was nominated that year by the Know-Nothings, another odd third party which opposed immigration and foreigners.)


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