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

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

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.)

3. 1860 and its Four Conventions—This was the year of not one but four of the most important conventions, producing four candidates—two of them Democrats. In April, the Democrats met in Charleston, South Carolina, but produced no candidate, the first and only time to-date a convention has come up empty. Slavery split the party as southern delegates walked out.

In June, northern Democrats met in Baltimore and chose Stephen Douglas, the powerful Illinois Senator who had famously debated Abraham Lincoln in the 1858 Illinois Senate race. The disaffected southern Democrats also met in Baltimore and chose Kentucky’s John C. Breckenridge and demanding federal protection of slavery.

In the meantime, the Republicans met in the Wigwam, a huge building in Chicago, and on the third ballot, chose one-term Illinois Representative Abraham Lincoln. Another splinter group, the Constitutional Union Party, chose former Speaker of the House John Bell.

As all four candidates campaigned, the 1860 election went to Lincoln with about 40 percent of the vote. And the headlong race toward secession and Civil War quickly followed.

4. 1880 Republican Convention—The post-Civil War period produced lively conventions but few fireworks as Republicans dominated presidential politics for a generation. But the GOP meeting in Chicago in 1880 was stuck between two battling wings of the party: the “Stalwarts” who wanted to maintain the “boss system” in which powerful congressmen made the decisions; and the “Half-Breeds” who sought civil service reform among other changes. After 35 ballots, Civil War veteran, Ohio congressman James A. Garfield, was a surprise “dark horse” compromise, with the vice presidential nod going to Chester A. Arthur as a concession to the Stalwarts. A New York lawyer, Arthur had built his career on patronage jobs. Then an assassin’s bullet made Arthur, the “gentleman boss,” the president.

5. 1900 Republican Convention—With the death of Garret Hobart, William McKinley’s first vice president, in November 1899, the GOP was looking for a replacement for the upcoming election. (At the time, there was no Constitutional mechanism for replacing a vice president who died or succeeded to the presidency, a problem resolved in 1967 by the 25th Amendment.) “Under no circumstances could I or would I accept the nomination for the vice-president,” the young governor of New York announced in February 1900. But in June, Theodore Roosevelt changed his tune.

Powerful New York bosses wanted this reform-minded governor out of the way and pushed him onto the McKinley ticket at the Philadelphia convention where frenzied delegates rallied to the Rough Riding hero of San Juan Hill. “Don’t any of you realize,” warned McKinley advisor Senator Mark Hanna, “that there is only one life between that madman and the Presidency.”

In September 1901, McKinley was assassinated. Theodore Roosevelt became America’s youngest president.

6. 1912 Republican Convention: After Theodore Roosevelt completed his own full term in 1908, he contemplated another run but opted to uphold the two-term precedent. He turned the reins over to William Howard Taft, whose last name was said to stand for, “Take Advice From Theodore.”

But following a four-year hiatus, Roosevelt wanted to return to the White House and challenged his successor, winning several primaries but not a majority of delegates. The party regulars remained steadfast to the incumbent Taft and Roosevelt bolted the Chicago convention, claiming he had been robbed, and formed a third party, the Progressive, or “Bull Moose Party,” soon thereafter. The most successful third party candidate ever, Roosevelt finished second; he and Taft had split the Republican vote, leaving an opening for Democrat Woodrow Wilson to win the presidency.

7. 1932 Democratic Convention—No surprise here. As the Great Depression worsened, Democrats were confident that the GOP’s 12-year hold on the White House would end with Herbert Hoover’s defeat. But who would get the nod? New York Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt and former Governor Al Smith, who lost to Hoover in 1928, were rivals. On the fourth ballot, FDR was anointed, aided by Speaker of the House, Texas’ John Nance Garner who became his vice president.

FDR signaled a new era in American politics when he became the first candidate to address the convention, held in Chicago. In his acceptance speech, he promised America a “New Deal.”

In 1940, Eleanor Roosevelt became the first First Lady to address a convention in Chicago –also notable for giving FDR his third consecutive nomination and an unprecedented third term.

8. 1960 Democratic Convention—There was nothing new about television at the Democratic convention in Los Angeles. The first televised convention had been Philadelphia’s Republican gathering in 1940—but a lot more people had television sets 20 years later. And what they saw was America’s first great made for-television candidate, John F. Kennedy, deliver an acceptance speech promising a “New Frontier” echoing FDR’s “New Deal.” And the presidential game would never be the same. A few months later, the first televised debates against Republican Richard Nixon cemented TV’s place in the American political landscape.

9. 1968 Democratic Convention—Television also played a huge role when the Democrats met in Chicago. But it was mostly about what was happening outside the hall. The nation watched the spectacle of anti-war protestors in full battle with Chicago policemen. One Democratic Senator told the convention there were, “Gestapo tactics in the streets of Chicago.” The convention selected Hubert Humphrey, who lost a close race to Richard Nixon. But the violent debacle in Chicago led to the first wave of primary reforms that chipped away at the power of the convention.

This convention also marked the last time that Chicago, which had hosted more conventions than any other city, would welcome a convention until the Democrats returned in 1996 to nominate Bill Clinton for a second term.

10. 1976 Republican Convention—This may have been the last hurrah for the national convention as a meaningful political battlefield. The incumbent President, Gerald Ford had succeeded to the office after Richard Nixon’s resignation. The only president never elected president or vice president, Ford faced a furious challenge from the right from former California Governor Ronald Reagan. Ford held onto the nomination in Kansas City, but lost the election to Jimmy Carter. And Ronald Reagan was probably thinking, “You ain’t seen nothing yet.”

Kenneth C. Davis is the author of Don’t Know Much About® History and Don’t Know Much About® the American Presidents, which will be published on September 18. His website is www.dontknowmuch.com

© 2012 Kenneth C. Davis

Editor's note: This story originally mistakenly referred to Garfield's assassin, Charles Guiteau, as an anarchist. This was not the case and we regret the error.

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