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)

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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.


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