When the GOP Picked a Nominee for Vice President, Only to Be Rejected

Their unrequited choice seemed utterly uninterested in the role

Republican Convention in session, Cleveland Public Auditorium, 1924 (Special collections, Michael Schwartz Library, Cleveland State University)
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The first time the Republican National Convention was held in Cleveland, in June 1924, the presidential contest was foreordained: incumbent Calvin Coolidge, who had inherited the job when his predecessor, Warren G. Harding, died in office, crushed two rivals on the first ballot. That event was so dull that comedian Will Rogers suggested that the city fathers open the churches to liven things up.

All the drama, and the farce, was provided by the race for vice president. No fewer than 23 men received votes for the nomination. It took three ballots to pick a winner. And then—for the only time in GOP history, so far—the winner refused the honor.

The convention bore the burden of finding a nominee because Coolidge finished Harding’s term without a vice president. The 25th Amendment, which set the procedures for replacing a president (and vice president) in the event of death, disability or dishonor so grave as to merit removal from office, wasn’t until adopted until 1967, after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. And the parties, not the presidential candidates, were responsible for nominating vice presidents.

So: The top of the ticket was occupied by a conservative New Englander. Conventional wisdom suggested that the GOP seek balance with a non-Easterner perceived as a progressive. On the first ballot, delegates cast votes for a slew of governors, senators, congressmen and others from California, Delaware, Illinois, Iowa, Indiana, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Utah. Even a former ambassador to Japan made the cut.

Frank O. Lowden of Illinois led the first ballot with 222 votes, or 20 percent of the 1,109 delegates.

Lowden came with an impressive biography: a by-the-bootstraps journey from rural poverty into a marriage to an heiress to the Pullman railroad-car fortune; wealth of his own, built from his earnings in law and business; terms as a congressman and governor of the Prairie State. At the 1920 GOP convention in Chicago, he led the voting for the presidential nomination after eight ballots, but some back-room brokering sealed the deal for Harding on the tenth. It was that scheming that gave rise to the term “smoke-filled room” as a political metonym.

By 1924, however, Lowden had left the governor’s mansion for his farm in Ogle County, where he was recasting himself as an advocate for modernizing American agriculture. Three days before the convention, the Chicago Tribune tracked him down on his way home from a cattle breeders’ convention and asked about rumors of his interest in the vice presidency. “I wish to give the matter further consideration,” he said.

That tepid statement didn’t stop the Tribune from running it on the front page of June 7, below the headline:

Lowden’s Boom Running on High

Seems a Winner

In the next day’s paper, now two days before the convention, the Trib’s correspondent in Cleveland wrote that “the Lowden boom for the Republican nomination for Vice President is spreading like wildfire.”

But the day after that—on the eve of the convention—Lowden issued a statement saying, “I don’t want the vice presidency and I am not a candidate for the office. This decision is final and unalterable.”

It didn’t matter: His state’s delegation voted unanimously to nominate him, “believing the sentiment of this national convention is that Mr. Lowden should change his mind as an act of public service.” And once the convention opened, he led the official veepstakes not once, but three times, taking a majority of the votes on the third ballot.

Still Lowden refused. Coolidge tried to promote Idaho Senator William E. Borah for the job, seeking to placate a maverick who didn’t fully trust many of his Republican colleagues, but Borah wasn’t buying it; he declined to be considered. So the delegates had to take a fourth vote, which gave the nomination to Lowden’s fellow Illinoisian Charles Dawes, the banker and general who was then serving as director of the Bureau of the Budget. Dawes accepted, and that November the Republicans won 54 percent of the popular vote, trouncing the Democratic ticket of John W. Davis and Charles W. Bryan (29 percent) and the Progressive slate of Robert Lafollette and Burton K. Wheeler (17 percent).

The next year, Dawes was a co-winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for formulating a plan to restore Germany’s economy after World War I, but his vice-presidency couldn’t have been a happy time. He antagonized both the president and the Senate; in August 1927, he returned from a vacation to declare that a vice president “has no work.” He lasted one term. Coolidge, for his part, chose not to run for a second full term, paving the way for his secretary of commerce, Herbert Hoover, to succeed him.

Lowden passed his time on his farm more pleasurably. "I like to think of this beautiful and fertile spot as the place where my children and my children's children and their children after them will gather long after I have become dust, and in the shade of the old trees my own hand had planted," he wrote in his autobiography. He became dust in 1943, at age 82. The farm became an Illinois state forest.

About T.A. Frail
T.A. Frail

Tom Frail is a senior editor for Smithsonian magazine. He previously worked as a senior editor for the Washington Post and for Philadelphia Newspapers Inc.

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