“I belong to no organized party,” the humorist Will Rogers said in 1924. “I’m a Democrat.”

Rogers had just witnessed the longest and by some accounts “wildest” political convention in American history: the 1924 Democratic National Convention, which took 16 days and 103 ballots to nominate a presidential candidate.

Beginning on June 24, the summer convention was a bleak, sweltering affair for the Democrats. Initially buoyed by optimism over divisions and corruption within incumbent President Calvin Coolidge’s Republican Party, the Democrats quickly became aware that their coalition was even more divided. Dueling factions representing starkly different constituencies, policies and worldviews had come together in New York City’s Madison Square Garden to tear each other apart with no plans for reconciliation or compromise.

Portrait of William Gibbs McAdoo
William G. McAdoo served as a lawyer in Tennessee, a tunnel-building businessman in New York City and secretary of the Treasury in Woodrow Wilson’s cabinet. He quietly courted the KKK's support. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
New York Governor Al Smith
Governor Al Smith of New York was from an Irish Catholic family on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Members of the KKK destroyed his effigy during the convention. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The divisions within the party were so profound that fights broke out on the convention floor and across the New York metropolitan area. At one point, 20,000 members of the Ku Klux Klan, which backed leading candidate William Gibbs McAdoo, “battered to a shapeless pulp” an effigy of New York Governor Al Smith, the other front-runner, at a demonstration across the Hudson River in New Jersey, wrote historian Robert K. Murray in The 103rd Ballot: Democrats and the Disaster in Madison Square Garden.

By the final ballot on July 9, delegates had abandoned their first-, second- and 102nd-choice candidates and settled on John W. Davis of West Virginia, a conservative lawyer, congressman and compromise candidate who satisfied almost no one.

After all the chaos of the convention, the Democrats lost badly to Coolidge in the 1924 presidential election. The Republicans’ slogan, “Coolidge or chaos,” resounded across the country, reminding voters of the troubled state of the Democratic Party. Davis won just 12 states—all of the former Confederate states plus Oklahoma—and 29 percent of the popular vote.

Because of its disorganization and ultimate failure, the 1924 DNC has been largely forgotten. But its flaws—as well as the glimmers of hope that squeaked out of Madison Square Garden—offer valuable lessons 100 years later, as a new generation of Democrats prepares to nominate President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris for re-election in Chicago this August.

A party divided against itself

Ahead of the 1924 convention, the Democratic Party was in the throes of an identity crisis.

Since its founding in 1828, the Democratic Party had been committed to an agrarian vision of American democracy, rooted firmly in land ownership, limited government and conservative social policy. Through the Civil War, the Democrats contrasted themselves with the Republicans, the party of Abraham Lincoln and big government. By 1932, however, these positions had started to shift, with Democrats dominated by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal coalition supporting an expanded federal government and socially progressive policies that are more in line with the party’s platform today.

The 1924 DNC caught the party in an awkward spot, with a progressive wing slowly differentiating itself from the old guard in light of socioeconomic transformations unfolding across the country. “The old local, or even regional, economy was giving up ground to a national economy,” says Rory McVeigh, a sociologist at the University of Notre Dame. Small-scale producers in rural areas faced increasing competition with large-scale capitalism in major cities.

Waves of immigration from Central and Eastern Europe also upset the interwar social order, leaving white Protestants across the country in “deep pockets of discontent,” McVeigh adds.

Those who felt left behind, replaced or threatened were susceptible to manipulation by the KKK, which underwent a resurgence in the 1920s, in part because of its ability to prey on middle-class economic fears, misplaced patriotism and overt bigotry.

On the other hand, more progressive Democrats in the Northeast United States were “trying to appeal to this growing working-class immigrant population,” McVeigh says.

In place of its once-unified agrarian base, the Democratic Party was now profoundly divided.

Franklin D. Roosevelt speaks at the 1924 DNC
In his first public appearance after contracting polio, Franklin D. Roosevelt campaigned for Al Smith and dubbed him "the happy warrior." FDR Presidential Library and Museum via Wikimedia Commons under CC by 2.0

The unapparent heirs

The three major candidates for the Democratic nomination “epitomized the party’s urban-rural, religious and sectional divisions,” wrote historian Jane Dailey in Building the American Republic, Volume 2.

McAdoo was the leading candidate for much of the lead-up to the convention. Born in Georgia in 1863, McAdoo had served as a lawyer in Tennessee, a tunnel-building businessman in New York City and secretary of the Treasury in Democrat Woodrow Wilson’s cabinet. After the death of his first wife, McAdoo married Eleanor Wilson, the president’s daughter, in 1914. McAdoo’s friends and political allies from his time in the cabinet pushed him to become Wilson’s heir apparent in the 1920 election, but he refused the mantle and moved to California to avoid hostile East Coast politics.

The Democratic Party’s success in the 1922 midterm elections encouraged McAdoo to return to politics and announce his candidacy. Soon enough, the Chicago Tribune reported that the Democratic race was “rapidly developing into a McAdoo and anti-McAdoo affair.”

McAdoo’s base was concentrated in the rural South and West, where the politician quietly courted the support of the KKK, which was waging a moral war in favor of Prohibition and continuing its Protestant white supremacist crusade.

Leading the anti-McAdoo contingent was Smith, the governor of New York. He set himself up against the KKK, a group that was existentially opposed to this descendent of Irish Catholic immigrants and the diversifying, urban Northeast he represented.

“Smith was the thing that people would hold out … to scare native-born white Protestants who flocked to the Ku Klux Klan,” McVeigh says.

Between these worldviews, little common ground existed. But pockets of nuance existed.

The third front-runner entering the convention was Oscar W. Underwood, a senator from Alabama. A Southerner through and through, as well as a loud opponent of the KKK, Underwood drew impressive support from his home state, with one local paper dubbing him “democracy’s safeguard.” But his nuanced position failed to capture the restive mood within the party or dissuade delegates from backing other local nominees.

As Camille Kaminski Lewis, a communications scholar at Furman University, wrote in a 2020 journal article, “Every state wanted its man on the top of the ticket, and the bosses were ready to lock horns.”

Democratic convention in New York City 1924

The “Klanbake” begins

The New York Daily News reported that on June 24, the first day of the convention, the “Klanbake steamed open at 12:45.”

The party was “irreconcilably divided over the Klan issue,” McVeigh says. Whether to condemn the KKK by name was the most pressing issue that the Democratic Party had to confront before it could make any real progress.

A majority of the committee members who were tasked with drafting the party’s religious freedom platform (including failed presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan, who suggested the party turn to Jesus and ignore the KKK issue outright) did not want to condemn the hate group by name. Their proposal only vaguely stated how the party would “deplore and condemn any effort to arouse religious or racial dissension.”

A rival plank, meanwhile, pledged “to oppose any effort on the part of the Ku Klux Klan or any organization to interfere with the religious liberty or political freedom of any citizen … or to limit the civic rights of any citizen or body of citizens because of religion, birthplace or racial origin.”

Support for the two planks was mostly cast along regional lines. Delegates from Southern and Western states—those who would later back McAdoo—favored the Klan-sympathetic platform. Northern, pro-Smith delegates tended toward the alternative option.

Oscar Underwood with a dog
Senator Oscar W. Underwood of Alabama came from an elite Southern family. He rejected the KKK but failed to gain traction at the convention. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
John W. Davis strides forward
John W. Davis, the Democratic nominee, was a low-profile congressman from West Virginia. Many in his own party opposed his close ties to big business. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Andrew Cobb Erwin, a delegate from Georgia, was one of the few who “spoke outside the stereotype of a Southern politician and against the KKK,” wrote Lewis.

In an interview, Lewis explains how much of a political rarity Erwin was. He descended from “the gentry class in Virginia,” she says. “He was a longstanding aristocratic Southern gentleman.” His father was the first recipient of the Confederate Cross of Honor, and his enslaver ancestors had neighborhoods in Athens, Georgia, named in their honor.

Despite his pedigree, Erwin told the crowd of delegates at the convention that he would “favor a plank denouncing [the KKK], or any other secret society, in as strong words as a human hand can write.”

“You can, by adopting the report of the majority, evade the issue, which would, in effect, give your approval to the activities of this organization,” he said. “Follow this course, and you may prepare for an ignominious defeat at the polls in November.”

Erwin added, “Meet the issue squarely, as the people of this country expect you to meet it, and a glorious victory will be yours.”

The reaction was mixed—a cacophony of jeers, hisses and applause. Many Southerners turned their back on Erwin. But New York’s delegates lifted him up and paraded him around Madison Square Garden. A woman from Rhode Island ran up to Erwin and kissed him on the mouth.

The convention ultimately adopted the majority platform and failed to condemn the KKK by name. The pro-McAdoo Democrats had made their position clear, widening the rift within the party. “That’s where the convention turned,” Lewis says. As for Erwin, his prediction of political doom in November would soon prove all too prescient.

Thomas J. Walsh, a Senator from Montana
Democratic delegates like Thomas J. Walsh of Montana converged on Madison Square Garden to choose their next presidential nominee. Chaos and division ensued. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division
A delegate at the 1924 DNC
The convention gave women like Georgia English more opportunities than ever before to wade into the muck of party politics as advisers, as delegates and even as potential candidates. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

“Women in star roles”

Despite the Democrats’ regressive stance on the KKK, the party still showed signs of social progress.

Together with the 1924 Republican National Convention, where women “ruled the floor,” according to historian Rebekkah Rubin, the DNC gave women more opportunities than ever before to wade into the muck of party politics. Daily News reporter Imogene Stanley wrote that women made up “almost half the milling crowd in the Garden,” with some “in star roles,” including 54 members of the party’s national committee.

The 1924 DNC marked the first time a women was nominated for vice president at a major party’s political convention. Lena Springs, a women’s rights activist from South Carolina, won 44 votes, while two other women received at least one vote each. Ultimately, none was successful.

Behind the scenes, Smith’s closest adviser, Belle Moskowitz, was “the nearest thing to a woman political boss in the United States,” reported journalist Josephine van de Grift. “At Albany, they openly call her the ‘prime minister of New York State.’”

In her 1987 biography of Moskowitz, historian Elisabeth Israels Perry noted that the adviser “was in the thick of the 1924 contest.” She was by Smith’s side throughout the convention, where she “churned out publicity and handled all correspondence on Smith’s candidacy.”

Speaking with van de Grift in 1924, Moskowitz said, “Women in politics can achieve more behind the scenes than in office.” She added, “I’m more interested in policies than politics.” But the chaos that followed was pure, messy politics, and the subtleties of policy differences were all but left behind.

Daily News front page
The New York Daily News announced McAdoo's arrival in New York, likening the upcoming convention to a "battlefield." Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

“An idiotic and depressing spectacle”

Even before voting began, partisan tensions among the Democrats stretched into every part of the convention’s pomp and circumstance.

The great American songwriter Irving Berlin was commissioned to write a keynote song for the convention that one organizer said would be “as important as the keynote speech.” But Berlin’s song ultimately became a pro-Smith ditty called “We’ll All Go Voting for Al”—not exactly an anthem of party unity.

In Madison Square Garden, rival factions started chanting. “Mac, Mac, McAdoo” was quickly answered by “Smith, Smith, Alfred Smith” and “Ku, Ku, McAdoo.” Physical altercations and fights broke out on the floor. The unrest didn’t bode well for either McAdoo or Smith, who would have to take two-thirds of the delegates—732 votes—to secure the nomination.

On the first ballot, McAdoo took 431.5 votes, and Smith took 241, for a combined 61 percent of the total votes. Underwood, the anti-KKK senator from Alabama, won 42.5 delegates. Other votes were spread among 16 candidates, who received between 1 and 59 votes each.

Across dozens more ballots, state delegations kept voting for their “favorite sons,” like Albert Ritchie, the governor of Maryland, who consistently hovered around 17.5 votes—an insignificant 1.6 percent of the delegates.

As journalist H.L. Mencken wrote in a column for the Baltimore Evening Sun, “The delegates kept on voting for their pets as before, like children poll-parroting a meaningless rhyme. It was an idiotic and depressing spectacle.”

He continued, “If you can imagine 3,000 dogs in one great pit, all frantically chasing their tails, you can imagine what it looked like.”

Will Rogers found much comedic material in the convention’s length, which far surpassed the previous record of 46 ballots needed to nominate Wilson in 1912. He told readers in gleeful detail about the piles of whittling carvings that the Arkansas delegation had made, as well as the ever-growing whiskers of one bearded Utah delegate.

But there were kernels of truth in his pages of jest. “Pick [a nominee] now,” he implored. “In fact, I would pick out three or four to run in rotation in 1928, ’32, ’36 and so on, because you will never get Democratic delegates to give up the best part of their lives by attending another one of these things.” (As if to highlight the growing absurdity and deterioration of the convention—or perhaps in agreement with Rogers’ commentary—Arizona’s delegation cast a single vote for the humorist on the 67th ballot.)

A woman plays the piano at the 1924 DNC
Partisan tensions reached every part of the convention’s pomp and circumstance. Even anthems of party unity were turned into one-sided ditties. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Little by little, favorite sons like Ritchie dropped out. McAdoo and Smith maneuvered furiously for votes, but neither could reach the two-thirds majority, and by the 99th ballot, neither saw a path to victory. The two candidates simultaneously told their supporters to vote freely, but neither formally withdrew, waiting for the other to fold first. Some stuck with McAdoo or Smith for a few more votes before dwindling off. The stalemate was coming to a close.

Davis, who had been quietly trailing the two front-runners for most of the convention, often in a distant third place, emerged as the leading contender, and over the next several ballots—until the infamous 103rd—“state after state fell in line until … he had a majority,” according to the Olean Evening Times.

In the wee hours of July 10, in a surprisingly efficient turn of events, the Democrats gave Charles W. Bryan, governor of Nebraska and brother of William Jennings Bryan, the vice presidential nomination in a single ballot.

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle noted that Davis “had never met his running mate … until the opening of the convention.” The two men, the paper reported, “are direct opposites. Almost as much unalike as McAdoo and Smith, but in a different way.”

These revelations did little to inspire party unity or confidence about the nominees.

“Chaos or Coolidge” and how the Democrats lost the 1924 election

Though Davis was a compromise candidate, his nomination did little to patch up the party’s wounds, and neither side was particularly pleased with the outcome.

McAdoo blamed Tammany Hall and its “obstructionist tactics” for his loss, wrote Lee N. Allen in a 1963 journal article. Smith was convinced the KKK and his own Catholicism cost him the nomination: He “never received more than a single vote from the South” across the 103 ballots, according to Murray.

By the time Davis secured the nomination, Madison Square Garden, once the sweltering site of intense, at times violent enthusiasm, was all but abandoned.

Both fundamentalist Democrats like William Jennings Bryan and liberal Democrats were skeptical of Davis’ close ties to Wall Street from his time as a corporate lawyer. To counter what he saw as a false choice between two conservatives, Senator Robert La Follette of Wisconsin ran independently as a progressive, socialist candidate in the general election.

The press was not too impressed with Davis, either. The Boston Globe ran a humiliating article about how “Davis as a boy was afraid of girls.” The Democratic nominee for president was alleged to have “no plans for the immediate future, other than to obtain a needed rest.”

Men standing at 1924 DNC
After 103 ballots and 16 days, the convention was over. One reporter called it "an idiotic and depressing spectacle." Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

On a national scale, the internal strife within the party, its raucous convention and its tacit support of the KKK scuttled the Democrats’ hopes of electoral success.

“This was certainly an embarrassment because it was the first convention that was broadcast on radio,” Lewis says. “So people could tune in and hear all of the folderol.”

As the Yonkers Herald predicted, “The Democratic Convention of 1924 registered chaos so long that even the benign and dignified figure of Mr. Davis will hardly assuage the doubts of the voters.”

Coolidge, running as a stable, time-tested leader, cruised to re-election, winning 54 percent of the popular vote in the three-way race against Davis and La Follette.

“They got what they deserve,” Lewis says of the Democrats’ defeat. “That’s a terrible thing to say, yes. [But] they created this conflict, and they chose poorly.”

The legacy of the 1924 Democratic National Convention

One hundred years after the Democrats came together in Madison Square Garden and nominated Davis, the 1924 DNC still casts a long shadow. It was a convention of extremes—the longest, the first to be broadcast on the radio—but it also came at a moment of deep internal strife for both the party and the nation.

In McVeigh’s view, the KKK’s malign influence, as well as the Democrats’ subsequent loss in the election, was responsible for the “acceleration of realignment in the parties that was already taking place,” paving the way for Smith’s eventual nomination in 1928 and Roosevelt’s New Deal coalition in 1932. (Smith lost to Herbert Hoover in the 1928 presidential election, carrying just eight states.)

1924 marked the first time a Black delegate attended the DNC. A.P. Collins, an alternate from New York, replaced a white delegate who dropped out. In 1928, however, no Black delegates participated in the convention.

Lena Springs
Lena Springs, a women's rights activist from Tennessee, was the first woman nominated for vice president at a major political party's convention. She won 44 votes at the 1924 DNC. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
Geraldine Ferraro
Geraldine Ferraro was the first woman to win the vice presidential nomination. She ran alongside Walter Mondale in 1984. Nancy Wong via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 3.0

Similarly, although the 1924 DNC marked the first time that women were put up for the vice presidential nomination, a woman didn’t secure the candidacy until 1984, when Democrat Geraldine Ferraro ran alongside Walter Mondale.

Reflecting on the 1924 convention’s legacy, Lewis finds hope in its examples of resistance, like Erwin, who spoke up against the KKK. She tells the story of Erwin’s grandson, a seventh-generation Athenian named Milton Leathers, who repeated his grandfather’s speech during a 2017 town meeting about removing a Confederate monument in Georgia.

In Erwin’s words, carried into the 21st century by his proud family and by dedicated scholars like Lewis, “I say that those Georgians who do not take a stand against this hooded menace, which prowls in the darkness, that dares not show its face, is not worthy of his ancestry; and I call upon you, my fellow Georgians, … to purge from your hearts this senseless prejudice.”

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