Monday, April 11, 2016

The Grandaddy of All Contested Conventions: The Great Klanbake of 1924

The pundits are all talking about the Republican Convention of 1880. That's not the historical precedent that worries me. In 1924 the Democrats showed up in NYC, in the middle of a heat wave (long before AC) with the Ku Klux Klan comprising the largest block of delegates, and all hell broke loose....

 Many historic precedents of contested conventions can be cited, but the most contested of all was without question the Democratic Convention of 1924. By the time convention delegates convened in New York City on June 24, there was ample evidence that the Democratic party was deeply divided. As the leading quipster of that day, Finley Peter Dunne (“Mr. Dooley”), wrote, “The Dimmycratic Party ain’t on speakin’ terms with itself.” Former president Woodrow Wilson’s son-in-law (and Treasury secretary), William Gibbs McAdoo, and the governor of New York, Al Smith, had squared off over the main issues, with a generous portion of personal animosity thrown in. Each held enough delegate votes to prevent the other from being nominated. At that time the Democratic party labored under the requirement of a two-thirds nominating majority, and it was clear neither Smith nor McAdoo could achieve it.

To make matters worse, the hot-button social issues of the day were enmeshed in religion and evoked a white-hot fervor on all sides. Prohibition, immigration, and the KKK were the issues, and there appeared to be no room for compromise. The convention opened with an explosive floor fight over the party’s platform. Record-setting temperatures outside produced what reporters called “furnace-like air in the draped hall that kept fans and straw hats waving vigorously.” By the third day the Washington Post was reporting “Delegates in Fist Fights on Floor Over Klan.”

Al Smith and his anti-prohibition forces had the whiskey flowing, while McAdoo and his pro-prohibition delegates piously called for divine retribution against the “big city wets.” Former secretary of the Navy and veteran Democratic warhorse Josephus Daniels wrote from the convention to the folks back home in North Carolina: “This convention is chock full of religion. It eats religion, dreams it, smokes it.” He warned the Democrats not to forsake “the denunciation of Republicans for religious warfare among themselves.”

After endless wrangling and grandstanding, the convention staggered to the adoption of a platform that was noteworthy only for its failure to confront the big issues. Nothing of substance was said about prohibition, immigration, the League of Nations, or the KKK. It did make a gracious acknowledgement of President Harding’s recent death; but even that was contested. The original wording stated, “Our Party stands uncovered at the bier of Warren G. Harding. . . . ” But the prohibitionists insisted on substituting “grave” for “bier,” lest some of their supporters back home take offense.

Read the rest here.

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