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Political Conventions: A Look Way Back

The national conventions of both political parties in 2020 will be historic. Because of the pandemic, speeches will be given primarily via Zoom with very few people in official attendance.

political convention

In 2020, Democrats were to have met in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, starting on August 17. The Republican Party planned to meet in Charlotte, North Carolina. Later President Trump requested that his speech be given in an arena where there could be a big crowd. The Republican organizers switched his speech to Jacksonville, Florida. More recently, when the pandemic numbers worsened in Florida, that plan was scrapped. Right now it seems the president will speak on the White House lawn.

When I wrote my book, Election Day: An American Holiday, An American History, I combed through clippings from many local newspapers around the country.  Perhaps because I was born in Colorado, the stories about Denver being selected for the Democratic Convention in 1908 caught my eye. This material did not make it into the book, but the stories are wonderful and reveal so much about what makes this country great.

Here is some of the 1908 story:

Why Denver?

By the early twentieth century, Denver was still a very new city. (It was founded after 1858.) The area grew quickly when gold was found, but it soon saw that bust could follow boom. When more gold was found elsewhere, many miners moved on. Despite this, Denver still grew to become the commercial center of the Rocky Mountain region. 

From this experience, the city fathers recognized the importance of having broad commercial appeal. As they saw it, Denver had the potential to be the “Paris on the Platte.” One of the projects to help grow the community was construction of a new convention center. The auditorium seated 12,000 people, and they didn’t cut corners. A total of $550,000 was spent to put up an elegant building with excellent indoor amenities.

When an opportunity to bid on a political convention came up, the men realized this could provide a great showcase for the city.

The Mile High City would have been happy with either the Democrats or the Republicans, but the Democrats were a particularly good fit. The man who was expected to be their candidate was William Jennings Bryan. Bryan was a huge “free silver” advocate so that made him well-liked in the area since so many towns in the Rockies mined silver.

Selecting the City

For either national committee, the selection of the city involves two elements. The first is whether the convention-goers will be well taken care of. The second consideration is financial—will the host city invest in the event? If a political convention is coming to town, it’s going to mean great things for local businesses. 

In the early 1900s, few Americans would have visited Denver, because it was so far west for most Americans. The site visit was very important. The Democratic National Committee needed to come into the city to see that “wild Indians” did not roam the streets and that the men did not all wear buckskin.

Reporters, of course, had great fun with this type of information. One wrote: “…I don’t know a woman in Denver who carries more than one revolver when she comes downtown shopping.”

Money on the Table

After visiting the city and touring the almost-complete auditorium, the national committee and the city fathers needed to talk money. The Denver committee knew that a meeting in Colorado would mean more travel for almost all the attendees. For that reason, they offered the use of the new civic auditorium rent-free, and they added $100,000 for additional expenses. 

The other two cities being considered by the Democrats were Chicago and Louisville, Kentucky. Louisville pledged $30,000. Chicago offered only $25,000. (No one really wanted to go to Chicago where the convention would be held in the hastily-built, ramshackle facility known as the Wigwam.) These paltry offers against Denver’s substantial one, and the new auditorium made the decision an easy one.   

One member of the DNC, a congressman from Alabama, raised the issue that accepting such a large sum of money was tantamount to permitting Denver to “buy” the convention. He suggested any unused funds should be returned to Denver.

“Wiser heads” prevailed, and the full contribution was accepted by the Democratic National Committee.

Heightened Security

For any political event in our country today, special security measures are necessary. This was true in Denver as well.  The Denver Police hired sixteen additional officers to help out at the DNC in Denver that year.

While sixteen extra officers doesn’t sound like much, it was not uncommon for men in that day to take security issues into their own hands. The Denver Post (July 7, 1908) reported that the Tammany delegation, traveling by rail from New York to Denver, was angered by a pickpocket who lifted from one of their men a wallet containing $500 and train tickets.

Once the theft was realized, an alert was sent out, and all passengers and crew on the train were searched. The wallet was recovered, and the owner received the return of his $500 and the train tickets as well as $8.35 in silver, a Waterbury watch, and the gold fillings in the thief’s teeth.

The train was passing through Ohio when the transgression occurred. The Tammany fellows held on to the crook until the train had reached a point in the wilderness about eighty miles from anywhere. As they crossed a river, they tossed him off the train. The Denver Post reporter concludes: “The next time that a pickpocket starts out to rob a delegation of prominent Democrats, he will skip the men from Tammany Hall.”

The Right Place?

Was the DNC happy with their choice? One reporter certainly seemed to think the right decision was made: With a heading of No Wilted Collars, The Rocky Mountain News reported this on July 5, 1908:

“Looking down on the crowd in the Brown [Hotel] lobby, I thought of the leaking Wigwam in Chicago, where people sweltered and suffered. I thought of Kansas City, where the hungry horde passed over the town like the locusts and everybody was dusty and sticky. St. Louis well, St. Louis should not be spoke of…”

“But this convention is different. Not a wilted collar, not a palm-leaf fan, nobody apologizing for his shirt sleeves and carrying his coat over his arm, the picture of moist misery. Nobody sitting in a corner, wishing he had remained at home next to the refrigerator and ice-water pitcher, nobody mopping his steaming countenance and saying, Is this hot enough for you?”

Snow and Other July Arrangements

Denver organizers went to a great effort to put on its best face for the attendees.

Denverites built a “Welcome” arch to greet the delegates as they emerged from Union Station. It was made of bronze-coated steel that was illuminated by hundreds of lights. The landmark stood at the foot of Seventeenth Street for 23 years until it was torn down in 1931.

They also wanted to give the convention-goers something very special to remember about Colorado. Those who know the state know that snow can generally be found in the Rockies throughout the summer. (Global warming is making this less common, however.)

The citizens of Denver arranged for great masses of snow to be brought in by rail and piled in ten-foot mounds near the new civic auditorium. The snow was under police guard. Natives were to leave it untouched, but out-of-state visitors could play in it to their hearts content. “Many wearing white suits and Panama hats, plunged their arms in the cool white pile, rolled snowballs, washed each other’s faces with it and rolled it into small marble-sized balls in order to suck the coolness.”

Workmen had been busy all weekend to decorate Sixteenth and Seventeenth Streets with buntings and flags, and the stores in the surrounding area featured political themes in their display windows. As the delegates arrived, each group was met by a marching band that escorted them to their assigned hotel. Everywhere there were city residents sporting, “Ask Me” buttons.

Many Things To Do

From the moment the delegates arrived, the city offered plenty to amuse them. Bands played, and stump speakers addressed whoever would listen. Gilpin County arranged for sightseeing trains to visit the mine around Central City and Black Hawk.

Denver also arranged for a flatbed rail car with a band of forty real Indians. “The red men gave war dances and all sorts of other dances, intermingled with war whoops that struck momentary terror to the hearts of Easterners.” (The Denver Post, July 8, 1908.)

The delegates themselves did not come empty-handed. Most arrived with promotional items from their home states. It was particularly noted that the California delegation gave away small packages of California prunes wrapped in the American flag.

“…the California delegation gave away small packages of California prunes wrapped in the American flag.”

The Denver Post, July 8, 1908

Just Like Now

But 24 hours before the convention was to start, The Denver Post noted problems: “It is almost impossible to get a telephone connection within twenty minutes. The food supply ran out at about 9 o’clock this morning, and all this afternoon they have been diluting coffee and handling dried peaches to people who wanted cantaloupe or grapefruit.”

Denver Reporters Observe All

The arrival of the men from Tammany Hall was a much-anticipated event. From The Rocky Mountain News: “Five trains bulging with 600 Tammanyites shed their enthusiastic cargoes in the morning…”

Another newspaper, The Denver Republican, wrote: “With a rumbling purr that was distinctly heard out by City Park, the Tiger, the Tammany Tiger, whose switching tail has lashed the voters of so many historic elections into line, stuck his head out of the Union Depot yesterday morning, shot a rapid fire of penetrating glances to right and left, and finding the place to his liking, moved majestically up the street.”

The article went on to describe them as the men with the “molting bank rolls.”

Where is the Candidate?

While both Joe Biden and Donald Trump will be far from their convention sites because of the novel coronavirus, they are in some ways taking a page from history.

Just as candidates did not campaign themselves during the early days of our country, it was also customary that candidates not attend the nominating conventions.  The first president to attend a convention was Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1932. He and his advisors decided he needed to appear in order to put to rest rumors that he was not well enough to run for president.

During the Denver convention, William Jennings Bryan remained at Fairview, his farm near Lincoln, Nebraska. During the day he cut some alfalfa, and area farmers dropped by to visit with him.

William Jennings Bryan in Nebraska

The final night of the convention, Bryan sat with his family and one or two close friends in the kitchen of their farmhouse. They listened to the convention by telephone. Organizers rigged a megaphone to a telephone in the convention hall, and this was connected to a long-distance telephone line.

At about 3:40 a.m. that next morning, Bryan finally received the nomination. Through this enhanced telephone line, Bryan heard for himself the roaring of the delegates,

For the third time, the Democrats turned to the popular candidate from Nebraska. John W. Kern of Indiana was selected as his running mate.

Post-Convention Sightseeing

After the convention, The Denver Republican reported that 50 Tammany Tigers took the Union Pacific to Yellowstone “for the purpose of verifying the report that up there one can see things that spout more persistently than a bunch of Democratic spellbinders.”

Here’s an interesting story about Warren Harding’s dog and how he helped with the election.

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