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The Craziest Convention in American History

Think this year’s Democratic convention is going to be nuts? One hundred years ago, Democrats took 103 ballots—and more than two weeks—to choose a candidate.

Protesters with signs denouncing the Ku Klux Klan congregate at the 1924 Democratic National Convention.
Andrew C. Erwin of Georgia/Getty
Anti-KKK demonstrators at the 1924 Democratic National Conventions

A century ago—at precisely 12:45 in the afternoon on June 24, 1924—party chairman Cordell Hull opened the Democratic convention with a bang of his gavel. Little did Hull or any of the 1,098 delegates—virtually all white and overwhelmingly male—grasp that they were about to endure 16 days and 103 ballots of the most raucous, rambunctious, and riotous convention in history. 

Riven by a bitter debate over whether to denounce the reborn Ku Klux Klan by name, the convention proved to be a transition point that helped create the modern inclusive, urban-based Democratic Party. It featured the first major speech by Franklin Roosevelt after he was felled by polio and the last convention that William Jennings Bryan (the party’s nominee in 1896, 1900, and 1908) ever attended. The setting was apt: The soon-to-be-torn-down, Stanford White–designed incarnation of Madison Square Garden, where even rigorous cleaning and acres of bunting could not completely erase the scent from a prior event: the Barnum and Bailey Circus.

Modern conventions in both parties have descended into heavily scripted informationals with all the spontaneity of an A.I.-written romcom. Reliving the 1924 convention serves as a window into a bygone era of party politics, conveying both the exuberance of an open convention and the dangers of deadlock. In conjuring up the high points of this epic political event, I have relied on historian Robert K. Murray’s sparkling 1976 book, The 103rd Ballot, and contemporary newspaper clips, including the viciously anti-Klan dispatches of H.L. Mencken in the Baltimore Evening Sun.

Protracted conventions were not a novelty for the Democrats. New Jersey Governor Woodrow Wilson was nominated on the forty-sixth ballot in 1912. The reason was a quirk in Democratic Party rules dating back to the era of Andrew Jackson: It required a two-thirds vote (732 delegates in 1924) rather than a simple majority to anoint a nominee. The two-thirds rule was popular with most factions of the party for it lessened fears of being steamrolled by a sudden rush to judgment by the delegates. It was also not the core problem in 1924: Until the dam broke at the end of the convention, no contender even mustered the support of a majority of the delegates. The reason for the fragmentation: 16 candidates (mostly favorite sons with backing from a single state) were nominated for president before the balloting began. 

The Daily News, New York’s leading tabloid, captured the opening-gun mood: “On the eve of the convention, which bids fair to be the most dramatic and spectacular in the history of such political gatherings, everything was in the laps of the gods. Not even the bosses knew what was going to happen.” 

The winter-book favorite was former Treasury Secretary William Gibbs McAdoo, a California transplant who was the late Woodrow Wilson’s son-in-law. The straitlaced McAdoo was an unstinting supporter of Prohibition; in maneuvering for the nomination, he refused to denounce the Klan for fear of offending his many Southern and small-town supporters. But on the way to the convention, McAdoo slipped on an oil slick. It was revealed that wealthy oilman Edward Doheny, a key figure in the Teapot Dome scandal, had paid McAdoo $50,000 (more than $900,000 today) in legal fees. 

McAdoo’s nemesis was New York Governor Al Smith, a Klan-loathing Catholic with an eighth-grade education who was notoriously unsympathetic to Prohibition. Smith, with his Lower East Side “dem-dose” diction and his close ties to Tammany Hall, was the most successful politician to emerge from the urban immigrant communities that were forging the Democratic Party’s future. But Smith was anathema to the Southern and Western Democrats who were still loyal to Bryan. As a wag put it on the eve of the convention, “McAdoo’s too oily and Smith’s too wet.” 

The convention was broadcast nationwide on radio as every roll-call ballot began with a booming Southern male voice elongating every syllable as he announced, “Alabama casts 24 votes for Oscar W. Underwood.” That oft-repeated line quickly became a national joke. But Underwood, a two-term Alabama senator, proved a key figure at the convention as the fieriest opponent of the Klan aside from perhaps Smith. Underwood’s stance embodied the complexities of the Klan issue. In its rebirth in the 1920s, the Klan went beyond white-sheet terrorism against Blacks in the South to also excoriate Catholics, Jews, and immigrants. As a result, the locus of the Invisible Empire’s power moved north to small towns and rural communities from the Midwest to the Pacific coast in Oregon. On the eve of the convention, Mencken mocked the Klan for believing that “Vatican gold to a vast amount has been pouring into town for a week past, and 10,000 Jesuits have been landed secretly on the Long Island coast.” 

Here is how the next four days played out: 

June 25: The serious business of the convention began with the roll call of states for nominations for president. Any sense that this would be routine ended when Alabama’s Fordney Johnson declared, in nominating Underwood, that the convention must denounce the “hooded and secret organization known as the Ku Klux Klan.” Johnson could barely get out the words before the Alabama and New York delegations proudly rushed into the aisles. Police had to be called to the floor of the convention as fights broke out in the Missouri and Colorado delegations over whether to join the anti-Klan demonstration. Only when the band began playing, America, did the delegates calm down.

On a steamy afternoon, in an auditorium without air conditioning, the session ended with a pedestrian nominating speech for McAdoo followed by an hour-long floor demonstration that featured bobbing placards from 27 separate states as delegates shouted, “Mac! Mac! McAdoo!” The New York Times reported, “The McAdoo demonstration was longer, but the anti-Klan demonstration seemed more heartfelt.” 

June 26: For the first two days of the convention, there had been a curious shortage of tickets to the galleries. In a standard bit of convention chicanery, they had been hoarded by the hometown Smith forces to pack the Garden. Adding to the drama, Franklin Roosevelt (three years after he had contracted polio) was to deliver the nominating speech. FDR, the party’s losing 1920 vice presidential nominee, was brought to the speaker’s platform in a wheelchair. When the moment came, Roosevelt strapped on his crutches and took the arm of his 17-year-old son, James, to hobble to the microphones to deliver the speech that remade his career. Deliberately playing down the passions of the moment, Roosevelt outlined Smith’s impressive record as an activist governor. But what shimmered in memory both in the convention hall and for the millions at home listening to FDR’s first radio address was the moment he called Smith (borrowing a line from William Wordsworth), “the Happy Warrior of the political battlefield.” 

The New York papers were ecstatic. The Daily News declared that the “McAdoo demonstration of the day before paled into insignificance … alongside the tremendous ovation with which the name of Al Smith was received by the delegates.” But Mencken shrewdly captured the larger significance of what was occurring as the Garden shook to its rafters: “The anti-Klan sentiment is now raging furiously—so furiously that it threatens to get away from the leaders and bring on a genuine battle to the death.”

June 27: The convention was slowing down with a day devoted to the nomination of favorite-son candidates, including West Virginia’s John W. Davis (a former solicitor general and ambassador to Great Britain under Wilson) and Nebraska Governor Charles Bryan (the younger brother of the “Cross of Gold” orator). Plus the already-weary delegates were subjected to a mind-numbing torrent of seconding speeches, including those for candidates nominated earlier in the week like McAdoo and Smith. 

But some wily delegates figured out a way to deal with the tedium and the strictures of Prohibition. The Daily News in a police-blotter item reported that a Chicago alderman named Joseph Mendel was arrested in the lobby of the Hotel Pennsylvania when it was discovered that his jangling suitcase was filled with champagne. Mendel was released on a $500 bond in night court so he could return to his duties as an Illinois delegate. 

June 28: On the fifth day of the convention, the delegates finally arrived at the main event. No, not the nomination fight between McAdoo and Smith. But rather the party-defining platform battle over whether to denounce the Klan by name. For days, the platform committee had been working behind the scenes to successfully paper over the party’s position on contentious issues like Prohibition and the League of Nations. 

But when dawn broke on Saturday morning, June 28, the Klan issue still cast a white-sheeted pall over everything. Even though the 64-year-old William Jennings Bryan was fervently opposed to mentioning the KKK in the platform (arguing, according to the Times, that “four years hence, the Klan organization would be forgotten”), he tried to play conciliator. At one point, during the platform committee’s deliberations, he suggested that an anti-Klan resolution could be passed as long as it was not formally part of the platform. 

By 6 a.m., Bryan realized that desperate measures were needed. The three-time presidential nominee pointedly called upon a Catholic delegate from Pennsylvania to recite the Lord’s Prayer. Then Bryan offered a prayer of his own: “Guide and direct us in our work today that the people of our party … may be better for our coming together in this convention and this committee.”

When the sleep-deprived platform committee then voted 40–14 in favor of a plank that denounced bigotry without singling out the Klan, the battle was joined. There would be a floor on the platform that evening—probably the most important Saturday night session in Democratic Party history. 

Part two can be read here.