By Stan M. Haynes
6:00 AM EDT, June 25, 2012
This summer, the Republican and Democratic parties will hold their presidential nominating conventions in Tampa, Fla., and Charlotte, N.C. In so doing, they will continue a political ritual that began 180 years ago in Baltimore. From their inception in the campaign of 1832 and continuing through the Civil War, Baltimore was the city of choice for conventions, hosting a dozen, compared to only two each for its closest competitors. The last 19th-century convention to be held in Baltimore was in 1872. By then, with the population shifting westward, conventions moved primarily to Midwestern cities, particularly Chicago.
Baltimore, however, had one last moment in the nation's political spotlight. On June 25, 1912, a century ago today, the Monumental City hosted the Democratic Party's convention in the newly constructed Fifth Regiment Armory. Baltimore beat out St. Louis, New York, and Denver as the host city, with the help of a check for $100,000 to the Democratic National Committee, which had been raised by local civic leaders. On the Saturday before the convention's opening, the armory, with its elaborate patriotic decorations, was open to the public, and more than 250,000 Baltimoreans strolled through to take a look. In 1912, the Democrats, after having lost the last four presidential elections, smelled victory. A week before the Baltimore convention, the Republicans met in Chicago and left the Windy City in disarray. The incumbent president, William Howard Taft, won the GOP nomination, beating back a strong challenge from former president Theodore Roosevelt. It was widely expected that Roosevelt would run as a third-party candidate, thereby splitting the Republican vote and leading to a Democratic victory in the fall.
There were four leading candidates for the Democratic nomination: Champ Clark of Missouri, speaker of the House; Woodrow Wilson, governor of New Jersey; Oscar Underwood of Mississippi, majority leader of the House; and Judson Harmon, governor of Ohio. Clark and Wilson were the progressives, or liberals, in the race, while Underwood and Harmon were the conservatives. Going into the convention, Clark led with 413 pledged delegates, compared with 274 for Wilson, 91 for Underwood and 57 for Harmon. Approximately 250 were unpledged or pledged to others. The Democrats in that era required a two-thirds vote of all delegates for the nomination, meaning 726 votes were needed to win the prize.
At that time, presidential candidates did not attend conventions. One potential candidate, however, was in Baltimore. William Jennings Bryan, a three-time nominee of the party (in 1896, 1900 and 1908), was a delegate from Nebraska. Many believed that Bryan hoped for a deadlocked convention and that the party would then turn to him for a fourth time. As the nation's best-known Democrat, Bryan arrived in Baltimore to a reception befitting a modern-day rock star. His train at Pennsylvania Station was met by hundreds of admirers. Trailed by dozens of taxis filled with reporters, his entourage made its way to the Belvedere Hotel, where a throng of hundreds more supporters awaited. Bryan announced upon his arrival his opposition to the Democratic National Committee's choice of Alton Parker of New York, the party's 1904 nominee, to be the convention's temporary chairman. Parker was a conservative, and Bryan wanted a progressive in that prominent position, the duties of which included presiding over the opening day and delivering the keynote speech. Bryan announced that he would lead a floor fight to challenge Parker. It became clear that the convention would be a battle between Bryan and his foes within the party.
The convention opened at noon on Tuesday, June 25, with a prayer for peace and harmony by Baltimore's 77-year-old Cardinal Gibbons. While the last amen still echoed in the armory, Bryan launched into a virulent speech attacking the nomination of Parker for temporary chairman and accusing him of being a tool of Tammany Hall and Wall Street. Bryan himself ended up being the alternative candidate opposing Parker, but lost by a vote of 579 to 508. The conservatives had won the first skirmish.
In reaction to Parker's victory, Democrats from around the country sent more than 100,000 telegrams to delegates in Baltimore, demanding that a progressive candidate be nominated for president. Later, Bryan threw down another gauntlet, offering a resolution opposing any nominee supported by "the privilege-hunting and favor-seeking class" and demanding the expulsion as delegates of two prominent Wall Street Democrats. An uproar ensued, with threats of bodily harm to Bryan from several delegates, but a watered-down version of the resolution, condemning the influence of Wall Street, was passed.
After an all-night session on Thursday, June 27, the first ballot for the nomination was taken early Friday morning. Clark led with 440.5 votes, compared to 324 for Wilson, 148 for Harmon, and 117.5 for Underwood. There was little movement until the 10th ballot, when New York's massive block of 90 votes shifted from Harmon to Clark. The New York delegation was controlled by the leaders of Tammany Hall, the political organization notorious for graft and corruption. With New York's votes, Clark had a majority of the votes cast. Not since 1844 had a Democratic candidate attained a majority vote and failed to go on to win the nomination. The contest seemed over. Clark prepared a victory telegram, while Wilson suggested to his managers in Baltimore that his name be withdrawn. Support from New York, however, turned out to be the kiss of death for Clark. On Saturday, Bryan, seemingly always in the spotlight, announced that all nine of Clark's Nebraska delegate votes, including his own, were switching to Wilson, because they could not stomach supporting the same candidate favored by Tammany Hall and Wall Street. Slowly, other votes began to shift to Wilson. On Tuesday, July 2, after much deal-making, Wilson finally went over the two-thirds threshold on the 46th ballot and won the nomination. As predicted, it turned out to be a three-way contest in the fall election, with Wilson easily winning over Roosevelt's third-party candidacy and the incumbent Republican president, Taft.
The 1912 Democratic convention turned out to be, at least for a century, Baltimore's last hurrah as a convention city. With modern conventions usually now held in cities located in competitive swing states, the likelihood of Baltimore hosting another convention in the foreseeable future is slim. The city has a rich history, however, from the 19th century and the 1912 gathering, of a time when the road to the White House passed through Baltimore.
Stan M. Haynes, a Baltimore attorney, is the author of the recently published book, "The First American Political Conventions: Transforming Presidential Nominations 1832-1872." For more information about the book, go to http://www.americanpolitcalconventions.com.
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