Conventional Wisdom

A History of American Political Conventions

Published: July 24, 2012

Attendees at the 1952 Republican National Convention, Chicago, IL (LOC)

In the coming weeks, delegates from the Republican and Democratic parties will gather at highly choreographed events to formally anoint their respective presidential nominees.  But the decisions that these conventioneers make will for the most part have been cemented long before.

But American political conventions haven’t always been so uneventful.  The conventions that led to American independence and our Constitution were anything but predetermined.  In the 19th century, dark horse candidates emerged out of smoke-filled rooms to take the reins of their political parties, while disenfranchised groups in American society, such as women and African Americans, held their own conventions to debate the radical measures that they would take to achieve equality. New Englanders in 1814 and Southerners in 1860 met in conventions to determine whether they would secede from the Union. Even in the 20th century, struggles over who would have a voice in the Democratic conventions of 1964 and 1968 showed that conventions could still be pretty surprising.

In this episode of BackStory, the American History Guys will explore some of the reasons American political conventions lost their punch. Considering the radical nature of conventions in the past, why does “conventional” connote “blasé”  today?  Please help us to shape this episode—post your unconventional comments, questions, and ideas below!


Comments (9)

{Discussion is closed
  1. Marc Naimark

    As y’all know, I’m part of the Federation of Gay Games and we’re having a debate on the need for a physical meeting of delegates at our annual general assembly, a sort of convention. Today there are so many ways to meet and exchange, but pre-20th century, conventions must have been an amazing opportunity to travel and meet.

    I’d like to hear about the experience of those conventioneers. Would this kind of travel be an exceptional and unique moment in their lives? What was it like as an experience: I imagine the noise, the heat, the excitement. Are those aspects what still make conventions useful, even as they become pointless?

  2. Andrew

    I am a big lover of political and social history, but there is one quest that has eluded me: when did the Republican Party become associated with “The South” and the Democratic Party become associated with “The North”?

    Lincoln, by all accounts a Northerner, was a famous Republican and his election was a major part of the Democratic South to secede. How/when did the parties switch sides and is this something that happens more often than I realize?

  3. Megan

    Please include 1964, the Mississippi Democratic Freedom Party, the 1964 Democratic convention and the incomparable Ella Baker.

  4. Stuart

    I’m familiar with modern convention protests and police activity particularly during the 2005 [1,2] and 2008 [3,4] Republican National Conventions and, to a lesser extent during the 2008 [5] Democratic National Convention. Recent activity pales in comparison to the mid-20th century (from what I understand of the 1968 Democratic National Convention), but what was it like in earlier years? There were some rough times in the 19th century. Did protesters protest at 19th century conventions like they do today? How did the authorities respond?

    [1] “City Police Spied Broadly Before G.O.P. Convention”
    [2] “Report: Rights and Wrongs at the RNC (2005)”
    [3] “St. Paul Police Conduct Mass Preemptive Raids Ahead of Republican Convention”
    [4] “I-Witness Video Collective Forced Out of Living Space After Second Raid by St. Paul Police in Five Days”
    [5] “As Democratic Convention Kicks Off, Massive Security Presence Clamps Down on Dissent in Denver”

  5. Walter Bissex

    My great great grandfather was a delegate to the Pennsylvania Prohibition Party convention in 1898. Would love to know more about that and other parties that have come and gone over the years

  6. Jack Hirsch

    I listened to your political convention episode today and was disappointed in part of the coverage of 1964. The impression was given that Lyndon Johnson’s only connection with the MFDP was to suppress it to avoid antagonizing the south and thus losing votes. Also unchallenged was the statement that there was an unbroken line from the MFDP in 1964 to one of its members becoming Democratic Chairman in Mississippi in 1979. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, passed just before the convention, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 would not have passed without the intense lobbying of Lyndon Johnson, who rightly predicted that doing so would lose the south for the Democrats. Johnson deserves better than the impression you left of him.

    And guys, please stop using the term “the reason is because.” You know better.

  7. Karen Morgan

    I think the historic strength of political parties was that they were where people of different constituencies and issues came together to hammer out a platform and, here’s the important part, they learned the value of compromise! The very skill which our current legislative branch apparently has forgotten or never had!

    I believe democracy is on a very slippery slope to decline and I think it started when the parties became weaker, and weaker and fewer people participate in party affairs. I think the average American has no experience in civil affairs and so has no experiential basis for their political decisions.