Did the Republican and Democratic Party conventions this year leave you longing for something more spontaneous and democratic? Satiate your intellectual yearning by tuning in to a recent episode of BackStory with the American History Guys. “Conventional Wisdom: A History of American Political Conventions” delves into the history of conventions and examines times when the stake were high and the outcomes were far from certain.
The American History Guys (a.k.a. Peter Onuf, Ed Ayers and the Miller Center’s own Brian Balogh) begin with a discussion of conventions in the 19th century when conventions were in their political heyday, when there was real brokering and when delegates were held accountable by the people they represented in their district. These conventions were a strange mix of civics and debauchery, lubricated by male bonding (including liquor and prostitutes) to persuade swing votes. 19th century conventions also served as hiring halls because governance was based on a patronage system controlled by the parties.
The episode also delves into the important questions of when and whether conventions have represented the people. In July 1848, for example, activists convened the Seneca Falls convention on women’s rights. Why was it a convention and not a meeting? Elizabeth Cady Stanton was intent on organizing a convention to set an agenda for the women’s rights movement that would be taken as seriously as the agenda for a political party. It was a way of saying: we want to be part of the system.
In 1964, activists also brought the struggle of civil rights and the challenges of segregation to the Democratic Party convention in Atlantic city. The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party comprised mostly of African Americans and two caucasians, arrived as a separate delegation to the party convention seeking representation. Lyndon B. Johnson, hoping not to alienate the white, southern base of the Democratic Party, told Hubert Humphrey that if he could prevent a walkout, he would get the number two position on the ticket. Humphrey took the bait and urged the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party to accept a compromise of two seats. The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party didn’t accept the offer and instead chose to demonstrate on the streets of the Chicago. That was where the real action in 1964 occurred. The lesson drawn is that protesters focus attention to the unrepresentativeness of institutions, including conventions.
If you long for the days of convention spontaneity, such as the 1896 convention in which William Jennings Bryan delivered his famous Cross of God speech that propelled him to the presidential nomination, be sure to listen to this episode of BackStory. As the American History Guys and their guests demonstrate, while some conventions have perpetrated the politics of exclusion, other conventions been used as venues for change.