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Greatest Hits from Democratic Conventions Since the Progressive Era

FDR delivers his acceptance speech at the 1936 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.

FDR delivers his acceptance speech at the 1936 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. Public Domain.

This week, I’ll be blogging from Charlotte, North Carolina about the Democratic National Convention, as well as many of the side events and shadow conventions that receive less coverage from the mainstream media. Last week, Robert Saldin, who was blogging for RTT from Tampa, Florida for the Republican Convention, offered his top four Greatest Hits in the Modern History of Republican Conventions. In this post, I offer what I think are some of the Greatest Hits from Democratic Conventions since the Progressive Era. Be sure to stay tuned this week for my “Missives from a Shadow Delegate.”

  1. William Jennings Bryan captured the party’s nomination in 1896 with a speech in which he famously declared, "You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold!" In the “Cross of Gold” speech, Bryan argued that the Democratic Party’s focus on bi-metallism in its platform was justified because a gold standard alone could not solve the country’s problems at the time, including debt, small business failure, and monopolies. According to Bryan, if silver was restored, “all other necessary reforms will be possible.” He compared the situation to fights over the national bank, arguing: “What we need is an Andrew Jackson to stand, as Jackson stood, against the encroachments of organized wealth.” In the speech, Bryan also connected the Democratic Party’s tradition since Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson against moneyed interests in favor of the little guy. Bryan favored a regulatory role for government in issuing money and called for banks to “go out of the governing business.”
  2. In 1932, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the first presidential candidate to deliver an acceptance speech at a party convention. When he learned he had secured the nomination, FDR flew from Albany to Chicago to deliver the speech at the convention. He said, "I know that this is breaking precedent to appear before you on this floor, but we're in a middle of a Great Depression, and I intend to break a lot of precedents this year and also as President." In his acceptance speech, FDR also told the delegates, “I pledge you, I pledge myself, to a new deal for the American people.” The catch phrase became the basis for the sweeping political and economic changes FDR would enact as president. As I’ve noted previously on RTT, I also think FDR’s acceptance speech in 1936 was important for defining a new understanding of government.
  3. In 1976, Barbara Jordan became the first black and the first woman to deliver the Democratic Party’s keynote address. Instead of focusing on the nation’s problems, Jordan advocated coming together as a “national community.” “It's tough, difficult, not easy,” Jordan told the delegates, “But a spirit of harmony will survive in America only if each of us remembers that we share a common destiny; if each of us remembers, when self-interest and bitterness seem to prevail, that we share a common destiny.” Jordan was also the first female black senator elected to the Texas State Senate and she served as a U.S. Congresswoman from 1973-1978. Read the Miller Center’s Oral History with Jordan here.
  4. Barack Obama’s 2004 keynote address to the Democratic Convention in Boston made him a rising star in the party. In 2008, he became the first African American presidential candidate in the history of the two major political parties and accepted the nomination on the 45th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. In the acceptance speech, Obama said both individual responsibility and mutual responsibility are “the essence of America’s promise,” and he called for a progressive agenda of change, while appealing to voters of all stripes.

Which convention speech or speeches would you would to the list of “greatest hits”?

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