The Democratic National Convention in History

Posted by: Janine Balekdjian, Consular Intern

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This year’s Democratic National Convention begins on September 3 in Charlotte, North Carolina, a state President Obama won by 0.3% in 2008 (the first Democrat to win the state since Jimmy Carter in 1976).  Since President Obama was never seriously contested for the nomination and Joe Biden will again be running as the Vice Presidential nominee, the most exciting news expected at this convention will be which other Democrats make speeches.  But the Democratic convention wasn’t always so pro forma – in fact, some of the nation’s most significant political events have taken place at past Democratic conventions.

William Jennings Bryan delivering his “Cross of Gold” speech
William Jennings Bryan delivering his “Cross of Gold” speech

Third-party political movements have made history at Democratic conventions.  Over a century ago at the Democratic Convention of 1896, William Jennings Bryan gave one of the most famous speeches in U.S. history, known as the “Cross of Gold” speech for its vehement denunciation of the gold standard.  Bryan was heavily influenced by the Populist Party, the official political manifestation of the populist movement, which saw both the Republicans and Democrats as corrupt gilded-age politicians beholden to wealthy bankers and the railroad industry.  The Populist movement and party were vehicles for ordinary Americans to articulate what they wanted out of a political system that was supposed to serve them.  The Populist movement was largely agricultural, although it had some supporters among industrial laborers.

Populism came to be characterized by the major demand of leaving the gold standard in order to free up the money supply, although the official Populist Party Platform also included nationalization of the railroads, direct election of senators, and an 8-hour workday (these second and third goals have since become U.S. law).  The Populist Party was largely unsuccessful at winning elections on a national level, but did influence the left wing of the Democratic Party.  William Jennings Bryan and his Cross of Gold speech was the result of this influence.  Bryan used Christian metaphors throughout his speech and invoked Jesus in his last line with “You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns; you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold!”  Delegates responded to Bryan’s speech with overwhelming acclamation; it took a full 25 minutes to restore order to the convention.  Prior to Bryan’s speech he was thought to have little chance of winning the nomination, but the electrified delegates voted for him as the Democratic Party nominee.  Bryan’s victory at the convention represented the high water mark for the Populist movement, as he went on to lose the presidency to Republican William McKinley.

Campaign buttons for William Jennings Bryan
Campaign buttons for William Jennings Bryan

The 20thCentury’s most notable Democratic Convention was held in 1968 amidst an atmosphere of national turmoil.  The incumbent Democratic President Lyndon Johnson had announced that he would not seek a second term, opening the floor for other Democrats to seek the nomination.  Robert Kennedy, a popular liberal and brother of John F.

Protestors at the 1968 Democratic National Convention
Protestors at the 1968 Democratic National Convention

Kennedy, had been assassinated while campaigning for the nomination, and Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated earlier in the year.  As was the case in 1896, the convention of 1968 took place in a political environment where large portions of the population trusted neither party.  Hippies, peace activists, and student radicals were often far to the left of the Democratic Party, and the Democrats continued to support the Vietnam War, which was protested by millions throughout the country.  During the convention, which took place in Chicago, a group of radicals known as Yippies staged a 10,000 person protest outside the convention, and Mayor Daley called in 23,000 policemen and National Guard members to confront them.  Violence erupted, instigated by the police but returned by the protestors, and the police used so much tear gas against the protestors that it reached the Democratic nominee Hubert Humphrey in his room in the Hilton Hotel.  The media decried the police brutality – CBS News anchor Dan Rather was even punched – but the abuse of authority by Chicago’s police and mayor was overshadowed by continuing concerns over the Vietnam War and urban lawlessness.

Fortunately, no violence on the scale of 1968 has taken place at any convention since then.  President Obama is uncontested as the Democratic nominee, but anyone watching the convention can hope for a speech just as electrifying as William Jennings Bryan’s. *

* Or, perhaps, get a glimpse of the next Democratic president. The keynote speakers for the 1988 and 2004 conventions, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, each went on to become president four years later.

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