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Political conventions haven’t always been predictable, carefully choreographed parties. Starting with the first convention in 1831, these gatherings were rife with fighting, intrigue, nail-biting votes and even murder. We talk to a convention historian about the wheeling and dirty dealing that went on at our country’s first political conventions, and explore some of the raucous events that changed history.
- Stan M. Haynes Author, "The First American Political Conventions: Transforming Presidential Nominations, 1832-1872 (McFarland & Co, Jefferson, NC); Attorney, Semmes, Bowen & Semmes
MR. KOJO NNAMDICharlotte opens its first political convention today, but we can all pretty much predict what will happen. We'll see excited delegations with big signs and goofy hate. We'll hear the roll call and the presentation of the party platform. Then there will be the fiery speeches, glossy videos and President Obama's big speech. Political conventions didn't use to be this predictable. In fact, anyone over 50 could tell you that there used to be real drama at conventions.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIWould you believe me if I told you that a guy plucked out of a bar decided the vice presidential pick in 1836? Yes, when these big parties started 180 years ago backstabbing and dirty tricks were a hallmark of picking the next Commander in Chief. Stan Hayes (sic) spent more than two years researching the wheeling and dealing that went on at our country's first political convention.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIHe joins us from studios at WAMU. He is the author of "The First American Political Conventions: Transforming Presidential Nominations, 1832 - 1872." He's also an attorney at Semmes, Bowen & Semmes in Baltimore. Stan Hayes, thank you for joining us.
MR. STAN HAYNESGood afternoon, Kojo. Thanks for having me. It's actually Haynes instead of Hayes.
NNAMDIYes, Stan Haynes. I seem to have dropped the N someplace in there. There are so many interesting stories about our early political convention, then you start your book with a fascinating one. An alleged murder led to the very first nominating convention for the presidency. Tell us about that.
HAYNESWell, in the 1830s, there was a third party movement called the Anti-Mason Movement. What got that movement started was a Mason in New York, a disgruntled Mason named William Morgan had threatened to go public and to publish all the secret handshakes and all the secret rituals of the Masons. And what happened was the Masons were pretty upset over that so they kidnapped him. And this was in upstate New York and allegedly he was murdered. His body was never found. But more than likely or not he was murdered.
HAYNESAnd there were several hundred Masons that were involved. He was transported across New York State. He was seen kidnapped at Fort Niagara and this began a political movement against the Masons. The Mason were very dominant in the government. George Washington had been a Mason, a lot of the public leaders were Masons. So the Anti-Mason Movement started in the late '20s, early '30s to rid Masons from public office. So this was actually the first political convention that was held in the United States was in the anti-Masons in 1831 in Baltimore. And it was all a movement created over this supposed murderer William Morgan.
NNAMDIFirst political convention was an anti-convention -- an anti-Mason convention. I can only imagine what kind of political platform came out of an anti-Mason political convention. What did it say?
HAYNESWell, you know, it was a one-issue movement so there was one plank in the platform. And the plank was that Masons should not hold public office. A funny story about the convention is their nominee was a fellow named William Wirt, who was a former attorney general of the United States. And at that time nominees did not attend the conventions or address the conventions.
HAYNESWirt was in Baltimore where the convention was held and he wrote an acceptance letter the same afternoon he was nominated. And in his acceptance letter he said, thank you for your nomination but by the way I think you probably should know that I used to be and may still be a Mason. And he offered them a way to withdraw their nomination if they wanted to. So they ended up nominating the person who was a member of the organization that they were creating to remove from public office. They kept him as the nominee. He only won the state of Vermont and by the next election cycle the movement was over.
NNAMDIIn case you're just joining us, our guest is Stan Haynes. He is author of "The First American Political Conventions: Transforming Presidential Nominations, 1832 - 1872." He's also an attorney at Semmes, Bowen & Semmes in Baltimore. If you have questions or comments, what famous moments do you remember from political conventions? Have you participated in a political convention? What are your favorite memories? 800-433-8850 is the number to call. You can also send us email to email@example.com or at Tweet at kojoshow.
NNAMDIFour years after that Mason's convention, the Democrats held another convention in Baltimore where some real shady dealings went on to nominate Martin Van Buren's vice-presidential pick. What happened?
HAYNESWell, Andrew Jackson was the incumbent president and he was retiring from office. And he had picked Martin Van Buren to be his successor in office. They were trying to get rid of -- there was conflict in the Tennessee delegation. Tennessee did not send a delegation to that convention. And as a result some of the convention's managers on the eve of the convention were at a tavern in Baltimore and they found this guy named Edward Rucker who just happened to be in Baltimore on business. And they said, well you know, we don't have a Tennessee delegation here. Would you like to register?
HAYNESSo they got him registered, they got him certified...
NNAMDIAllow me to interrupt for a second.
NNAMDIWhat was he doing in the bar? Did his presence in the bar have any relationship to the convention at all?
HAYNESNone at all. He just happened to be in the City of Baltimore and so they got him registered. And in those days the states were entitled to cast the number of votes at the convention equal to their Electoral College votes. So on that day -- that year Tennessee had 15 electoral votes. And states would often send more than the allotted number or less than the allotted number of delegates but they got to cast the exact number of delegates. So if you had 60 delegates from Tennessee they could only cast 15 votes, so each delegate would cast a fraction.
HAYNESIt worked the other way too. If you only had two or three you got to cast the full 15. Well, this fellow Rucker was the only one there from Tennessee and they allowed him to cast the full 15 votes at the convention for that state. As it turned out there was a controversy between William Reeves of Virginia and Richard M. Johnson of Kentucky to be the running mate for Van Buren. And the vote was decided by two. So Rucker cast all his 15 votes for Johnson of Tennessee (sic) and he ended up deciding the vice-presidential nomination.
HAYNESThere was a big outcry after the convention about this interloper who was permitted to cast the full state votes and what authority he had to do that. And actually the term -- a term was coined called Ruckerize which came to mean assuming a position without authority or just kind of political shenanigans in general. And it stayed in kind of American vocabulary for a couple of generations after that convention.
NNAMDIYou've just provided me with my best a-guy-walks-into-a-bar story that I have ever heard and probably will use. I see a common locale running through these early conventions. They were all held in the charmed city. No other American city has hosted more of these conventions than Baltimore, 20 in all. Why has Baltimore been such an attractive locale for conventions?
HAYNESWell, conventions began in the 1830s. At that time Baltimore was the third largest city in the country behind New York and Philadelphia. It was an east coast country at the time. Baltimore was essentially located geographically. It had a great transportation network. It had steamboats that ran from cities up and down the east coast, so it was a port city. Baltimore was accessible by steamboats. It had turnpikes running to the west and in all directions.
HAYNESAnd the B &L railroad came online in the early 1830s and that was an important thing because there was a -- all of the -- the mainline from the railroad ran westward to Ohio. There was a trunk line that opened to Washington D.C. Conventions were created as a way to make the nomination process for presidents more democratic. Originally the members of congress of each political party chose the nominee so some of our earlier presidents were chose by members of congress.
HAYNESAnd so it was a very unpopular system so the movement to have conventions was to make the process more democratic. But it made the power brokers in Washington less influential. So their view was if we kept the conventions in Baltimore, which was a two-hour train ride away, they could keep some control over their process and get to the conventions if something got out of control then need be.
HAYNESSo proximity to Washington, transportation were the main factors in Baltimore being the --
NNAMDIAnd bars, bars. Let's not forget bars.
NNAMDIAs a matter of fact, Baltimore hosted a political convention just last month. The Green Party nominated Jill Stein over Roseanne Barr as its presidential nominee. While a lot of us may have missed that particular convention, you have found that third party conventions have had a much more powerful presence throughout history, especially after the first term of Ulysses S. Grant following the Civil War.
HAYNESYes. In that year there was opposition to Grant's re-nomination in the Republican Party by Republicans who were upset over the corruption of the Grand Administration. So they broke away and formed their own group called the Liberal Republicans. And they ended up -- they had a convention in Cincinnati, they ended up nominated Horace Greeley, who was the editor of the New York Tribune Newspaper, very well known figure in the country at the time.
HAYNESAnd then that kind of left the Democrats in a quandary 'cause their convention came later. So you had Grand nominated by the regular Republic Party, Greeley by the Liberal Republicans. And what the Democrats decided to do was to nominate Greeley also as their candidate. So that was interesting because Greeley really hated the Democrats. For a generation in his newspaper he had ranted and raved against the Democrats. He was a staunch wig and then later Republican. So, you know, it would be something akin to the Democratic Party today nominating Rush Limbaugh as their candidate.
HAYNESSo they nominated Greeley who was basically a way to have a two-man race and hopefully using combined nominees for both the third party Liberal Republicans and the Democrats to defeat Grant. Unfortunately it didn't work and Grand won in a landslide.
NNAMDINote to DNC, nominate Rush Limbaugh for president. We'll see how that plays. In case you're just joining us we're talking with Stan Haynes. He is the author of "The First American Political Conventions: Transforming Presidential Nominations, 1832 - 1872." If you have convention stories of your own we'd like to hear them. You can call us at 800-433-8850. Do you feel like conventions are valuable to political life in our country, or for you have they lost meaning? 800-433-8850 or you can send us a Tweet at kojoshow or go to our website kojoshow.org and join the conversation there.
NNAMDIStan Haynes, today an incumbent president is always a party's nominee unless he chooses not to run. But incumbents have not always been a sure thing, including even with great American leaders like Abraham Lincoln, right?
HAYNESThat's correct. The era that I write about in the book in the mid 19th century was basically an era of one-term presidents. Andrew Jackson had served two terms but left office in the 1830s and no one else had won a reelection over the next 20, 30 years. Abraham Lincoln, in the midst of the Civil War, was up for re-nomination in 1864. And it was by no means that he would be re-nominated by the Republican Party.
HAYNESThere was a group of Republicans opposed to Lincoln that nominated -- had a separate convention in Cincinnati and nominated a General Fremont who had been the 1856 nominee of the party, their candidate. Lincoln's own secretary of the treasury Chase flirted with seeking the nomination in 1864. So although, you know, Lincoln was -- you know, had the power within the party to get the delegates to pledge to him, there was no certainty that he would emerge as the nominee.
HAYNESThe radical Republicans were opposed to him. They favored a more aggressive policy in the war and a more aggressive policy against the south at the war's end and so that was the opposition.
HAYNESAnd as the convention opened in Baltimore, there's a quote that one of Lincoln's friends came to visit him in the White House and said, you know, you should feel pretty confident because most of the delegates are pledged to support you, and Lincoln who had not been the frontrunner at the earlier convention in Chicago in 1860 where he was nominated responded to his friends, well, you know, I never forget that I was nominated at a convention where two-thirds of the delegates supported the other guy.
NNAMDITell us a little bit about the process for nominating a vice president in Lincoln's time.
HAYNESWell, Lincoln in the first term had Hannibal Hamlin of Maine in 1864 when he was running for renomination. Lincoln and Stanton, his secretary of war and his closest advisor, decided they wanted to have a pro-war Democrat as the nominee. If they came out publicly and opposed Hamlin, they would lose votes in New England where Hamlin was from. So they kind of went quietly about it and set some surrogates around trying to court some pro-war Democrats, and Andrew Johnson from Tennessee ended up being place on the ticket, and there are a lot of stories in the convention about how that went about and to what extent Lincoln was directly involved.
HAYNESIt's seems pretty clear that he wanted a pro-war Democrat on the ticket with him, whether he wanted Johnson specifically is less certain.
NNAMDIHere is Albert in Vienna, Va. Albert, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ALBERTHi gentlemen. Thank you so much for having me on today. This is a quite enjoyable subject. Regardless of anyone's political persuasion, I love the conventions. I get goosebumps regardless of the party, just for the democratic process and seeing the enthusiasm. But this year I had to observe that I felt the Republican convention this year in modern times lacked enthusiasm more than I've ever before, and lacked a clear focus, and I was hoping to hear what your guest felt, I'd say at least since the late '70s if that observation has any merit. Thank you very much, and I'll listen to the answer.
NNAMDIYeah. Our observation while we were there is that there was something of an enthusiasm deficit compared to previous Republican National Conventions that we've covered, but I don't know, how did you see it, Stan Haynes?
HAYNESI think that's, you know, maybe typical of, you know, the issues of the day and what, you know, what's going on with a particular convention. You know, there were stories in the past about, you know, lack of enthusiasm, and in the past, newspapers were generally aligned with one party or another, and a lot of the research that I did for the book was in newspapers. And you would read -- I would read stories of a Democratic -- pro-Democratic newspaper, and a pro-Republican newspaper of the same convention, and there would be radically different stories...
NNAMDIIt was like reading a completely different convention...
HAYNES...of, you know, the hall is half full and people are sitting on their hands, and then, you know, the other side says, you know, there's a room full of people, there's a thousand people outside and, you know, there's cheering and shouting. So, you know, I think it depends on the source. But I think...
NNAMDIWell, it's a little bit -- it was a little bit like that at this convention depending on which television channel you happened to be watching after the convention was over, but go ahead, please.
HAYNESWell, I think our cable news channels have kind of replaced these party-affiliated newspapers in terms of their leanings and biases and reporting the conventions on both sides.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. Stan Haynes is our guest. He's author of "The First American Political Conventions: Transforming Presidential Nominations, 1832 - 1872." When we come back, we'll be happy to take your calls. You can call in the meantime at 800-433-8850. Do speeches at conventions help you decide who to vote for in November? What impact do these conventions -- these orchestrated conventions today have on you and your thinking and your vote? 800-433-8850, or you can send us a tweet @kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWe're coming to you from the studios of the Ground Crew in Charlotte, North Carolina where we are for the Democratic National Convention, and talking with Stan Haynes, author of "The First American Political Conventions: Transforming Presidential Nominations, 1832 - 1872." Stan Haynes is also an attorney at Semmes, Bowen & Semmes in Baltimore. Stan Haynes, in your research, you found that dirty tricks did not start in the modern political era. President Lincoln, in fact, almost did not get a place for his second nominating convention in 1864. What happened?
HAYNESWell, the Republicans announced the week that they were having the convention in 1864, and it was going to be the second week in June. Some of the malcontents in the Republican party, upon hearing the dates of the convention, went out and rented the main convention hall in Baltimore which was the Maryland Institute where some prior conventions had been held. So with the convention hall under contract to another party, the Republicans were left without a place to have the convention.
HAYNESLincoln's -- one of his cabinet members, Gideon Welles, wrote in his diary about this underhanded scheme to try to delay or derail the convention, and they were exploring ways to have an alternative site in Baltimore, possibly to move the convention to Philadelphia, or to have a temporary facility built. So what they ended up doing is they finally were able to find a theater in Baltimore called the Front Street Theater, and were able to get a contract and have the convention held there. But two weeks before the convention, you know, they had no idea where it was going to be held.
NNAMDIWomen weren't allowed to be delegates until 1900, so what role did they play at early conventions, if any, before the turn of the century?
HAYNESOnly as observers, and they got some preferential treatment as observers. Most of the conventions were held in theaters or concert halls, and they would have balconies above them, so they were -- usually most of the parties would have a special section of the gallery reserved solely for ladies to be present, and ladies would often listen to the speeches and throw bouquets down on the floors to delegates who gave speeches favoring their particular candidate.
HAYNESInteresting story, in 1860, in Chicago at the Republican Convention, they had -- most of the area was standing room only, but they one section that was with benches that you could sit down, but a gentleman had to be accompanied by a lady to do that, to get a seat. So what happened was that men were running around the streets of Chicago grabbing women and school girls off the sidewalks and paying them a quarter or 50 cents to accompany them through the door.
NNAMDIWhat do you mean grabbing them up off the sidewalks? Okay. Paying them, okay. Yes.
HAYNESPaying them to accompany them through the door. There's a story of one woman who said that she did this several times. She would go out on the sidewalk, get 50 cents from one guy, go through the door, go back on the street, get courted by another guy, get 50 more cents, and keep going and going.
NNAMDISounds like a plan to me. Here is...
NNAMDIHere is Allison in Washington DC. Allison, you're on the air, go ahead, please.
ALLISONOnce again your show is fascinating. Is the book available electronically is my first question, but the second is to your request about, I have unfortunately attended Democratic National Conventions. I'm so happy that I'm not in Charlotte, North -- or South -- North Carolina today.
ALLISONBecause I do think the conventions are irrelevant and, of course, what the public does not see watching television are all the sky boxes and the corporate domination of both political parties. I don't know if you can speak to that, but again, I think that your earlier guest about the occupy movement and how much our democracy has been bought by corporate America really needs to be brought to the public's attention even more.
ALLISONWell, then you should know, Allison, that when we were broadcasting from Tampa, we spoke to a representative of the Sunlight Foundation which makes it its business to monitor what's going on at these convention parties. The largest convention parties are thrown generally by people associated with corporations who have sometimes chosen to remain anonymous. The Sunlight Foundation makes it its business to A, go to these parties if they can get in, and B, try to reveal exactly who is sponsoring these parties, and they do a pretty good job of it. But in response to the first part of your question, Stan Haynes, is the available electronically?
HAYNESYes, it is. There's a website for the book. It's called Americanpoliticalconventions. com. You can go there and there are links to places to purchase the book. There's also a quiz you can take to test your knowledge of the 19th century conventions. So it is available through the website, there are plenty of places you can look there. It's on all the major book websites, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and it is available electronically on the Amazon website through Kindle.
NNAMDIAnd Allison, you should know we'll be talking to the Sunlight Foundation again this week to see who has sponsoring the parties here. So thank you very much...
ALLISONWell, and it -- Kojo, as you know, you know, getting, as you said, invitations and credentials to these exclusive parties is extremely difficult, so keep up the good work.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your all. You too can call us at 800-433-8850. What famous moments do you remember from political conventions? Stan Haynes, it seems like every four years the theatrics at conventions become bigger, they become bolder, more high tech. The early convention planners tried their hand at decorations and drama too, but what did these early parties look like?
HAYNESWell, as I went through the research of the book, the very first conventions in the 1830s there was very little. I mean, maybe a few flags and a portrait of George Washington. But with each successive election, the decorations got more elaborate. You would see lots of bunting, hung American flags, Evergreens were very popular, strands of Evergreen stretched throughout the convention halls as decorations.
HAYNESBy the 1850s they were, you know, pretty extensively decorated. There would be a bust of American statesmen, portraits hung, the conventions from the early on had a band in the hall that would entertain during recesses. Also play to kind of build the momentum in the hall. One of the more interesting stories I found was in the 1868 Republican Convention in Chicago where Ulysses Grant was about to be nominated. Right at the end the roll call, before they -- as they announced the result, they released a pigeon who was painted red, white, and blue, from one of the upper boxes. It was being held in the theater.
HAYNESAnd the idea was for the pigeon to fly gracefully around the theater and then land on the stage. Of course, you know, everyone was clapping the band was...
NNAMDIApparently, this was not a trained pigeon. Go ahead, please.
HAYNESIt was not. The bird became frantic, started fly around in all strange directions. It didn't come off as planned. It finally landed on the stage, and then once the bird landed, the real show began where a band started playing "Hail to the Chief" and the backdrop of the theater a huge curtain -- the stage of the theater, a huge curtain was dropped and this drawing that was done by Thomas Nast who favored the Republicans and Grant, was displayed and had the portico of the White House, and on one said it had General Grant in uniform sitting on a pedestal, and on the other side, it had an empty pedestal, and above it it had the mythical figure Columbia representing the country, and she's pointing to the two pedestals, and says the words match him, basically daring the other party to come up with a candidate to match Ulysses Grant in the election.
NNAMDIOh, okay. Well, they orchestrated it. They told the orchestra about the pigeon, apparently they failed to tell the pigeon about the orchestra. So the pigeon went a little crazy there. But I'm also interested in what happened to the floor of the 1860 convention in Baltimore which apparently wasn't exactly safe.
HAYNESWell, that was held in another theater, the Front Street Theater, and they built a temporary floor over the orchestra pit to accompany, you know, the delegates to have more room on the floor, and during the course of the convention, one of the beams underneath the temporary floor gave way, and all of a sudden everyone that's looking around sees the New York and Pennsylvania delegation start sinking into the ground, and everyone -- there's hundreds of people...
NNAMDIThey're dropping out of the convention.
HAYNES... start kind of toward one another, and people started running out and everything. It was determined, you know, that it was the beam that broke, and they took a recess for about an hour and finally got it fixed, and of course the jokes starting very shortly about the failure of the party's platform.
NNAMDIBut they were literally sinking out of sight? How far did they sink?
HAYNESI think it was three feet. I mean, it was just enough that it was an angle that they were all sitting on chairs and there were tables there, and everything just kind of moved toward the center, and they were all on top of each other.
NNAMDIHere is Shriram in Chevy Chase, Md. Shriram, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
SHRIRAMThank you very much, Kojo, for taking my call. This is an enjoyable program in terms of history. I wanted to ask two questions. First is how did the number of states in the United States evolved from 1830 to 1900, and second, how long were conventions in those days?
HAYNESWell, the states, they started, I mean, there were probably around 30 at the beginning of the era that I write about in the book. I think, you know, probably by the end of the period that I write about, you know, probably 36 or 38. So it wasn't a whole lot of increase during the time frame that I write about. Your other question was?
SHRIRAMThe length of conventions. How many days did they span over?
HAYNESWell, you know, in those days they were not choreographed. So they stayed in session until they got a nominee.
SHRIRAMOh, my gosh.
HAYNESSo it was not -- some went on for longer than a week. Some of the delegates, you know, delegates came from far away in the early conventions. Some, you know, there's one story that I write about, a delegate took two weeks to get from Ohio to one of the conventions in the East Coast just to get there. But, you know, there were -- it was not uncommon to take 40 ballots to get a nominee at these conventions, And so the balloting would go on for at least five or six days in those situations.
NNAMDIShriram, thank you very much for your call. What convention traditions that began in the 1830s survive today, Stan?
HAYNESWell, a lot of them. The, you know, the, you know, the conventions, you don't see a lot of this on TV I guess unless you watch CSPAN these days, but there's always an opening prayer, there's usually a temporary chairman who presides over the opening afternoon session, then a permanent chairman or president is elected. Back in the old days, it was the permanent president who would give what we would call today the key note speech. But they had the same committees that are formed now for rules and credentials of the delegates at their disputed delegate seats.
HAYNESThey had platform committee which, of course, we still have to draft a platform to, you know, from which the party will stand before the country.
NNAMDIAnd I'm afraid that's about all the time we have. Stan Haynes, thank you so much for joining us.
HAYNESThank you for having me. I appreciate it.
NNAMDIStan Haynes is the author of "The First American Political Conventions: Transforming Presidential Nominations, 1832 - 1872." He's also an attorney at Semmes, Bowen & Semmes in Baltimore. "The Kojo Nnamdi Show" is produced by Brendan Sweeney, Michael Martinez, Ingalisa Schrobsdorff, and Tayla Burney with assistance from Kathy Goldgeier and Elizabeth Weinstein. The managing producer is Diane Vogel.
NNAMDINatalie Yuravlivker is on the phones. Special thanks to all our engineers in Washington and Charlotte for making this week of broadcasts happen, including Timmy Olmstead, Andrew Chadwick, and Jonathan Charry at WAMU, our engineering and support team at the Ground Crew Studios in Charlotte includes Josh (word?) , Ross (word?) and Katherine (word?) . Podcasts of all shows, audio archives, CDs, and free transcripts are available at our website, kojoshow.org. Thank you all for listening. We'll be back in Charlotte, North Carolina tomorrow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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