Lessons from the 1924 Democratic Convention: An Immigration Debate's ImpactWatch the video See the video and lesson plan
ROBERT SLAYTON (AUTHOR, EMPIRE STATESMAN: THE RISE AND REDEMPTION OF AL SMITH): Chaos! Total, unmitigated chaos. The 1924 Democratic convention is the longest in the history of the United States. People were fighting constantly, screaming, so they were really debating what America was.
A BROKEN PARTY: 1924
H. W. BRANDS (AUTHOR, TRAITOR TO HIS CLASS: THE PRIVILEGED LIFE AND RADICAL PRESIDENCY OF FRANKLIN DELANO ROOSEVELT): The Democrats had some serious problems in 1924. The biggest problem was that this was a Republican decade, so they’re probably going to lose anyway. But they had another issue, and that was what to do about the Ku Klux Klan.
ROBERT SLAYTON: You had two great camps. Al Smith governor of New York representing the new America, and William Gibbs McAdoo representing an older America.
TERRY GOLWAY (AUTHOR, MACHINE MADE: TAMMANY HALL AND THE CREATION OF MODERN AMERICAN POLITICS): The old America, the old Democratic Party was found in the prairies and in the South. They were in many cases, former Confederates, or the children of former Confederates. Prohibition was the law of the land. They believed that drink was evil. They looked to the cities and saw an America they didn’t recognize.
ROBERT SLAYTON: They were hysterical that these immigrants, these city folk, these dirty city folk, are going to be taking over.
H. W. BRANDS: Southern Democrats were an important bloc in the party. And the Klan was riding high especially in the South.
ROBERT SLAYTON: McAdoo is giving silent acquiescence. He isn’t coming out directly, he’s just saying, “Be my guest.” He’s willing to ride in a very ugly, ugly way.
TERRY GOLWAY: A plank in the Democratic platform, condemning the Klan by name is being pushed by Al Smith, and by the urban machines in Boston, in Chicago, and other cities. On the convention floor, Klansmen were wearing jackets and ties and straw hats, so you couldn’t pick one out, but the plank fails by a single vote. 1924, in the grand scheme of things, is not that long ago. But it’s astonishing in retrospect to think a major party in American politics, the Democratic Party, the party that many Americans today associate with the Civil Rights Revolution in the 60’s, couldn’t pass a simple plank condemning the Ku Klux Klan. And that really set motion all the tension, and even the violence that would unfold as the nomination balloting began. Tempers were flaring as each ballot went by and neither side is giving way. There were fistfights…
ROBERT SLAYTON: There’s no air conditioning. You’ve got thousands of people with very little ventilation marching up and down, cheering, sweating, and sooner or later fighting. They have to bring in 1,000 cops. It’s really a battleground.
TERRY GOLWAY: Radio covered the convention for the first time. And those people who were listening might very well have wondered, “What is this country coming to?”
ROBERT SLAYTON: The damn thing just keeps on going. Nobody wants to switch the votes, because the other side is demon incarnate. So they just lock. It is 103 ballots, finally they put up a compromise candidate. John Davis is a distinguished lawyer, he looks good, they don’t really care. They said, “To hell with it. We want to go home. We’ll all vote for him.”
H. W. BRANDS: For the Democrats as a whole, the 1924 convention was a disaster. They wore themselves out, they nominated a weak candidate, they went down to defeat. But for one Democrat in particular, it was a brilliant success.
ARCHIVAL (GETTY, 1924):
PRESIDENT FRANKLIN DELANO ROOSEVELT: Mr. Chairman, fellow delegates…
H. W. BRANDS: Franklin Roosevelt would have been the favorite to get the nomination in 1924. But then, in 1921, polio paralyzed him from the waist down. And so when he comes to the convention in 1924, it’s the first time he’s been seen by many people in public. As Al Smith’s campaign manager, he was going to get a chance to give a big speech to the convention. The whole convention held its breath. A lot of people openly called him a cripple. Can the cripple make it to the rostrum? And when he got there, there was this standing ovation.
ARCHIVAL (GETTY, 1924):
PRESIDENT FRANKLIN DELANO ROOSEVELT: The future of the Democratic party rises far above the success of any candidate.
TERRY GOLWAY: He gives the speech of his life, and people listening must have never thought he was grasping onto that podium for dear life. He had a voice made for radio, and of course, radio would become his medium of choice.
H. W. BRANDS: Roosevelt comes out of the 1924 convention convinced that he still has the political touch. That he still has political charisma. It had not occurred to anyone until that point, that someone who was physically disabled might be President of the United States.
TERRY GOLWAY: So out of that chaos, out of the raw hatred on the floor of Madison Square Garden, comes the birth of a new Democratic Party, where progressive, Protestant, patricians like Franklin Roosevelt, join forces with ethnic politicians and their Jewish and Catholic voters, living in cities, working in factories. And it’s that combination that proves to be a winning combination for a reunited Democratic Party.
ROBERT SLAYTON: Today we are in the middle of the third great wave of immigration in American history. There’s people getting jobs, there’s people buying homes, they’re raising families just like earlier waves of immigrants did, and just like earlier waves of immigrants were condemned as not being American enough, they’re being condemned.
TERRY GOLWAY: In 2016 we have a candidate who seems to be benefitting from, and perhaps even encouraging groups of white people who see a country they don’t recognize. Who are fearful for their future. Those emotions those anxieties, those hatreds were very much part of the conversation in 1924.