Chicago's Unconventional Conventions
Presidential nominating conventions “are both pageant and spectacle and arguably the purest expressions of open discourse we have in a free society,” according to Chicago Alderman Ed Burke at an April Zions Bank event in Boise. “The election season is in full swing across the United States,” Burke said as he recounted Chicago’s history of conventions since 1860 to the event’s 130 guests. “It has been a wild and exhaustive ride I’m sure you will all agree … and it’s only April,” Burke joked. “Later this summer, delegates from the two major parties will gather in Philadelphia and Cleveland for what promises to be the most contentious and confusing convention sessions this nation has witnessed since 1968.”
Burke’s hometown of Chicago — where he served on the city council since 1969 — has hosted 25 nominating conventions since 1860, more than any other U.S. city. Fourteen of the 25 candidates chosen in Chicago went on to the White House.
Lincoln Wins Through Clever Subterfuge
At Chicago’s first convention in 1860, Abraham Lincoln defeated New York Sen. William H. Seward and earned the nomination through “clever political subterfuge and Illinois ingenuity carried out by Lincoln supporters,” Burke said. Lincoln supporters filled the hall as Seward’s delegation slept.
Burke opined that had Lincoln not won the nomination, and later the presidential election, he would not have had the opportunity to sign the Congressional Act creating the Idaho Territory in 1863.
Following the 1920 convention, the phrase “smoke-filled room” entered the political lexicon, after Republican insiders met in a private suite heavy with cigar smoke and selected Warren G. Harding as their candidate following a contentious deadlock. Today, the term is used to define a meeting place for small, sequestered gathering of influential insiders making decisions that affect the public.
Fast-forward more than 40 years later, to another seminal moment in history, when the 1968 Democratic convention became one of the benchmarks of the great social upheaval of the 1960s, according to Burke.
“(Student activists) were determined to disrupt the Democrats as they prepared to nominate Sen. Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota following President Lyndon B. Johnson’s announcement that he would not seek re-election,” Burke said. “Tear gas and chaos and urban rioting befell the city parks and streets and left behind a bitter taste, tarnishing Chicago’s image in the eyes of the world. Convention week was a bloody, violent affair and a television spectacle for the eyes of the world.”
Changing the Course of History
Burke noted the results of several conventions likely altered the course of history, such as in 1940, when Democratic delegates sent Franklin Delano Roosevelt back to the White House for a third term thanks to the “voice of the sewer.”
“When the convention learned that FDR would not seek a third term, the delegates fell into stunned silence,” Burke said. “Then suddenly, from a basement room deep underneath the Chicago Stadium, the booming voice of Thomas Garry, superintendent of the department of sewers, rang out over the loud speaker system chanting, ‘We want Roosevelt!’ over and over again.”
Roosevelt won 86 percent of the delegate votes — and an unprecedented third term, defeating John Nance Garner of Texas.
“How different the outcome of World War II and world history might have been if not for the turns of fate that sent Roosevelt back to Washington and the isolationist Garner to his ranch in Uvalde, Texas?” Burke said. “It might be argued that Chicago’s voice of the sewers changed world history.”
The last convention in Chicago was in 1996, when the Democrats chose Bill Clinton to serve a second term and usher in the new millennium.
“Often rowdy, occasionally hilarious, but never lacking for drama and intensity, Chicago’s 25 presidential nominating conventions embrace a broad spectrum of the American political experience and have reflected the national mood of the country,” Burke said. “They have shaped, and at times altered the course of our history.”