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September 12, 2008

A Little Convention History

Kevin E. Dayhoff

It would be an understatement to suggest that the events of last week were quite different from the first Republican National Convention June 17 to 19, 1856.


That convention was attended by 600 delegates and 100 news reporters, who had ample room to move in the 1200 seat Musical Fund Hall, near 8th and Locust Streets in Philadelphia. This year’s convention was attended by 45,000 including some 15,000 members of the media from all over the world.


The last Republican National Convention to be held in Minneapolis-St. Paul was in 1892. Qwest Communications, which handled all the technology demands of last week’s convention, noted that in 1892, the convention attendees “relied solely on the use of the telegraph and did not employ a single telephone…”


"The first long-distance telephone line from Chicago to New York wasn’t even open until October of 1892. That alone demonstrates the stark contrast between the technology available to us today versus 1892… (when) additional telegraph wires were installed between Minneapolis and Chicago in order to accommodate the increased demand on existing facilities by the press.”


Last week, in the brief fleeting moments when I had a chance to study the pomp and circumstance, history and tradition, and parliamentary structure of the convention, I often reflected on how such a phenomenon got started in the first place.


I thought about the history of our unique American political process and especially the history of the Republican Party. These musings were exacerbated by the emphasis at the convention on branding the Republican nominee, Arizona Sen. John McCain as a “maverick,” and how he will bring much needed change to Washington.


Indeed, history reflects that what made the Republican Party successful in the beginning was that it was a party of mavericks who bucked the status quo and brought about fundamental changes to our country. The thought that the party will get back to those roots did my heart good.


First, let’s briefly take a glimpse at how these convention phenomena began.


According a historical account written by former Maryland Secretary of State John T. Willis, the first national political convention of what we now know as the two major political parties was held by the Democratic Party in Baltimore May 21 to 23, 1832. It “was held at the Atheneum (Warfield’s Church) … located on the southwest corner of St. Paul and Lexington Streets.”


“In the 19th century, difficulties of travel led to the selection of centrally located cities as convention sites. Baltimore, located midway along the Atlantic seaboard, was a favorite choice in early years,” notes the Washington Congressional Research Service.


From 1832 to 1872, eight of the 12 Democratic Party national conventions were held in Baltimore.


Again, according to the Congressional Research Service, as “the center of population moved west, Chicago and other Midwestern cities were more frequently selected. With the advent of air travel and further population growth in the west, south, and southwest, a broader range of locations has been considered. Chicago has been host to the greatest number of conventions (11 Democratic and 14 Republican).”


In the early days of our nation, the two major parties, the “Federalists” and “Democrat-Republican” Party – the forerunner of the today’s Democrat Party – determined their respective presidential nominees by a “caucus” made-up of members of Congress and/or state legislatures. The caucus system prevailed through 1828.


The roots of the American political party system go back to Thomas Jefferson. In the late 1700s, he started the Democrat-Republican Party to gel together opposition to a direction by the Federalists to gather too much control and power in the federal government over individuals – and the states.


Mr. Jefferson believed, as many in today’s Republican Party believe, that less government control is better for American citizens. In 1800, Thomas Jefferson was nominated by a caucus comprised of like-minded members of Congress.


In 1856 the Republican Party was in its infancy. It had organized only two years earlier at a meeting in Ripon, Wisconsin, from a mishmash of anti-slavery Democrats, the remnants of the Whig Party, abolitionists, and “Free-Soilers,” which had replaced the much earlier Federalist Party, who had fielded their last presidential ticket in 1816.


According to an account by William Safire, the “first official Republican meeting took place on July 6, 1854, in Jackson, Michigan.” The original driving force of the party was to fight the “Kansas-Nebraska Act,” which had opened new United States territories to slavery in spite of the “Missouri Compromise of 1820.”


Originally the party was a single-issue consortium of citizens who were adamantly opposed to slavery. Other original tenets of the party in the 1850s, which remain in place today – economic development, education, limited government with an emphasis on individual freedoms and a personal responsibility for one’s future fate – were ancillary issues that helped bond an otherwise volatile mix of groups and individuals dedicated to abolishing slavery at any cost.


According to the “Independence Hall Association” in Philadelphia, the key plank in the platform in 1856 was firm opposition to the extension of slavery: "It is the duty of Congress to prohibit in the territories those twin relics of barbarism – polygamy, and slavery.”


The announcement on August 29, that Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin would round-out the 2008 Republican ticket for the White House, further fueled the excitement of last week that maybe – just maybe – some changes in the previous disastrous direction of the Republican Party were really going to happen.


Perhaps now we can get back to the business of the future and the Republican Party will start all over again by offering Americans a real choice in this November’s election.


Kevin Dayhoff writes from Westminster: E-mail him at:


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