5 Historic National Conventions That Will Make This Year’s Look Tame

Rebecca Nelson,

It’s no secret that the 2016 presidential race has been one of the most bizarre, confounding elections of our time—even Stephen Hawking can’t make sense of it.

Though Hillary Clinton has all but clinched the Democratic nomination, her come-from-behind challenger, Bernie Sanders, has promised to take his bid for the nomination to the floor of the Democratic National Convention floor in Philadelphia July 25 through July 28. Not only could that wreak havoc on Democrats’ hopes to unify the party as the country heads into the general election, it could get really ugly: Given the recent harassment and at times violent vitriol from Sanders supporters at rallies across the country, the gathering this summer in the City of Brotherly Love has the makings of a full-blown throwdown. And Democrats aren’t alone.

While most of the establishment GOP has coalesced around Donald Trump, supporters and protesters at his rallies on the campaign trail have come to blows more than once, stoking fears over whether attendees could grimly collide with planned demonstrations at the Republican National Convention, in Cleveland from July 18 to July 21.

This year’s convention climate may seem especially fraught. But history tells us that contested nominations, calling names, and throwing punches are just par for the course.

americanhistory_small 5 Historic National Conventions That Will Make This Year's Look Tame


Going into their convention, Democrats were deeply divided over slavery. Though presumptive nominee Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas wasn’t exactly pro-slavery, he wasn’t exactly anti-slavery either. Douglas pushed for popular sovereignty, which allowed the residents of a state or territory to decide for themselves whether they’d allow slavery.

When Douglas’s platform was presented to delegates at their convention, in Charleston, S.C., Northern Democrats—Douglas supporters—said they’d work with their Southern counterparts, but would “never, never, never” abandon the popular sovereignty doctrine and outright defend slavery. Douglas’s supporters then forced through a platform of popular sovereignty, which caused 50 Southern delegates to walk out. Because the rules required a candidate get two-thirds of delegates to win the nomination, the convention was deadlocked.

But when they reconvened in Baltimore, the Democrats faced questions about what to do with the Southern delegates who had walked out at Charleston. They ultimately decided to readmit most of them, but admitted a new set of delegates from Alabama and Louisiana, which led to many of the Southern delegates walking out. To avoid a repeat of Charleston, the Party changed the rules requiring the winner receive two-thirds of the total delegates to be two-thirds of the present delegates, which finally chose Douglas.

Meanwhile, the delegates that had stormed out elected the sitting vice president and slavery defender John C. Breckenridge. With the Democratic vote split, the Republican candidate, a little-known lawyer, claimed an easy victory in the general election. (Spoiler: It was—you guessed it!—Abe Lincoln.)


In 1909, after two terms in office, Teddy Roosevelt retired the Oval Office to his protege and fellow Republican William Howard Taft, whom he called the most lovable man he knew. During Taft’s term, though, the bromance soured as Taft opposed his predecessor’s view of the judiciary and a scandal between the chief forester and the Secretary of the Interior led Roosevelt to doubt Taft’s commitment to environmental conservation. Evidently unsatisfied having given up his power, Roosevelt challenged Taft for the GOP nomination in 1912. Though Roosevelt won nearly all of the Republican primaries, Taft’s men controlled the Republican National Committee, and subsequently awarded enough delegates to his side to give the incumbent the nomination.

Unrelenting, Roosevelt and his supporters stormed the Chicago convention, prepared to take the nomination—which he said the people had decided—by any means necessary: He told his nephew that his supporters would use “roughhouse tactics” and “terrorize” the party’s leaders if they didn’t take his side. But Missouri Governor Herbert Hadley, the Roosevelt supporter tasked with launching the aggressive plan, chickened out at the last minute and failed to give the signal to start. Realizing he couldn’t take the nomination by force or otherwise, Roosevelt walked out and mounted a third party bid as the Progressive Party’s candidate—splitting the Republican vote in November and handing Democrat Woodrow Wilson the presidency.


Though the Democratic party had resolved its division over slavery years earlier, in 1924 there still remained an openly racist faction within the party. The Ku Klux Klan publicly supported one of the frontrunners, William G. McAdoo, a former member of Woodrow Wilson’s cabinet, and while he didn’t accept the endorsement, he didn’t reject it, either. McAdoo’s biggest challenger was New York Governor (and Catholic) Al Smith, whose delegates at the Democrats’ New York City convention fought for a plank in the party’s platform condemning the Klan. It ultimately failed, and divided the convention so that neither frontrunner could reach the two-thirds of the vote required to seal the nomination.

That summer in New York City, the delegate fight went on for an exhausting 16 days and 103 ballots, until both McAdoo and Smith dropped out to allow John W. Davis, a former U.S. solicitor general and a compromise candidate, to take the nomination. Unfortunately for the party, his lackluster candidacy handed the presidency to Republican Calvin Coolidge in a sweeping victory.


Dubbed the “Woodstock of the right” by one historian, the Republican convention in San Francisco featured a situation eerily similar to what could happen in Cleveland this year. Moderate Republicans, led by New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, were determined to stop Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, the Trump-like standard-bearer of the far right. When Rockefeller addressed the convention, he urged delegates to unite around Pennsylvania Governor William Scranton, who had entered the race expressly to stop Goldwater’s nomination, and blasted the Goldwater devotees as too radical for the party: “These extremists feed on fear, hate and terror,” he bellowed. “There is no place in this Republican party for such hawkers of hate.” Drowned out by chants of “We want Barry” and howling invectives, he was booed and heckled throughout his five minute remarks, ultimately getting interrupted 22 times.

Goldwater beat Scranton handily when it came time to vote. In a defiant acceptance speech, he told the crowd, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And…moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!” He went on to lose to Lyndon Johnson in one of the biggest landslides in American history.


In a year of political unrest and upheaval—both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy had been assassinated, while riots over the Vietnam War roiled the country—the Democratic convention in Chicago became a grim, hot, and humid microcosm of the chaos. Inside the convention hall, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, a supporter of President Johnson’s war policies who had virtually clinched the nomination, faced insurgencies from the anti-war wing of the party. When a so-called “peace plank” was defeated, protests broke out on the convention floor, with delegates from New York and California singing “We Shall Overcome” in staunch defiance.

And the unrest wasn’t limited to the convention’s delegates. Outside, protesters gathered to decry the Vietnam War and urge a change in the political system. In response, police officers stormed the crowd, clubbing protesters to the ground. On the worst day of the riots, known as the “Battle of Michigan Avenue,” police beat not only protesters, but also bystanders and reporters, and left dozens injured.

In the end, Humphrey won the nomination, but it didn’t mean much; as one historian put it, it was hard to tell whether he was “leading a party, or a civil war.” And in November, running on a platform of a return to “law and order,” Richard Nixon rode the wave of backlash against the upheaval and won the White House.