1908 Denver Convention

read R. Craig Sautter Media Nation interview
(University of Massachusetts, Nieman Foundation at Harvard University and Boston Globe)

Denver's First National Democratic Convention©
By R. Craig Sautter

When Democrats traveled to Denver one hundred years ago to hold their first National Convention in the western states, many of them ran smack into the middle of an early July snow storm. "I thank God I have been permitted to come here and to be witness…to one of your Western blizzards," Congressman J. Hogue Tyler of Virginia boomed to 1,010 delegates of the 1908 assembly.

Despite the snowy surprise, Denver's response to the visit of the National Democracy (as the party was then called), was anything but icy. "It is certainly appropriate that such a convention should meet in this great Western city whose citizens have shown their generous hospitality on every hand," Thomas Taggart of Indiana, outgoing Chairman of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) proclaimed to a crowd of 14,000 in his opening convention remarks on July 7, "and whose enterprise and energy are attested by the erection of this great Auditorium."

Taggart especially thanked the Denver Convention League, a committee of civic leaders who had won the bid for the July convention back in Washington in December 1906 with promises that they would insure that their great new Auditorium would be finished by the time the convention convened. Denver had beaten out the bids of Chicago, Louisville, St. Paul and Atlantic City.

In 2008, Democrats will return again to Denver to hold their Forty-fifth National Presidential Convention. Denver convened its first and only national convention in 1908. That Convention had its origins at the 1906 Washington meeting, when Charles W. Franklin carried Denver's argument to the Democratic National Committee in a half hour presentation. He told it that by the turn of the 20th century, the Denver Convention League was bringing 150 to 200 groups to town a year, from 60,000 Elks to 40,000 Knights Templar guests. A national political convention would be their crown jewel.

"We come here with the money which we understand is a requirement for the expenses of the convention," Franklin told the DNC. About $100,000 was "at your disposal," he boasted. Colorado's Republican Senator Simon Guggenheim, Congressman Warren A. Haggott, Robert W. Bonynge, George W. Cook, along with Democrat Senator Henry M. Teller guaranteed the committee's promise, as did Denver Mayor R. W. Spear and former Democratic Governor Charles S. Thomas. The DNC also wondered if the Auditorium would be free. It was, the Denver men said. "And $100,000 is in cash?" the Democrats wondered. "Yes," replied the Denver contingent, $35,000 from the city itself.

Franklin assured the DNC that the $550,000, 14,000-person Denver Auditorium, "a remarkable thing," would be ready on April 15, 1908, for the party's early use. During the convention itself, one delegate called the Auditorium the "most splendid exhibition of enterprise we have ever witnessed in the construction and equipment of a great convention hall."

Franklin also emphasized that Denver's "grand" climate was "cool in the summer." The prospect of low temperatures was a welcome change for delegates who had sweat through days of excessive heat at other conventions. "Why suffer in the humid atmosphere of the East when you can go to the mountains…. for a quiet, cool pleasant time." Franklin called Denver "the most beautiful city on this planet." W. F. R. Mills, who would become mayor of Denver a decade later, bragged that, "The climate of Denver is unequaled….The air is pure and invigorating, the sun never oppressive…" Neither booster mentioned the threat of snow.

Denver, the convention committee assured the DNC, offered first-class hotels capable of lodging 50,000 visitors and telegraph adequate for a national press. Railroad service included the Union Pacific, the Burlington, the Rock Island, the Kansas Pacific and the Santa Fe. A ticket to Denver from the most distant points would cost around $79. From Chicago it tallied $22.60 for 28 hours on the rail. And delegates could combine their fishing and hunting vacation with a journey west, Franklin coaxed.

Since the first Democratic National Convention was held in Baltimore in 1832 to re-nominate President Andrew Jackson, Franklin noted, no convention had been held west of the geological center of the U.S. Denver was 300 miles west of that point. With the exception of Kansas City in 1900 and three times in St. Louis, the Democracy had never been west of the Mississippi River. In 1892, the Republicans met in Minneapolis and 1896 in St. Louis. "So we ask," Franklin intoned, "when are we going to have a show?"

Colorado's Senator Teller, who had jumped from the Republican to Democratic party during the tempestuous Silver versus Gold campaign of 1896, argued, "We have as good hotels as are to be found anywhere in the country, and our prices are more reasonable…there shall be no robbery of delegates so far as hotel bills are concerned."

And Teller reminded the DNC that Colorado had twice given its electoral votes, in 1896 and 1900, to the party's political lion, William Jennings Bryan. Many expected Bryan would win a third nomination. Colorado had voted for him by a greater percentage majority than other Democratic states. (In 1904, Colorado went for Republican Theodore Roosevelt over Democrat Alton B. Parker.) Teller pointed out that he was one of only two Democratic Senators north of the Mason Dixon Line. "The West has never been properly represented in the Democracy of the country," Teller argued. "We think we have special claims on Democratic sympathies and Democratic supporters." Denver won the December DNC site contest with 22 votes to 17 for Louisville, 5 for Chicago and 1 for St. Paul.

The July 7, 1908, First Session of the four-day Democratic National Convention opened in the Denver Auditorium with a prayer by the Right Reverend James J. Keane, Bishop of Cheyenne, Wyoming, who reminded the 1,010 delegates and 13,000 spectators that "the security of a people which is great by virtue of personal liberty and individual initiative, depends more on high virtue than in strength of arms; that peace and prosperity are insured better by the influences of religion which make for ideal citizenship than by the extension of territorial lines." His reference to the unpopular war against Philippine rebels waged by two Republican presidents was not unappreciated. The 2008 Democrats coming to Denver would likely endorse his message for their own age.

The 21st quadrennial Democratic National Convention then turned to the serious business of oratory, before what former Congressman Charles A. Towne of New York called "the greatest body of men that ever assembled on the face of the earth." Indeed, the Denver Democratic convention was a nearly all-male affair. The 19th Amendment giving women the vote was still more than a decade away. But in advance of that monumental social change, Wyoming sent one female delegate; Utah two; and the Colorado delegation defiantly included two women; Mrs. K. M. Cook and Mary C. C. Bradford.

Former Congressman Theodore A. Bell of California, the convention's Temporary Chairman, got the proceedings off to a rousing start with a scorching attack on the Democracy's opponent. Republicans had held national control of the presidency and Congress for 12 years, ever since William McKinley's contentious but solid victory over Bryan in 1896, and during all but eight years since the Civil War began in 1861. Many Democrats thought that by 1908, the "Republican party was groggy" and the "time was ripe" for change. "There is widespread belief, founded upon evidence of a convincing character, that the party in power has not been true to its trust, but has betrayed the common interest into the hands of the enemies of good government thereby forfeiting its right and destroying its ability to rule in the name of the people," Bell cried out to rising applause.

Affects of the widespread financial "Panic of 1907" were still being felt across the nation. Tens of thousands of men and women were out of work. Banks had collapsed. Businesses failed. Bell pointed to the Republican villain. "Foremost among the great evils that affect the country at the present time is the abuse of corporate power." Bell's declaration stirred more cheers. He accused the Republican-led government of "voluntarily subordinating itself to selfish, private ends, special privilege resorting to cunning, bribery, and intimidation to maintain its unholy power …" And he called for the "exercise of rightful authority over these colossal enemies of the commonwealth."

"The Democratic party is not an enemy of all corporations…," Bell clarified his party's complaint. "It is not opposed to production on large scale, but it is unalterably opposed to monopoly in production." Why? Because, he said, with corporations "there is too frequently a disregard for high moral principles that obtain in the individual transactions of life." (One hundred years later, abuse of corporate power is still a concern of many Democrats who will gather in Denver.)

What did the 1908 Democrat platform offer? "Against the evils of special privilege we urge the benefits of equal opportunity in order that there may be more land owners, more homes and more businesses among the masses." Sadly, the 1908 Democracy's pleas for equal opportunity did not extend to people of color. Only two of the Democratic delegates were African-Americans, the first two ever to attend a Democratic National Convention. Issues of equity one hundred years ago referred to economics.

And the 1908 Democracy had less than democratic views on the hot immigration debate of its day. More than a million immigrants a year sought a new life in the United States. "This magnificent Western country of ours has not only proved attractive to our own people and other white nations of the earth," Bell ruminated. "But it has likewise proved alluring to the brown and yellow nations of the East." He was applauded by the Southern, segregationist-dominated party when he observed, "Some protection has been afforded by the exclusion of Chinese labor. But the evil is not half met if the immigrants of other Asian people be not excluded from our shores." (That's a part of party history today's Democrats likely regret.)

Bell excoriated the "do-nothing" Republican-controlled Sixtieth Congress. He among many convention speakers insisted that while the "erratic genius," President Theodore Roosevelt, espoused progressive rhetoric, he had simply lifted his ideas from Democrat William Jennings Bryan. What was worse, the Republican House and Senate repudiated the President's proposed reforms, so few passed into law.

The Republicans had gathered just weeks earlier in Chicago to nominate President Theodore Roosevelt's Secretary of War and hand-picked successor, William Howard Taft of Ohio. Taft had overseen the creation of democratic government institutions in the Philippines. Republicans had also adopted a progressive platform in Chicago. But Bell said voters would get a better idea of the Republican's 1908 platform if they simply changed "the words 'We will' to 'We will not' to conform to the admitted facts." Then it would be clear that Republicans were saying: "We will not revise the tariff. We will not amend the anti-trust laws..."

Nor, according to Bell, would Republicans fix unfair Interstate Commerce laws. They "would not mitigate the evils of financial panic," and would not limit abuse of the judicial writ of injunction used repeatedly by judges against labor unions to break strikes. Bell called judicial injunctions "an instrument of oppression," and labeled Congress an "oligarchy" where "nothing shall be done to weaken any advantage that corporations have gained in labor disputes." (John Gearin of Oregon later warned that "cheap labor means lack of prosperity.") Bell said that Bryan had been "heard everywhere in advocacy of the rights of labor…" (Today, the 21st century Democracy still stands with labor.)

Nor would Republicans guarantee bank deposits with postal banks, Bell charged. And Republicans had not acted "against forcing our children into the labor market." Bell complained that two million children had left school for the mines and other work because of the Panic of 1907 and that several cities had shut their high schools because youth were forced to work to prevent family starvation. "It's a sad commentary on the 'full dinner pail'," Bell intoned, mocking former President William McKinley's 1896 campaign slogan. "In these days of financial panic and industrial depression we hear but little about the full dinner pail." Bell roared, "The welfare of the child must be the first care of our laws." ("Children First" was a slogan of the 1996 Democrats.) Bell's hour-long oratory stirred the crowd's passion, as did most speeches throughout convention week.

Over the next few days, Bell's attack was followed by a bevy of speakers taking up his themes. Raymond Robbins of Chicago generated applause when he charged, "Throughout the nation there has been a contest between the group of plunderers on the one hand and the group of toil on the other." He bleakly pointed out that, "This last winter has witnessed the greatest group of men standing at the bread lines in the great cities of the nation that we have ever witnessed in the history of America….in the midst of unexampled prosperity the whole great nation finds itself paralyzed by an overwhelming panic, and men wonder 'why'?" Robbins snidely added, "You cannot maintain the workers working for their daily bread, the people who feed and clothe and house the world, and at the same time maintain in idleness a group of automobile bums who clip the coupons of idleness and live upon the labor of the whole people." Democrats heartily agreed with their applause.

The 1908 Democracy also heard from Senator T. P. Gore, the blind orator from Oklahoma, who ridiculed the Republican candidate Taft, saying the Chicago convention had nominated "Roosevelt's man Friday for Presidency of the greatest Republic that ever stood…" An earlier speaker had warned, "One thing that [the American people] will not stand for is a divided responsibility in the White House." (That's an issue American voters may confront in the 2008 election.) Senator Gore further proclaimed that the "stand-pat" Republican party "stands today upon the verge of political bankruptcy," and that "every promise in the Chicago platform is a confession of duty unperformed."

Not until the convention's third day, after all the committees had been appointed and met, and the state delegate disputes were resolved, did the 1908 Democracy finally announce its own platform. Charles N. Haskell, of the new state of Oklahoma, presented the document. "The conscience of the nation is now aroused to free the Government from the grip of those who have made it a business asset of the favor-seeking corporations," he began. "It must again become the people's government, and be administered in all its departments according to the Jeffersonian maxim, 'equal rights to all; special privileges to none.'"

Democrats also attacked the growth of the national government. During the previous year, 23,784 new federal office holders were hired at an expense of $16,156,000. The practice was "not only unnecessary and wasteful," it was a case of politics spoils. And the Republican budget was bloated, the 1908 Democracy charged, "amounting to $1,008,000,000," an increase of $90,000,000 in a single year, leaving a "deficit of more than $60,000,000…" Such willful spending was, the Democracy insisted, "a crime against the millions of working men and women, from whose earnings the great proportion of these colossal sums must be extorted…."

The Democrats of 2008 would be happy to know that a century ago their party also stood up for campaign finance reform. The 1908 platform declared that, "We demand Federal legislation forever terminating the partnership which has existed between corporations of the country and the Republican party under the expressed or implied agreement that in return for the contribution of great sums of money wherewith to purchase elections, they should be allowed to continue substantially unmolested in their efforts to encroach on the rights of the people."

The party platform reiterated Democracy's stand against "Trusts," the unstoppable combinations of large corporations in various industries acting together to artificially maintain high profits and high prices of their products, and to drive competitors out of business. The 1908 Democracy also declared for fairer railroad rates so farmers and others did not lose a year's work simply shipping their goods to market. Populists had been agitating for such reform for two decades. In the wake of the panic of 1907, the Democracy demanded banking reform. Republicans had "so linked the country to Wall Street that the sins of the speculators are visited upon the whole people," while failing "to give the 15,000,000 depositors of the country protection in their savings."

Despite these progressive measures, many members of the party celebrated the "conservative doctrines of Democracy" that opposed a strong central government and upheld "the rights of the states" against the federal government, a position in opposition with the Democracy of 2008 which champions a strong central government as the remedy of social and economic problems.

The 1908 Democracy also called for "the eight hour day," a national bureau of public health, the popular election of U.S. Senators "as the gateway to other national reforms," and the admission of Arizona and New Mexico into the Union. It condemned the Republican Speaker of the House, Joseph G. Cannon, for his "absolute domination" of that body for the benefit of big business and the Trusts. Still bitter about the Philippine war, the 1908 Democracy condemned that "experiment in imperialism as an inexcusable blunder which has involved us in enormous expense, brought us weakness instead of strength, and laid our nation open to the charge of abandoning a fundamental doctrine of self-government." (One hundred years later, democratic institutions have taken hold in the Philippines and the island nation is among the United States' staunchest Pacific allies. But the 2008 Democracy will be making similar denunciations about the Iraq war.)

In 1908, Democratic orators repeatedly attacked the "Tariff," the federal imposition of cash duties upon thousands and thousands of imported items upon which consumers and other industries relied. In the time before the federal income tax, the Tariff was the chief source of revenue for the national government. It kept the government out of debt and maintained high wages and prices. But Republicans set tariff rates so arbitrarily high that many working people could not afford basic items, while luxury items were often on the "free list," meaning they bore no duty charges. The practice of protecting American industry led to huge profits for the corporations and excessive wealth for the upper class. After slavery, Tariff rates were the most controversial issue facing the United States in the 19th century. In 1908, the Democracy stood for free trade, while the Republicans supported protectionism of American industry and labor. (One hundred years later, the situation is nearly reversed.)

In conclusion, the platform of the 1908 Democracy drew this line. "The Democratic party stands for Democracy; the Republican party has drawn to itself all that is aristocratic and plutocratic. The Democratic party is the champion of equal rights and opportunities for all," it said, ignoring the position of women and people of color. "The Republican party is the party of privilege and private monopoly." The 1908 Democracy gauged "progress by the prosperity and advancement of the average man; the Republican party is subservient to the comparatively few who are the beneficiaries of governmental favoritism." (Indeed, one hundred years later, that part of the Democratic theme song has not changed, although after the era of civil rights, it seems much more sincere to contemporary ears.)

Upon the unanimous adoption of the platform, the convention immediately turned to its main task, nomination of a presidential candidate, a process that took until early the next morning. Three names were put forward; two favorite sons, progressive Governor John Albert Johnson of Minnesota, and former U.S. Senator and Appeals Court Judge George Gray of Delaware, along with the party's spiritual and political leader, William Jennings Bryan, whom one delegate called "the platform himself."

"Let us nominate the Plumed Knight of the West," bellowed Senator Bob Taylor of Tennessee, "who has grown stronger with two defeats and comes before the people today the almost unanimous choice of the Democracy as its standard bearer."

J. J. Dunn of Omaha, Bryan's adopted hometown, declared, "His genius for statecraft is shown by the constructive work he has done in proposing reforms." Indeed, Bryan was the author of almost every progressive reform idea the country contemplated and many that didn't become law until after the election of Franklin Roosevelt more than two decades later.

"Honesty is inherent in him….His convictions have been his political creed," Dunn said. Bryan also was an advocate of world peace and had convinced a 26-nation, Inter-National Peace Conference in London to adopt an international arbitration treaty. "He favored the election of Senators by direct vote before the House of Representatives ever acted favorably," Dunn noted. "He favored an income tax before the income tax law was written" (to get rid of the Tariff).

"He began to oppose government by injunction more than a decade ago….When a Wall Street panic burst upon us a few months ago, he promptly proposed a remedy, the guarantee of bank deposits…He believes in peace—in universal Christian peace."

Dunn described the kind of candidate who would be unable to survive one hundred years later in a high-cost electoral environment. "Without an organization to urge his claim; without a campaign fund to circulate literature in his behalf; without patronage to bribe a single voter; without a predatory corporation to coerce its employees into his support; without a subsidized newspaper to influence the public mind; this extraordinary man has won a signal victory at the primaries and has become the free choice of the militant Democracy of the nation," Dunn concluded in nominating "America's great commoner." His speech set off an hour and ten minute demonstration.

State after state seconded Bryan's name. Virginia Governor Claude A. Swanson swore Bryan was "too honest to be corrupted by the rich….He is alike the enemy of predatory wealth, which seeks to add to its ill-gotten gains by governmental favors and prerequisites, and of that pernicious system of socialism which seeks to confiscate alike the unjust wealth of the plunderers and honest earnings of the industrious and frugal."

Augustus Thomas of Missouri, author of "Alabama," a popular play about an unrepentant Confederate, asked delegates, "What is the matter with this country?" He complained about "one set of morality for individuals, another less exacting standard of morals for corporations…." Thomas rumbled, "The material triumph of this generation is the success of corporate enterprise, but political influence by corporate wealth is the disease of this country…." He added, "For years, one man more than all others has had the love of inarticulate millions because he has … spoke for the God made man above the man made dollar…for government for the people, not a government by the interests." And Thomas recalled that, "Bryan has gridironed America, traveling wherever a railroad ran or a turnpike led, keeping alive the smoldering fires of Democracy."

North Carolina Governor Robert B. Glenn reminded the crowd that "a man who is faithful and true in his private life will be honest and just in his public career," an admonition late 20th century Democrats recently contested.

Congressman J. Thomas Heflin of Alabama told the assembly, "The Republican party stands convicted of deceit and unfaithfulness to the American people. The party has made barter of the ballot and sold seats in the House and the United States Senate to the highest bidder…." Not only that but, "Today, 84 million American people are anxiously looking to the future. They see their industries passing into the hands of gigantic combinations of capital. They see the managers of these corrupt combinations absolutely dominating the government. They see the financial institutions of the country controlled by a few men called money kings who can produce a panic in 24 hours, they see the Republican party humbly registering the decrees of Wall Street…they have seen the tariff tax a burden grievous to be borne." Of Bryan, Heflin exclaimed, "He is the Thomas Jefferson of a new declaration, a declaration of independence from the tyranny of combinations and trusts." And Heflin called him "the intellectual giant of the United States."

Congressman Ollie M. James of Kentucky, who would be chairman of the convention four years hence, shouted out his second for William Jennings Bryan, "whose name is loved and honored wherever the rain falls or the sun shines" because Bryan had told the powers of the land, "Thou shall not steal." Even in Europe, Bryan was known for his "doctrine of peace." James described how "it took the Republican party $20 million to defeat him for the Presidency." He bellowed, "My word for it, they will have to empty the coffers of Wall Street to defeat him next November." Congressman James A Reed of Kansas City concluded, "There is but one name upon our lips."

Finally, the vote was taken and on the first ballot, the 1908 Democratic National Convention gave William Jennings Bryan 888 ½ to 46 for Governor Johnson and 59 ½ for Judge Gray. Delaware, which had nominated Gray, moved to make the tally unanimous, which it unanimously was. Someone let fly a white dove of peace. Then the weary delegates scattered for their beds at 3:45 A.M.

Later that afternoon, the convention's fourth day, when the National Democracy gathered for its final session, Thomas R. Marshall of Indiana, future Vice President with Woodrow Wilson, took up the convention theme. "The fight we wage is the world-old fight. It is the fight of the many against the few. It is the fight that must be made by every succeeding generation." Then he nominated a twice-defeated gubernatorial candidate, John W. Kern, "the greatest man in Indiana" as Bryan's vice presidential candidate. Kern won by acclamation.

In the end, delegates were effusive in their thanks to Denver. Norman E. Mack of New York, passed a resolution of thanks 'to the people of Denver for their generous courtesies and entertainment." On July 10, 1908, at 4:22 P.M., the National Democracy adjourned to battle under the banner, "No Protection for Monopoly."

But in November, the Democracy's hopes were crushed again when William Howard Taft, took 51.6 percent of the popular voted to William Jennings Bryan's 43 percent. The electoral vote count was 321 for Taft, 162 for Bryan. Bryan did carry Colorado, but lost most of the western states he had carried in 1896.

Republicans would govern for four more years, until the election of 1912 when the Grand Old Party split between backers of President Taft and former President Theodore Roosevelt. Democrat Woodrow Wilson won over the weakened Republicans, and appointed Bryan his first Secretary of State. He served until Wilson led the U.S. into the European war that Bryan opposed.

R. Craig Sautter is the author of three books on presidential conventions and teaches courses on the American presidency (among others) at DePaul University's School for New Learning in Chicago. With Sautter Communications (www.sauttercommunications.com), he writes and produces radio and TV political ads for candidates for public office.
top of page

Copyright © 2004 R. Craig Sautter. All rights reserved.