Divided and Undecided, 2024’s America Rhymes With 1924’s

One of the many women who could now vote at the 1924 Democratic National Convention in New York, which took 16 days and 103 ballots to choose a presidential candidate. (Library of Congress via The New York Times)
One of the many women who could now vote at the 1924 Democratic National Convention in New York, which took 16 days and 103 ballots to choose a presidential candidate. (Library of Congress via The New York Times)

Things should have been settled. The weary delegates should have already chosen a presidential nominee, packed up their Welcome to New York souvenirs and returned home in time for the nation’s celebration of what it stood for.

Instead, the study in indecision that was the Democratic National Convention of 1924 staggered through the Fourth of July weekend, its 3,000 delegates all but ensnared in the red-white-and-blue bunting adorning a tired Manhattan arena slated for demolition.

The convention, which lasted 16 days and an astounding 103 ballots, is notorious both for being the longest in history and for being infected by the Ku Klux Klan, which cast a long shadow over the America of that time. Just a few dozen miles to the south, it was celebrating a white-nationalist Independence Day with a hood-and-robe parade right down the Broadway of a beachside New Jersey city.

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The simultaneous events reflected the divide over what it meant to be an American. Instead of proudly asserting who we are, that distant summer day raised a question being debated over the July Fourth weekend a century later: Who are we?

At play were the tensions between the rural and the urban; the isolationist and the world-engaged; the America of white Protestant Christianity and the multiracial America of all faiths; the America that distrusted immigrants and the America that saw itself in those immigrants and wished to extend a hand.

Exploiting these conflicts was the Klan, the post-Civil War white-supremacist organization that had been resurrected a decade earlier. Its “America First” mantra resonated with an aggrieved Protestant middle class — some Republicans, some Democrats — who sensed their power slipping away.

Today, in the quickening of a presidential campaign that both parties call a battle for America’s very soul, historian Jon Meacham hears rhyming between 2024 and 1924, when the country was reeling from war and a pandemic, adapting to a transformative medium — radio — and setting exceedingly restrictive immigration quotas.

“Given the demographic and technological changes, the anti-immigrant and racist sentiments, and the anxiety about the loss of a largely white-dominated culture, 1924 has long struck me as an analogous period to our own,” said Meacham, who has been an informal adviser to Biden.

The thousands of out-of-towners who assembled for the Democratic convention in late June found a Manhattan determined to shed its image in the hustings as Gomorrah on the Hudson.

The streets were swept of pickpockets and debris, delegates were greeted with flowers and boutonnieres, and 25,000 city employees staged a welcoming parade led by the silk-hatted mayor, John F. Hylan, who combed his hair at every pause along the Fifth Avenue march.

The convention took place just off Madison Square, in the second iteration of Madison Square Garden, a massive Gilded Age confection with a tower topped by a 13-foot copper statue of the goddess Diana. But the dazzling allure of the arena — scene of countless balls and prizefights, flower shows and the scandalous murder of its architect, Stanford White — had dimmed. The convention would be this Garden’s last as a venue of consequence.

Still, Diana, as envisioned by sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, continued her vigilance over the metropolis from her heavenly perch, a weather vane turning with the fickle wind. Her thick portfolio included goddess of the crossroads — a fitting responsibility, given the stark political choices unfolding beneath her.

The two leading candidates for the Democratic nomination to challenge Calvin Coolidge, the Republican incumbent with the mien of an undertaker, almost seemed to represent different parties.

One was William Gibbs McAdoo Jr., a tall, well-educated Protestant lawyer from the South. Stage-ready handsome and as stiff as his starched-neck collar, McAdoo was a reform-minded progressive who disdained political machines such as New York’s Tammany Hall and supported the prohibition against the manufacture and sale of alcohol. But he was no progressive on matters of race, and as Treasury secretary, he had enforced the policy of his father-in-law, President Woodrow Wilson, to segregate federal agencies.

The other, Al Smith, governor of New York, wore his Irish Catholic mutt heritage like a sash and spoke with a gravelly voice that conjured the multilingual street song of his native Lower East Side. Smith had little formal education and often boasted of being an FFM man, for “Fulton Fish Market.” Still, the work ethic developed at the market served him well as he rose from Tammany Hall functionary to a master negotiator who studied proposed legislation as if cramming for college exams. He favored immigration, opposed Prohibition and was determined to thwart the favorite, McAdoo.

The two candidates differed sharply on the nettlesome question of the Klan, whose supporters at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland weeks earlier had snuffed out a resolution to denounce the organization. (Time magazine nicknamed the gathering the “Kleveland Konvention.”)

Smith, who decried the Klan as a threat to democracy, championed a proposed plank in the Democratic Party platform to condemn the Klan by name. McAdoo, though, opposed such specificity and declined to repudiate the Klan, for fear, perhaps, of alienating its admiring delegates and voters.

“The Klan influence on that convention was enormous,” said Linda Gordon, a historian and the author of “The Second Coming of the KKK: The Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s and the American Political Tradition.” “And, like many social movements, progressive as well as reactionary, they built themselves up through claims of victimization.”

The June 20, 1924, issue of the Klan’s newspaper, The Fiery Cross, reflected the ideology coursing through the Democratic convention and the national conversation. Tirades against “Romanistic influences.” Antisemitic riffs. Warnings about miscegenation. A call for “militant, old-fashioned Christianity and operative patriotism.”

The intolerance was buffed with a patriotic polish. Amid the odes to the American flag and Founding Fathers were advertisements catering to nativists. “EAT with Americans at the American Restaurant.” Or purchase a Kluxer’s Knifty Knife, intended for “two-fisted Americans.” Or buy property in the “100 percent American addition” of the Hiawatha Gardens development in Indianapolis.

“Lots sold to white Protestant Americans only,” the ad said.

“It’s an old story,” said historian David Levering Lewis, “of a country that is made up of immigrants, but some don’t count because they’re darker, or pro-alcohol, or they’re Catholic or Jewish or otherwise suspect. The great fear was that these people would get on ships and swamp us.”

On the first day of the convention, June 24, the delegates streamed into the Garden in Palm Beach suits and summery linen dresses. Women had won the right to vote a few years earlier and were well represented, but there was reportedly only one Black participant — an alternate who would replace a white delegate — in the excited sea lapping against the flag-festooned main platform.

Jackets were soon removed, and souvenir fans began to flutter. It was as if the delegates were at the circus, with the rising temperature from bloviation and body heat seeming to summon the animal aromas from the Garden’s big-top spectacle a couple of months earlier.

That was how it would be — hot and circuslike — for 16 days.

Democrats bickered for nearly a week over the proposed anti-Klan plank, which would have said the party opposed “any effort on the part of the Ku Klux Klan or any organization to interfere with the religious liberty or political freedom of any citizen, or to limit the civic rights of any citizen or body of citizens because of religion, birthplace or racial origin.”

After bruising marathons of backroom bargaining and open-floor confrontations, the plank was defeated by a single vote. Instead, the party tiptoed past any mention of the Klan with language that said, in part, “We insist at all times upon obedience to the orderly processes of the law and deplore and condemn any effort to arouse religious or racial dissension.”

In the midst of this debate about the party’s direction, there suddenly appeared on the scene a Civil War veteran named James John Brady, an octogenarian runaway with poor hearing, no teeth and many opinions. Without a word to anyone, Brady had left Mrs. Gray’s boardinghouse in Vincennes, Indiana — in the midst of its own Klan Karnival — and traveled by train to New York City, using savings from his $72 monthly pension. The Travelers Aid Society had generated headlines by taking up his cause to attend the Democratic convention.

For a brief day or two, the penniless veteran was the toast of Gotham. Democratic leaders provided him with a convention ticket. An actress from Indiana invited him to her play on Broadway. (“He’s stone deaf, and I don’t think he heard a word of the play,” she later said.) Then he was put on a train back home, his ticket covered by his landlady, his brief appearance like a spectral reminder of principles considered long since settled by brother-against-brother bloodshed.

Amid bobbing banners, tribal roars and shouted snippets of state anthems, the balloting for a presidential nominee began. In the first round, McAdoo won nearly 40% of the vote, well more than Smith’s 22% but far from the two-thirds needed to secure the nomination.

And so it went, ballot after ballot, through what remained of June and into July, past the scheduled closing indicated in the convention’s official program.

The names of dark horses and favorite sons kept popping up while the contest between the main contenders, McAdoo and Smith — between the rural Klan-adjacent “drys” and the urban Klan-averse “wets” — remained deadlocked.

Some delegates up and left the city, depleted of money or patience or both. As for the rest, humorist Will Rogers jokingly grumbled that New York had invited these delegates to visit, not to live there.

The 10th ballot. The 20th. The 40th. The 60th.

Now it was the Fourth of July. The day’s proceedings began with a reading of the Declaration of Independence. Then came the 62nd ballot. The 63rd. The 64th. The 65th.

Americans gathered in homes and the street to hear the first convention to be broadcast by radio. The drama gradually veered into farce, as time after time they heard the roll call of state delegations begin with a disembodied Southern voice declaring, “Alabama casts 24 votes for Oscar W. Underwood!”

Beyond the convention’s confines, Americans embraced the annual rituals of Independence Day. Baseball fans watched the New York Giants and the Philadelphia Phillies split a doubleheader at the Polo Grounds. Nearly a half-million people jammed the beaches of Coney Island. And tens of thousands of Klan members and supporters claimed the Fourth as their own in towns around the country, including the Jersey Shore community of Long Branch.

More than 20,000 people wandered the grounds of a Klan-controlled estate just outside the small city. The festivities featured a wedding with bride and groom in hoods; the christening of 16 children; a softball game between New Jersey and Pennsylvania Klan members (who won is lost to time); and speeches, including one by a judge from Indianapolis who reported he had “just come from Jew York.”

“No matter what they do, there will not be anybody but a Protestant as a president or vice president,” the judge asserted.

According to a report in The New York Times, spectators were also invited to throw baseballs at an effigy of Smith, a whiskey bottle in its left hand. Three for a nickel.

Then, following the lead of a Klansman on horseback waving an American flag, a few thousand robed Klan members — merchants and businesspeople and next-door neighbors, enjoying hooded anonymity — marched through a city by the sea. On one float, a Boy Scout held a sign that said, “We Want the Holy Bible in Our Schools.” On another, labeled “Clean Politics,” a Klansman mimicked casting a ballot under the watchful eye of Lady Justice.

Amid cheers and boos and silence, they paraded past the pharmacies and candy stores and luncheonettes, past the signs for movie double features and Hildebrecht’s ice cream, straight down a typical American Broadway.

Meanwhile, in a stifling arena close to another Broadway — the one in Manhattan — the deadlock continued. The 66th ballot. The 67th. The 68th. The 69th. The 70th.

It took a few more days, but the paralysis — and, perhaps, the fever — eventually broke.

On July 9, on the 103rd ballot, a compromise candidate, John W. Davis, a prominent lawyer and diplomat from West Virginia, secured the exhausted party’s nomination after McAdoo and Smith withdrew. Four months later, Davis lost in a landslide to the incumbent, Coolidge.

McAdoo went on to serve as a senator from California. Smith won the Democratic nomination in 1928 but lost to the Republican, Herbert Hoover, in another landslide tarnished by pervasive anti-Catholicism.

In Indiana, Brady recounted his New York adventure to anyone who would listen. “As far as the Ku Klux Klan issue goes,” he would say, “well, the Lord forgive them for they know not what they do.”

His words proved prophetic. This second iteration of the Klan — a third would emerge a generation later in violent backlash to the civil rights movement — would continue strong for another couple of years, but its popularity would plummet amid sex scandals, criminal behavior and internecine quarreling. By decade’s end, it would be a shell of a fraternal organization foundering for relevance.

Within two years of the disastrous convention of 1924, the grand old Madison Square Garden was a memory, knocked down to make room for an insurance building. But its golden goddess, Diana, found a home at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where she continues to keep watch — bow drawn, arrow at the ready, forever at the crossroads.

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