Allow me to set the scene for you: it is an exceptionally hot summer day. A major political party is holding its national convention to choose a nominee for the upcoming presidential election. Coming into the convention, the leading candidate for the nomination is a wealthy businessman who has run on his financial acumen, but after several ballots he cannot garner a majority of the delegates’ votes. One of his contenders is a divisive Roman Catholic politician who has proposed a platform of social reforms. Another, a conservative Washington insider, figured in an impeachment proceeding and is known for his controversial stance on civil rights issues. The party, unable to reach a consensus, eventually considers a female Vice Presidential nominee, a good-looking woman from small town America who charms the delegates with her winning smile and tongue-in-cheek humility.
This was, of course, the 1924 National Democratic Convention. Were you thinking something else? Mr. Businessman was in fact William Gibbs McAdoo, a railroad tycoon and lawyer from Tennessee. After founding the law firm that became Cahill, Gordon & Reindell, McAdoo shifted his focus to politics and Woodrow Wilson appointed him Secretary of the Treasury in 1913. He was instrumental in avoiding financial disaster with the outbreak of World War I, when the United States was heavily indebted to Europe. McAdoo took the unprecedented step of closing the New York Stock Exchange for four months, preventing a mass sell-off and going a long way towards transforming the United States from debtor-nation to world power.
McAdoo came to the Convention, however, with the vocal and violent support of the Ku Klux Klan, which had been steadily gaining in power and influence corresponding largely with the rise of socialism. His nomination was opposed by Al Smith, the Catholic former governor of New York who not only criticized the Klan but also supported the repeal of Prohibition. (Smith also took aim at the media, famously calling William Randolph Hearst “[a] man as low and mean as I can picture” in a speech given in 1919). The Klan rioted; an attempt was made by some members of the party to condemn the organization; and the Convention came to be known as the “Klanbake” for the resulting turmoil.
Smith and McAdoo practically cancelled each other out, but it took one hundred ballots before they finally capitulated. The Democratic nominee who finally emerged from the wreckage was John W. Davis of West Virginia. Davis came from Southern anti-abolitionist stock, and perhaps this history made him acceptable to the KKK-affiliated faction of the party. As Wilson’s Solicitor General, however, he had argued in favor of voting rights for African Americans in Gwinn v. United States. In Gwinn, the Supreme Court struck down so-called “grandfather clause” exceptions to voting literacy requirements which allowed otherwise illiterate whites to vote so long as their grandfathers would have been eligible. Gwinn cost Davis the South, and his conservatism cost him liberal-leaning Democratic votes.
The incumbent Republican, Calvin Coolidge, won the 1924 presidential election by one of the largest margins ever, and his second term was marked by the growth and prosperity of the Jazz Age. But he hesitated to turn the presidency over to his vice-president and successor, Herbert Hoover, because he complained that Hoover consistently gave him bad advice. The stock market crashed a little more than seven months after Hoover’s inauguration.
One of the more interesting characters to emerge from the fracas of the brokered 1924 Democratic Convention was Lena Springs of Lancaster, South Carolina. Springs became a Democratic National Committeewoman in 1922, only three years after the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment gave women the right to vote. By all accounts she was a beautiful woman with dark hair and blue eyes. She was also the Chair of the English Department at Queen’s College (now University) in Charlotte, North Carolina. When she was nominated, Springs promised that she would not take the nomination “lightly,” even though she did not expect to be nominated. Will Rogers congratulated her on the nomination, and said he wished that she had been nominated for President. After her husband died in 1931, Springs retired to an apartment at the Plaza Hotel in New York City. She died in 1942. A woman would not win the vice-presidential nomination of a major political party until 1984, when Walter Mondale selected Geraldine Ferraro as his running mate.