In 1932, the first of the four Democratic National Conventions that would nominate Franklin D. Roosevelt for president, the nominee did something amazing, even a little shocking. He showed up at the convention, accepted the nomination and made a speech. It had never happened before and some thought it mildly scandalous.
Last night, when Donald Trump did the 2016 version of this, he set a record for the longest acceptance speech in the modern age of conventions-as-infomercials. I suspect he also set a new record for falsehoods. But the idea of a four-day convention, climaxing in the acceptance speech of the nominee, has quickly become so normal and predictable that it’s easy to forget how new a tradition it is.
The history of presidential nominating conventions dates only to 1832. Before that, the members of Congress from a party were in charge of choosing nominees. Then the first conventions were small affairs, held in small buildings, even churches, with few spectators. There were quite a few first ballot nominations but also quite a few that went on for days and required multiple ballots. The all-time record was the Democratic nomination of John W. Davis in 1924, which occurred on the 102nd ballot. Nowadays, of course, that is unimaginable for several reasons, including that it would make for bad TV.
When the conventions were contested, the delegates were serious players and deals were cut. In most cases, the nomination ended up going to a well-known candidate who, by tradition, would not be present at the hall nor even in the convention city.
When the Republicans in 1860 nominated the relative dark horse Abraham Lincoln in Chicago, Lincoln stayed home in Springfield following events by the then-still-hot-new medium of the telegraph. Even when he got the news of his third-ballot nomination, he didn’t think of taking the next train to Chicago to give a speech.
That would have been scandalous. We were still in the era when a candidate for president was supposed to modestly stay home and shut up and communicate only that he stood on the party platform and, if elected, he would do his best.
Two weeks after the convention, Lincoln communicated by a brief letter, in which he took no policy positions, that he accepted the nomination. This acceptance by letter was a tradition in this period and long after.
The tradition of the candidate staying off the campaign trail also continued for a long time. Later, in the late 19th and early 20th century, those acceptance letters would get a bit longer, and the candidate might express some views and the tradition of candidate false diffidence began to erode. In 1896, William Jennings Bryan, who would be the Democratic nominee, gave the keynote address, known to history as his “cross of gold” speech, which rocked the convention and helped him win the nomination on the fifth ballot, but still no acceptance speech.
In 1932, FDR, then the governor of New York, led on all ballots at the convention, but in those days you had to get two-thirds for nomination. It took him until the fourth ballot to reach that threshold. FDR stayed in New York until he had secured the nomination, but then decided to make the dramatic, unprecedented gesture of flying to the convention in Chicago. It’s likely that FDR, whose health was an issue, thought it would be good to show the party and the country that he was vigorous, despite his paralysis from polio.
In his speech, Roosevelt clearly acknowledged that he was breaking tradition by showing up, and tried to make that a virtue, with style, thus:
The appearance before a national convention of its nominee for President, to be formally notified of his selection, is unprecedented and unusual, but these are unprecedented and unusual times. I have started out on the tasks that lie ahead by breaking the absurd traditions that the candidate should remain in professed ignorance of what has happened for weeks until he is formally notified of that event many weeks later.
My friends, may this be the symbol of my intention to be honest and to avoid all hypocrisy or sham, to avoid all silly shutting of the eyes to the truth in this campaign. You have nominated me and I know it, and I am here to thank you for the honor.
Let it also be symbolic that in so doing I broke traditions. Let it be from now on the task of our Party to break foolish traditions. We will break foolish traditions and leave it to the Republican leadership, far more skilled in that art, to break promises.
It was also in that speech that he promised a “new deal” for America (“I pledge you, I pledge myself, to a new deal for the American people.”)
Even though he had broken a long and powerful tradition, the Republican nominees in 1932 and 1936 followed the old practice and stayed away from the convention. The 1940 GOP nominee, Wendell Willkie, showed up at the convention, but didn’t give a full-fledged speech. Still, his mere appearance caused a sensation:
“WILLKIE BREAKS PARTY TRADITION BY PERSONAL APPEARANCE LIKE ROOSEVELT’S IN ’32,” The New York Times’ headline told its readers. “CROWD GOES WILD GREETING NOMINEE.”
It wasn’t until the next cycle, 1944, that Republican nominee Thomas Dewey became the first of his party to show up at the convention and make an acceptance speech.
The game keeps evolving. Contested conventions are rare, and none have gone past the first ballot since 1948. Long after that, they have turned into basically TV shows and the climax is the acceptance speech, on the fourth night, in prime time.