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The Jazz Age: The American 1920s

The Democratic Convention of 1924

Period: 1920s

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In 1924, Democratic prospects in the upcoming presidential election seemed promising. The administration of Republican Calvin Coolidge was rocked by a scandal, the Teapot Dome, which involved secret leasing of the navy's oil fields to private businesses.

But the Democratic Party was deeply divided. The Democratic Party was an uneasy coalition of diverse elements: Northerners and Southerners, Westerners and Easterners, Catholics and Jews and Protestants, conservative landowners and agrarian radicals, progressives and big city machines, urban cosmopolitans and small-town traditionalists. On one side were defenders of the Ku Klux Klan, prohibition, and fundamentalism. On the other side were northeastern Catholics and Jewish immigrants and their children. A series of issues that bitterly divided the country during the early 1920s were on display at the 1924 Democratic Convention in New York, including prohibition and religious and racial tolerance. The Northeasterners wanted an explicit condemnation of the Ku Klux Klans. The final vote was 546.15 for the Klan, 542.85 against it.

The two leading candidates symbolized a deep cultural divide. Al Smith, New York's governor, was a Catholic and an opponent of prohibition and was bitterly opposed by Democrats in the South and West. Former Treasury Secretary William Gibbs McAdoo, a Protestant, defended prohibition and refused to repudiate the Ku Klux Klan, making himself unacceptable to Catholics and Jews in the Northeast.

Newspapers called the convention a "Klanbake," as pro-Klan and anti-Klan delegates wrangled bitterly over the party platform. The convention opened on a Monday and by Thursday night, after 61 ballots, the convention was deadlocked. The next day, July 4, some 20,000 Klan supporters wearing white hoods and robes held a picnic in New Jersey. One speaker denounced the "clownvention in Jew York." They threw baseballs at an effigy of Al Smith. A cross-burning culminated the event.

Al Smith and William Gibbs McAdoo withdrew from contention after the 99th ballot. On the 103rd ballot, the weary convention nominated John Davis of West Virginia, a former ambassador to Britain. The nomination proved worthless. Liberals deserted the Democrats and voted for Robert La Follette, a third party candidate. Apathy and disgust kept many home, and just half of those eligible went to the polls. The Democrat candidate, John Davis received 8 million votes. The Republican candidate, incumbent president Calvin Coolidge, received 15 million votes.

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