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160 years ago, Philly hosted first Republican National Convention

Fledgling GOP passed on Abraham Lincoln as vice presidential nominee in 1856 but adopted first anti-slavery platform

Philadelphia will serve as an appropriate backdrop when the Democrats coronate Hillary Clinton as their presidential nominee late next month. The city shades overwhelmingly blue, with registered Democrats outnumbering Republicans by nearly 8 to 1.

Sweep the Country: Political Conventions in Philadelphia

The Abraham Lincoln Foundation of the Union League and the Philadelphia History Museum at Atwater Kent have partnered together on a new exhibit that highlights the 11 political conventions held in Philadelphia between 1848 and 2000. Sweep the Country: Political Conventions in Philadelphia includes items from the Union League and Philadelphia History Museum collections as well as private and institutional collections from the Philadelphia region that give context to the issues of the time that shaped our nation and world, including slavery, immigration, civil rights and the role of business and government, on display through early 2017, the Heritage Center of the Union League, 140 South Broad Street, Philadelphia. Objects, images, and stories for the 12th Convention, the Democratic National Convention, held in Philadelphia July 27-31, will be added to the exhibition in September. Open to the public Tuesdays and Thursdays, 3pm-6pm and the second Saturday of every month, 1pm-4pm.

Photo by Emma Lee/NewsWorks.


Union League launches exhibition on Philly’s political conventions

By William Bender, Staff Writer

Posted: March 22, 2016

Attention political junkies: Put down your smartphones, and head over to the Union League for a real-life lesson on every political convention held right in our backyard over a century-and-a-half.

“Sweep the Country: Political Conventions in Philadelphia,” a new exhibition on the ground floor of the Union League, debuts Monday and covers the 11 political conventions hosted by the city between 1848 and 2000. It will run until early 2017.

“Philadelphia was a happening political town,” said exhibition curator James Mundy.

Philly will be a happening place again in July when the Democratic National Convention comes to the city. Only Chicago has hosted more political conventions, with 25.

Exhibition attendees are greeted with a video message from Mayor Kenney and can peruse memorabilia from each convention, from 19th-century mudslinging cartoons to giant political handkerchiefs.

“Think of these as the bumper stickers of the day,” said Mundy, holding up a handkerchief from the Fremont-Dayton convention of 1856, when slavery was the hot topic and Republicans ran their first candidate in a presidential election.

At the 1948 convention, Mundy said, officials set up fans and ice blocks to keep delegates from succumbing to a heat wave.

Democrats adopted a civil rights platform and the segregationist Dixiecrats broke away from the party.

“That was the beginning of the modern Democratic Party as we know it,” Mundy said.

The exhibition is chock full of buttons, photos, drawings, speeches and other items from the convention floors.

Philadelphia, now regarded as one of the best beer cities in the country, had a problem in 1936 when the Democrats held their first convention here: Blue Laws prohibited the sale of alcohol on Sundays. So a fix was needed. “They suspended the Blue Laws so everyone could drink,” Mundy said.

The GOP did the same in 1940, and the liquor again flowed on a Sunday.

“They were practical thinkers,” Mundy said.

The exhibit also includes quirky memorabilia, from the elephant-shaped cookie cutters of 1948 to the custom-made Barbie dolls for George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” convention in 2000. The dolls were white, black, and Asian.

“They were going to be as inclusive as they could be,” Mundy said.

Even Kraft Foods chipped in that year with some politically shaped mac ‘n’ cheese. “The macaroni were shaped like elephants,” Mundy said.

Don’t miss the collection of satirical political cartoons, which are brilliantly over the top. Example: The 1848 cartoon bashing the Whig candidate, Army Gen. Zachary Taylor. He’s sitting on a mound of skulls representing the Whig Party’s principles.

“Now, you go on TV and yell at somebody,” Mundy said.

The exhibition is presented by the Union League’s Abraham Lincoln Foundation in partnership with the Philadelphia History Museum, which lent 35 items.

The grand opening will be at 5:30 p.m. Monday. The exhibit will be open to Union League members seven days a week, from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. The public can visit on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 3 to 6 p.m., and on the second Saturday of the month from 1 to 4 p.m. Admission is free.

Union League explores Philadelphia’s history of conventional wisdom and blunders

Some Republican leaders, including former presidential candidate Mitt Romney, are advocating an open convention in Cleveland this summer, wherein the party’s candidate would be decided on the convention floor instead of at the primary polls.

Most political conventions nowadays are more party celebrations than party business, with the candidate locked in well in advance. But that wasn’t always the case.

In 1848, the Whig Party held its convention in Philadelphia to decide between the “conscience” Whig Henry Clay — who opposed slavery in the new Western territories — and the “cotton” Whig, Gen. Zachary Taylor, who supported it. Slavery was on everyone’s mind.

A first-term congressman from Illinois, Abraham Lincoln, attended that Whig convention in Philadelphia to put his support behind Taylor, as the more electable candidate.

“Here we have the Great Emancipator in 1848 supporting the cotton Whig,” said James Mundy, director of education at the Abraham Lincoln Foundation of the Union League of Philadelphia. “The object is to get elected. If you don’t get elected, it doesn’t matter what you think or what your party platform is.”

Taylor became president.

The Heritage Center of the Union League is getting ready for this summer’s Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia by creating an exhibition of all 11 national political conventions — representing five political parties — the city has hosted in the last 152 years.

There have been conventions for the Democratic Party, the Progressive Party, the Whigs, and the nativist American Party (the Know-Nothings). In 1856, the newly minted Republican Party chose its first presidential candidate in Philadelphia.

“Sweep the Country: Political Conventions in Philadelphia” is a small but dense exhibition on the lower floor of the Union League. Made in partnership with the Philadelphia History Museum at Atwater Kent, it covers a lot of ground in one room, outlining major campaign issues, political infighting, and convention logistics.

Take 1936, when the city’s Republican Mayor S. Davis Wilson pushed to host the Democrats. He saw it as a matter of dollars and cents; with the Great Depression still lingering, Wilson realized national conventions bring in a lot of money.

“He was wise enough to realize political conventions are not dry,” said Mundy. “Philadelphia had blue laws prohibiting purchasing alcohol on Sunday. One of the compromises Wilson made was to suspend the blue laws on Sundays while Democrats were in Philadelphia. A very smart thing to do, and they would do that for every succeeding convention after that.”

Philadelphia played host during two of the next three election cycles. In 1940, in the wake of Roosevelt’s New Deal and while watching the escalation of World War II, the Republicans came to the city to choose its candidate to go against FDR. It was the first national convention to be broadcast on live television.

The chosen candidate turned out to be a black horse, an electrical utility executive named Wendell Willkie.

“A political unknown came out of nowhere in one of the biggest presidential upsets in America history,” said Mundy. “Willkie ran for office and got creamed.”

For the next convention cycle, in the summer of 1948, all three parties of the time — the Republicans, the Democrats, and the Progressives — held their conventions in what was then the Municipal Auditorium in West Philadelphia. Television was a big factor, and Philadelphia was a TV hub.

It was one of the hottest summers on record, and the Municipal Auditorium had no air conditioning. The city set up huge blocks of ice in front of fans to cool down tens of thousands of people. It didn’t work.

“Because of the temperature conditions inside the Municipal Auditorium, the parties swore they would never come back to Philadelphia again,” said Mundy. “And they didn’t, until 2000. So it took 52 years. People have long memories.”

The exhibition features 19th century newspaper engravings, political cartoons, photographs, campaign kerchiefs and pendants, and — in one case — a handwritten delegate speech. Most of the material was pulled from the Union League’s own collection.

The exhibition has an empty spot on the wall for the city’s 12th convention, the Democratic National Convention in July, from which it will harvest a new batch of material — and immediately put it on display.