Courting the Democrats

(KC 1900 Series: # 11)

The Industrial Revolution. Reconstruction. The Gilded Age. The Progressive Era. At least four major periods of American history are packed into the last quarter of the 19th century, filled with significant and sometimes contradictory events, like the wave of European immigration and the Chinese Exclusion Act; like the 15th Amendment as the first Civil Rights Act along with the rise of “Jim Crow” laws and the so-called Indian Wars; or the rise of the wealthy alongside the rise of the labor unions, but also two major economic depressions. All of these issues touched Kansas City in large or small ways. So, too, were the great political debates of the time of interest to Kansas Citians, and certainly Kansas City was in the political landscape. What was missing was Kansas City’s chance to step into the spotlight. That is, until the Democratic Convention of 1900 came to town.

The Local Effort

The day after the official opening of the Convention Hall, the Kansas City Star’s editorial page kicked into gear to promote its next civic goal – attracting one of the national political parties to hold their 1900 National Convention in Kansas City’s new hall. It was not a new idea, but Kansas City’s lack of a venue had always been a sticking point. That obstacle was gone, and finally Kansas City was going to take a fair shot at a national political convention, as long as William Rockhill Nelson had ink in the barrel. Of the dozen of the Star’s quick editorial comments printed that opening day, the following summed all up.

A completed original (pre-fire) Convention Hall, circa late March 1900. State Historical Society of Missouri

“It has been demonstrated that Kansas City can build a great hall and can manage it. When the great national convention of whatever political party first shows the good judgment to summon its class to Kansas City to meet in the Convention hall, a novelty in such gatherings will be witnessed. There will be room for everybody, and everybody will be able to hear, and there will be no such scenes of suffering and disorder as have occurred in the improvised wigwams and shanties which have served as corrals for national conventions.”

The first steps were shaky. A new group had split off from the local Democratic group. The original crowd represented a long-standing source of leadership, while the splinter group’s unnamed leader was Jim Pendergast – the bar keep in the West Bottoms, presumed racketeer and older brother of the man that would be known in twenty years as “Boss” Tom Pendergast. It was a surprisingly wealthy group of men, many of whom were newcomers to the city. But more than wealthy, they were influential, involved in city issues through their own system of social connections, like the Commercial Club. The original Democratic club claimed the newcomers wanted to take the lead with luring the national party convention so as to grab the glory, the spotlight and the perks of hobnobbing with the notable national Democrats of the day. The newcomers saw the old guard as mired in their entitlement, which led them to think connections were more important than a good strategy, and that fawning over the nationals would buy them everything they wanted.

Ultimately the dispute was resolved. The Democratic Club of Kansas City became the public face of the effort, which made sense from both the social status of the Commercial Club, whose membership overlapped heavily with the DCKC’s, and the fact that the Commercial Club had spearheaded the Convention Hall initiative, and through its Convention Hall Building Committee, had the power to enter into contracts with the Democrats. The breakoff group, while not excluded, served at the direction of the newly formed “Convention Committee.” It would not be long, however, before the Pendergast influence changed all the old social dynamics.

An early headquarters of the Democratic Club, upstairs at1908 Main Street.

Kansas City had an excellent chance, owing mostly to its new Convention Hall. Among the cities considered viable rivals – Indianapolis, Chicago, Denver, and Cincinnati – Chicago was presumed the leader. Chicago was a major Democratic center, having hosted the 1892 and 1896 conventions. Cincinnati had hosted twice before as well. Then again, national leadership were interested in reaching the emerging west, hence Denver’s place on the list. But Kansas City could satisfy both goals, and provide a new convention hall that even Chicago admitted was the superior among the choices. Best of all, the party’s presumptive candidate liked the Kansas City proposal. Native son of Nebraska and presumptive Democratic presidential nominee William Jennings Bryan had been in Kansas City to speak to the gathering of the agents of the Modern Woodmen of America Insurance Company. Bryan praised the hall publicly and often during his visit, in particular citing the building’s superior acoustics that made the speaker easily understood from the farthest rows of the audience. Worthy praise, considering Bryan was famous as one of the country’s greatests orators.

Page from the brochure promoting Kansas City’s capacity as a convention city.

There was only one perhaps insurmountable issue. As a general rule, the Democrats would expect the host city to pay $50,000 in largely in-kind contributions to cover the Democratic Party’s expenses. This included a waiver of the rental fees for the hall, and all other operational expenses yet to be named, as well as accommodations for party leaders, and favorable room rates for delegates. On the heels of fund-raising for the convention hall, which itself was the last of several civic projects that had been funded at least in part by the good graces of the citizens of Kansas City, another $50,000 ask might be difficult. But not impossible.

What might be impossible was that the $50,000 would only cover the costs for the Democratic party, but the total costs for the civic celebrations – the decorations, the promotions, the printing of brochures and maps, the complimentary trips on the trolleys, everything and anything to make the visitors comfortable and viewing Kansas City favorably, would add another $50,000, making the necessary pitch a total of $100,000. That figure was perilously close to impossible. But Kansas City kept moving forward, moving in the way that it had with the convention hall. Entreaties to local businesses and prominent businessmen, events held with proceeds going to the convention effort, convention promotional contests and souvenirs for sale. Any idea seemed worthy of execution. Some combination of Kansas City’s occasional luck and ever present tenacity brought the total to within $10,000 of the first $50,000 by mid July 1899, a year before the convention.

Three hotels that “volunteered” to underwrite convention expenses by serving as convention headquarters for various state delegations to the convention.

Then, between July 1899 and February 1900, the weekly reports in the newspaper tracked the shifts in the saga. Efforts to raise money for the remaining $50,000 was now overlapping with the local party’s actual preparations. Other cities were still in the running, donations were being held back until deemed “safe.” Then, suddenly, a piece in the Kansas City Star reported the Milwaukee committee had turned “lazy.” They counted on votes that hadn’t been secured, or that they assumed they had based on old information.  When they arrived in Washington to meet with the selection committee, they put out the word that they were amenable to consideration in the cost of their rooms at a Kansas City hotel in exchange for dropping their bid for the convention.

On February 22, 1900, exactly one year to the day since the Convention Hall’s grand opening, the Democratic Party announced that Kansas City would host the 1900 Democratic Convention, and that the Convention would begin on that most patriotic of days, July 4, 1900. When the announcement was made, Kansas City had exactly 132 days to get ready.

The National Agenda

At the beginning of this post, four major periods of American history were tied to the period of the Convention Hall, the last thirty years or so of the 19th century (and into to the 20th century, too) – the Industrial Revolution, Reconstruction, the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era. Now add a fifth – the Fourth Party System of American politics. Note the name “Fourth Party System,” wholly different than a four party system, which would be like the two party system but likely twice as dysfunctional.  Generally, the Fourth Party System refers to what historians named in the 1960s as the fourth configuration of political parties since the beginning of the Republic. What began as the Federalists versus the Whigs (First Party System), shifted to the Second around 1824, with the Federalists now known as the Democrats and the Whigs as the National Republicans. The system shifted again about 1854 to the Third Party, with pro-slavery Democrats (or Redeemers) in the South and the Republicans (or Freedmen) of the North.

Then, in 1896, following the latest in a string of national economic depressions, the Fourth Party System began to rise around the shifting of issues associated with each of the two major parties. The progressive issues (i.e. social welfare, economic reform, professionalism and organizational efficiencies) were first picked up by the Republicans but would in a few years shift to the Democrats, for Republicans had become too closely aligned with the interests of big business which largely had no interest in the large costs and considerable changes that Progressivism required. The Democrats, who had been marginalized because of their ties to the South, therefore started with an interest in agrarian issues (the backbone of the South’s economy) but broadened slowly to include labor issues, industrial regulations and other interests that would early in the 20th century become the heart of the Progressive movement, now aligned with Democrats.

The central issue at the heart of the 1896 convention was the question of the gold vs. bimetallism (gold and silver) as the standard for American currency. William Jennings Bryan may have been one of American politics’ greatest orators, but today he is mostly known for one speech, a speech at the Chicago 1896 convention where he was first nominated for President – indeed, really only for one line in his address to the convention during the debate on the issue. Bryan is famous for saying, “You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns; you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.”

Though McKinley prevailed over Bryan in 1896, the subject of bimetallism remained at the heart of the Democratic Party’s polemic, or at least it did with Bryan, who was for the time the voice of the Democratic Party. Having regained the White House, the Republicans had moved on to new issues of more immediate interest to the voters. The Democrats had moved on too, and had a robust platform. Yet the Democrats would stick with their bimetallistic platform at Bryan’s insistence, in fact under his threat to withdraw his candidacy. For all his single-mindedness, the Democrats knew he was still their best chance for victory.

Despite that, William Jennings Bryan (spoiler alert) went on to be defeated again in 1900 by McKinley. And when Theodore Roosevelt became President following (spoiler alert again) McKinley’s assassination shortly after his second term began, Bryan lacked support for another Presidential run until the 1908 election, where he ran one more time and (last spoiler alert) was defeated handily by William Howard Taft.

As to Kansas City’s role in all this, it has nothing to do directly with national politics except as one scene of the continuing drama of American political theater. Whether or not it influenced either party’s course of action at the local level, I cannot say. But it gave local politicians an up close and hopefully meaningful behind-the-scenes look at national politics. And it whetted the city’s appetite for more. Through the lens of the convention, the world had seen Kansas City’s new hall, and the city was open for business.

(All images: the archives of the State Historical Society of Missouri)

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