Urban Planning

The Convention City


The 2008 presidential election already looms on the horizon. In addition to selecting candidates, the two major parties must decide where to hold their nominating conventions. Although it is not in the running for 2008, Philadelphia has a strong history of welcoming presidential conventions, most recently in 2000, when the Republican Party nominated George W. Bush at the First Union Center (now the Wachovia Center). The Republicans have met in the city six times. They held their first presidential convention here in 1856.

Why this strong legacy? Because of Philadelphia’s overwhelming support for Democratic candidates today, it is easy to forget that Republicans dominated city politics from the mid-nineteenth century until the mid-twentieth century. The city voted for Herbert Hoover in 1932, and although Democratic support increased in response to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal policies, voters continued to elect Republican mayors until 1952.

During this period of transition, the Republican, Democratic, and Progressive Parties held their 1948 conventions in Philadelphia. They met at Municipal Auditorium, or Convention Hall: the Republicans in June and the Democrats and the Progressives in July. The hall had last held a presidential convention in 1936, when the Democrats renominated FDR. The Art Deco-style building, located on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania, southwest of Franklin Field, was completed in 1931.

The City wooed both major parties in 1948 with donations of $200,000. The accommodations proved less than ideal; not enough hotel rooms were available, prompting approximately half of the attendees to seek lodging in college dorm rooms and private residences. Other participants had to stay as far away as Trenton and Atlantic City. Even worse, the summer of 1948 was a scorcher. One hundred eight people fell victim to heat exhaustion at the Democratic meeting.

Still, the delegates soldiered on. The active, unscripted nature of these conventions contrasts with the rubber-stamping of nominees that occurs today. Take civil rights, a major issue of contention within the Democratic Party. Minnesota’s Hubert Humphrey pressed the delegation to “get out of the shadow of states’ rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights” (quoted in Niemela). Southern Democrats resisted a plank calling for strong civil rights legislation and subsequently walked out. They formed the short-lived and staunchly segregationist States’ Rights Democratic, or Dixiecrat, Party. Their candidate Strom Thurmond went on to carry four Deep South states.

Demonstrating the political sea change wrought by the New Deal, the Republican platform included a variety of proposals involving government aid. Republicans called for civil rights legislation, including an anti-lynching law and a measure abolishing poll taxes. They also supported an extension of Social Security benefits and federal funding for slum clearance and low-cost housing. The party nominated Thomas E. Dewey for the second election in a row. In light of a divided Democratic Party, election watchers expected that Dewey would coast to an easy victory. The presence of the Progressive Party, which siphoned off some of the Democrats’ most left-leaning constituents, looked like more bad news for the Democratic nominee, Harry S. Truman.

The Progressives’ Philadelphia convention showcased their emphasis on major reforms. It was an enthusiastic affair attended by delegates from ordinary backgrounds. Many of them had no previous political experience. Observing the attendees at Convention Hall, CBS News correspondent Howard K. Smith noted, “The throng certainly was not affluent. It included hundreds who had hitch-hiked to the convention; scores who lived in tent-towns on the convention hall parking lot” (quoted in Epstein). The Progressive Party platform promoted a broad leftist agenda, including a women’s rights amendment to the Constitution, federal funding for education, the end of Jim Crow laws, and an expansive, nationwide system of Social Security, health, and unemployment insurance. Nominating Henry A. Wallace, former Secretary of Agriculture, Secretary of Commerce, and Vice-President, the Progressives also called for rapprochement with the Soviet Union, a policy that contradicted the prevailing Cold War mindset. Wallace received the endorsement of the Communist Party, prompting a smaller number of left-wing Democrats than expected to support his campaign.

The convention summer marked perhaps the most exciting period in Convention Hall’s history, although fans of the 76ers and the Warriors, who played in the building before the construction of the Spectrum, may disagree. American politics has rarely been more vital and rough-and-tumble. On Election Day, Truman lost Pennsylvania, but his “give ’em hell” candidacy carried 28 states, garnering 49 percent of the popular vote and 303 electoral votes.


Further Reading

  • Donaldson, Gary A. Truman Defeats Dewey. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1999.
  • Gullan, Howard I. The Upset That Wasn’t: Harry S. Truman and the Crucial Election of 1948. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1998.