'A Snarling Roughhouse:' the Democratic Convention of 1924

By Ranson, Edward | History Today, July 1994 | Go to article overview

'A Snarling Roughhouse:' the Democratic Convention of 1924


Ranson, Edward, History Today


Edward Ranson describes how an extraordinary 17-day political dogfight in New York, seventy years ago this month, revealed the faultlines in American society in the Roaring Twenties.

The 1920s in America have attracted a large number of epithets -- the Jazz Age, the Era of Wonderful Nonsense, the Age of the Flapper, the Dry Decade, the Lawless Decade, the Golden Age of Sport, the Great Spree, the Automobile Age and most frequently the Roaring Twenties. This was the age of cross-word puzzles, modern dances with strange animal names, radio, the movies and then the talkies, even flag-pole sitting. It was also the decade of new sporting and entertainment stars like |Red' Grange, |Big Bill' Tilden, |Babe' Ruth, Bobby Jones, Jack Dempsey, Rudolph Valentino, Rudy Vallee, Mary Pickford, Theda Bara and Clara Bow. These images and names demonstrate the variety and vitality of a decade noted for its materialism, speculation and self-indulgence.

The First World War was a traumatic experience for the United States, resulting in enormous political, social, economic and psychological stresses and strains that continued to manifest themselves in the twenties. In many ways this is surprising because the nation only entered the war in April 1917, actually benefited economically, suffered few casualties compared to other belligerents and lost more lives in the Great |Flu' Epidemic of 1918-19. Yet the country quickly became disillusioned with the war, the peace and the post-war scene. Perhaps this was because the nation entered the conflict with crusading zeal but found contact with Europe, the complexities of diplomacy, the threat of Bolshevism, the sordid squabbles over reparations and war debts disenchanting. Many intellectuals in the US were distressed by post-war America and abhorred the philistinism, xenophobia, organised bigotry and cynicism which led to the |Red Scare', a series of bitter strikes, a wave of race riots and to calls for immigration restriction.

Immigration was controversial because of the demographic trends confirmed by the 1920 census. The population of the United States rose from 76 million in 1900 to 106 million in 1920, but more alarming to many people, especially old-stock rural Protestants, was the dramatic shift in the urban-rural balance. America had always been predominantly rural, and as late as 1900 country dwellers enjoyed a comfortable three to two advantage over urban residents, with all that implied in terms of political power and cultural norms. However, in 1920 it was revealed that for the first time urban areas outnumbered rural areas by about 2.5 million people. This was a shocking and worrying fact for those who looked upon towns and cities as centres of vice, crime, disease, poverty and corruption, and who feared for America as they knew it. The recent immigrants were perceived to be southern and eastern Europeans, often Catholics and with little experience of democratic processes, who flocked into the expanding cities where they lived in ethnic ghettos.

It is against this background of social, economic and cultural change and tension that the political history of the 1920s must be viewed. Most obviously there was the continuing partisan struggle between the Republicans and the Democrats that dated back to before the Civil War. However, the conflict within the Democratic Party in these years, as the urban and rural factions battled for supremacy, was at least as important and a good deal more spectacular, culminating in the head-on confrontation between the two wings of the party in New York in 1924, a meeting one contemporary called |a snarling, cursing, tedious, tenuous, suicidal, homicidal roughhouse.'

It has been well said that for the Republicans politics is a business, which they usually conduct with considerable efficiency, but for the Democrats politics is an emotional experience. In part this is because the Democratic Party is an unlikely coalition of factions that periodically struggle for control, especially in presidential election years and at national conventions. …

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