In 1908 the Democratic Party held its national convention in Denver to nominate candidates for president and vice president. The 1908 convention was the political culmination of a half-century of development in the city and the last time Denver would host the convention until 2008. It also marked the final time that William Jennings Bryan, the “Boy Orator,” attempted to run for president. The 1908 convention offers a revealing glimpse of the city’s social and political climate around the turn of the century.
To lure the convention to Denver, the city offered free use of its magnificent new Municipal Auditorium and pledged $100,000—equivalent to $1 million today—in municipal and private funds. Undoubtedly, Colorado’s status as a solidly Democratic state since the 1893 silver crash also influenced the convention committee’s decision. In the end, the committee voted unanimously to hold the event in Denver, beginning on July 7, 1908.
The arrival of the Colorado delegation on December 19 triggered a huge celebration in Denver. Having begun with a cluster of tiny villages along the South Platte River and Cherry Creek in 1858, Denver was a thriving metropolis of more than 200,000 by 1908. As the largest urban area in the West, the “Queen City of the Plains” boasted magnificent theaters such as the Tabor Grand Opera House; accommodations such as the Oxford Hotel, Windsor Hotel, and the Brown Palace; and the bustling transportation hub of Union Station.
Despite a national reputation as a sordid, corrupt politician, Mayor Robert Speer had a genuine love of Denver and a desire to see the city improved and beautified. Though he was regularly castigated by all the Denver newspapers, as well as reformers such as Judge Ben Lindsey and journalist George Creel, Speer enjoyed immense popularity with residents. Despite his ongoing efforts to beautify the city, two issues had to be resolved before Denver could successfully host the Democratic National Convention: completion of the Municipal Auditorium and unification of the Colorado Democratic Party.
After Denver voters approved a bond issue for the construction of the auditorium in 1904, Speer made the massive building his pet project and pushed it through to completion. Billed as the second-largest auditorium in the country (next to New York City’s Madison Square Garden), the immense building was designed by architect Robert Willison. It was designed so that a proscenium arch could be lowered, turning it into a theater with a capacity of more than 3,000 and plenty of backstage room. With the proscenium raised it could hold more than 12,000 people for circuses, automobile shows, and other large-scale events. As spring turned into summer in 1908, all the Denver newspapers anxiously reported on the progress of construction work at the auditorium. Denverites breathed a sigh of relief, as the stage was set—literally—for the building’s dedication and the convention in early July.
Unifying Colorado Democrats proved to be a greater challenge than completing the auditorium. Reform Democrats—including former congressman “Honest John” Shafroth and former senator Thomas Patterson, owner of the Rocky Mountain News and The Denver Times newspapers—had long assailed Speer’s political machine, which had close ties to powerful businessmen and even an illegal gambling and prostitution ring. Realizing that the Democrats had to present a united front in order to host the convention, party leaders such as Henry Teller and former governor Charles Thomas worked steadily behind the scenes to create the illusion of unity. By the time of the convention in July, carefully arranged compromises allowed Shafroth and Speer to serve together amicably on the convention committee. The backroom deals became evident that September at the Colorado Democratic Nominating Convention in Pueblo, when Speer-machine delegates supported Shafroth’s nomination for governor and reform delegates backed the nomination of Speer-machine stalwart Charles Hughes, Jr., for US senator.
With both physical and political hurdles overcome, Denverites feverishly plunged into preparing to accommodate the 30–50,000 visitors and delegates expected to attend the convention. The City and County of Denver, the Denver Convention League, and the Colorado Democratic Party—as well as the city’s hotels, restaurants, entertainment venues, and railroads—joined forces to ensure that the Democrats would be lodged, fed, transported, and entertained in style. In May Speer presided over the addition of two new additions to Denver’s pantheon of attractions: White City at Lakeside Amusement Park and the dedication of the electric fountain in the lake at City Park. The wondrous new fountain could flash eleven columns of water, each a different color, to the rhythm of the Denver Municipal Band. On July 1, the Colorado Natural History Museum (now the Denver Museum of Nature & Science) opened with a modest ceremony in City Park, sharing the park with a group of Apache Indians brought in from New Mexico to foster the Wild West atmosphere. An estimated 20,000 citizens volunteered to help guide visitors by wearing badges that read, “I Live in Denver. Ask Me.”
As the Democrats began to arrive in July, they found that each block up to Broadway from Union Station was dedicated to an individual state or territory and decorated with state seals and flags, along with images of prominent citizens. Damon Runyon, then a young reporter for the Rocky Mountain News, wrote that “the visitor wanders through a heavy foliage of red, white, and blue, wherever there is a place to hang a thread upon, with all the colors of the rainbow woven in for good effect.” The auditorium itself sported innumerable flags and huge portraits of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, and Grover Cleveland.
The Moffat Road fostered the Rocky Mountain atmosphere by transporting refrigeration railroad cars full of snow to Union Station, where it was hauled by wagon to the auditorium so that the delegates could enjoy the sight and indulge in a few snowball fights—an effort that backfired when one snowball fight became violent and resulted in over fifty arrests. The Chicago Tribune speculated that the dual effects of altitude and alcohol on visiting delegates spelled trouble, asserting that “One Democratic statesman . . . is reported as being twenty-six highballs above sea level.”
William Jennings Bryan
The Democrats agreed overwhelmingly on one thing: the choice of a presidential candidate. Though William Jennings Bryan was defeated in the 1896 and 1900 elections, to most Democrats he was still the “Silver-Tongued Orator of the Platte” who valiantly crusaded to return American currency to the silver standard. He was famous among Democrats for his thunderous 1896 warning to the banker class, “You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns; you shall not crucify mankind on a cross of gold!” Bryan’s support for silver made him especially popular in Colorado mining districts, which were devastated when the federal government curtailed its silver purchases after 1893. After Bryan’s two defeats, the Democrats attempted a new tactic in 1904, nominating Judge Alton B. Parker of New York. But Parker promptly lost in a landslide to incumbent president Theodore Roosevelt, which left the door open again for the reformist, progressive wing of the party to nominate Bryan in 1908.
Bryan followed tradition and did not appear personally at the 1908 convention, opting instead to remain at his Fairview estate in Lincoln, Nebraska. Bryan’s brother and political manager, Charles Bryan, was present to control the convention, and William’s daughter, Ruth Bryan Leavitt, also attended. Matthew R. Denver of Wilmington, Ohio—son of James Denver, the former governor of the Kansas Territory, for whom the city was named—was one of the many delegates present. Democratic politicians of all sorts showed up at the convention, including political machinists Charles Murphy of Tammany Hall fame and Roger Sullivan of Illinois. American Federation of Labor president Samuel Gompers and former United Mine Workers of America president John Mitchell were among the reformers present, attending the convention as Bryan supporters.
Any trace of 1904’s abortive semi-conservatism evaporated in the heat of the July 7 opening addresses, when former congressman Theodore A. Bell of California, temporary chairman of the convention, roared, “Foremost among the great evils that afflict the country at the present time is the abuse of corporate power.” He accused the Republican Party of “voluntarily subordinating itself to selfish, private ends, special privilege resorting to cunning, bribery, and intimidation to maintain its unholy power. . . . Against the evils of special privilege we urge the benefits of equal opportunity in order that there may be more land owners, more homes, and more businesses among the masses.”
The enthusiastic reaction to Bell’s address concealed a hidden conflict within the party—a conflict coaxed out into the open by an apparently innocent resolution. Parker, the party’s 1904 candidate, offered a resolution in praise of the late former president, Grover Cleveland, who put the United States on the gold standard. This praise was an obvious dig at Bryan’s crusade for bimetallism, and his supporters quickly squashed the original resolution, replacing it with a blander one.
Choosing a Candidate
On the convention’s second day, the pent-up emotion finally exploded in the nation’s longest and loudest demonstration at a political convention. When blind senator Thomas Gore of Oklahoma mentioned Bryan in passing during his speech, the floor erupted. According to the Rocky Mountain News,
15,000 voices in the great auditorium burst into a great cheer, as of one man. And for one hour and twenty-seven minutes that immense throng kept cheering and shouting. They did not tire. They did not grow hoarse. They just shouted for Bryan until compelled by Temporary Chairman Theodore A. Bell to cease.
After the huge demonstration on July 8, the actual nominations on July 9 and the morning of July 10 seemed fairly routine. Though Governor John A. Johnson of Minnesota and Judge George Gray of Delaware were also nominated, Bryan carried the day on the first ballot. As Omaha attorney I. J. Dunn nominated Bryan, a flock of white doves was released and circled around the hall. Another lengthy demonstration ensued, with the band playing a medley of patriotic tunes as the weary delegates paraded around the auditorium shouting and cheering.
All the spirit and optimism shown by the delegates in Denver was in vain. With the national press overwhelmingly against him, and with only about a third of the campaign money that was available to the Republicans, Bryan lost handily to William Howard Taft in the 1908 election. In his third and final bid for the presidency, Bryan picked up a million more votes than Parker had in 1904 but still lost by a margin of more than 1 million votes. One of his few consolations was the solid support he received from Denver and Colorado. The “Great Commoner” still held immense influence within the Democratic Party, and he used it shrewdly to ensure the nomination of the divisive Woodrow Wilson in the 1912 Democratic National Convention.
Adapted from John Steinle, “‘Shall the People Rule?’: Denver Hosts the Democrats, 1908,” Colorado Heritage Magazine 28, no. 3 (2008).