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DNCs in Phila. brought change

On the first day of the 1936 Democratic National Convention, 10,000 Philadelphians gathered by lamplight near Independence Hall as the Liberty Bell tolled to mark the convention's start.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt accepts the second term nomination at the Democratic National Convnetion in Philadelphia at Franklin Field in June 27, 1936.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt accepts the second term nomination at the Democratic National Convnetion in Philadelphia at Franklin Field in June 27, 1936.Read more(Inquirer file photo)

On the first day of the 1936 Democratic National Convention, 10,000 Philadelphians gathered by lamplight near Independence Hall as the Liberty Bell tolled to mark the convention's start.

"The soft ring of the ancient tocsin spanned a century and a half before those early patriots who fought and died to create the first modern Republic and 700 principal officers of city, State and Nation who last night applauded appeals to defend that Republic against foreign ideas of returning to kings and dictators," the Inquirer reported.

The skyline was shorter, the hemlines were longer, and the reporting more florid, but Philadelphia, as today, was the hub of the party's political activities.

This week marks the third time Democrats have come to Philadelphia to nominate a candidate for president.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt accepted the nomination in front of 100,000 fans at Franklin Field in 1936. Harry S Truman addressed a sweltering room filled with fatigued delegates in an early-morning speech in 1948.

Here's a look at those conventions, based on newspaper coverage at the time and interviews with convention historians.

1936: A frontal attack on corporate wealth

Eighty years ago, Philadelphia outbid Chicago and Los Angeles to host its first Democratic National Convention, at a cost of $200,000.

The Republican-ruled city suspended its blue laws to permit drinking on Sundays, and invited guests to catch a baseball game at Shibe Park, though the Phillies went one for seven that week.

A scrapple breakfast was served to the female delegates on opening day with National Committeewoman Emma Guffey Miller declaring, "Scrapple in June is just another indication of the progress of Philadelphia and the nation."

The Mummers paraded through Center City. The weather was wet but remarkably cool for July.

Politically, the gathering at Convention Hall was a big pep rally, an affirmation of Roosevelt and his New Deal programs. Roosevelt's nomination was unanimous and his New Deal coalition continued to draw union leaders, African Americans, and blue-collar workers, reshaping a party that had historically been dominated by Southern conservatives.

"It was probably the most radical of the political conventions, at least in the 20th century," said R. Craig Sautter, author of Philadelphia Presidential Conventions.

"You had Roosevelt denouncing the financiers who had wrecked the country four years ago and then a frontal attack on corporate wealth. This is a convention that Bernie Sanders would have been really happy with."

Pennsylvania Gov. George H. Earle III declared: "Chattel slavery was destroyed but upon its ashes there has arisen in our nation an even greater evil: wage slavery."

In Philadelphia, New Deal programs and the convention excitement threatened the Republican hold on the city, setting in motion, said Randall Miller, professor of American studies at St. Joseph's University, a shift in political attitudes that culminated with Democrats capturing the mayor's office in 1951 and remaining in control to this day.

Though the convention lacked suspense as to who the candidate would be, a rules change had serious implications for the party.

Roosevelt backed a move to have nominees selected by a simple majority vote as opposed to two-thirds of the delegates. The shift greatly weakened the power of Southern Democrats.

"It's not sexy but really important," Miller said. "It made it possible for Democrats to move, haltingly, toward a civil rights interest, which actually had been the province of the Republican Party."

On the Friday of convention week, Roosevelt spoke to "one solid carpet of cheering, shrieking, flag-waving humanity," the Inquirer reported, gathered on an overcast day at Franklin Field.

"There is a mysterious cycle in human events," Roosevelt said. "To some generations much is given. Of other generations much is expected. This generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny."

1948: Southern outrage

If 1936 signaled a shift in the Democratic Party, 1948 marked a sea change.

The party met again to renominate a candidate, in this case Truman, who was far less popular than FDR, leaving Democrats to wonder whether he could win.

The convention centered on civil rights. Minneapolis Mayor Hubert H. Humphrey gave an impassioned speech calling for a civil rights plank to be inserted into the platform.

"The time is now arrived in America for the Democratic Party to get out of the shadow of states' rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights," Humphrey said.

Truman supported the effort, to the outrage of the Southern Democrats. Mississippi's delegation walked out, shouting and ripping the Mississippi flag from Convention Hall. Half of Alabama's delegates followed into the streets, where they were booed.

The Southern Democrats gathered later to nominate South Carolina Gov. Strom Thurmond as their nominee.

"People always say Nixon flipped the Democratic South to Republicanism, but actually you see it really starting right here," Sautter said. "This was the beginning."

The 1948 convention was also among the first to be televised. Philadelphia was selected to host the convention in part because of the coaxial cable that ran from New York to Washington.

July that year was brutally hot. To the chagrin of delegates, Philadelphia had passed on air-conditioning when it built the hall.

Men and women sat in sweat-soaked clothing in 90-degree-plus heat. At one point, organizers hauled huge ice blocks onto the roof to send cool droplets down to the floor.

So many speakers took the floor that Truman didn't give his acceptance speech until around 1:30 a.m.

Chris Borick, a political science professor and the director of the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion, sees some similarities between the 1948 convention and this year's.

Hillary Clinton, for instance, faces some of the same public doubts as Truman did.

Additionally, in 1948 the party was trying to maintain the Roosevelt legacy through Truman. "This time it's the Obama legacy and the keeper of that legacy," Borick said. "And Hillary Clinton has wholeheartedly billed herself as that."

Miller thinks Sen. Bernie Sanders' influence on Clinton and the platform - as well as what becomes of expected protests outside of the convention - will be the narrative inscribed in the history books.

"Once again, the big story is the backstory, because it's going to say something about who controls the Democratic Party, what does it stand for?" Miller said. "Who does it represent?"

215-854-5506 @juliaterruso