ST. LOUIS • “The weather, like the hopes of various Democratic candidates, promises to continue unsettled for the next few days.”
So went the forecast printed next to the Weatherbird in the July 6, 1904, Post-Dispatch. Already bustling with visitors to its World’s Fair, St. Louis doubled as host of the 1904 Democratic National Convention. Occasional showers aside, temperatures in the mid-80s enhanced the city’s glory.
Convention delegates and hangers-on conducted official business in the Exposition and Music Hall, on the block now occupied by the main library downtown. They hobnobbed in the lobby of the brand-new Hotel Jefferson, one block away, when they weren’t playing hooky at the fair in Forest Park.
The gathering was the third of five major political conventions held here from 1876 to 1916, when St. Louis ranked among the nation’s biggest cities. The 1904 convention nominated Alton Parker, chief judge of New York state’s highest court, who would lose to Republican incumbent President Theodore Roosevelt in a landslide. At the time, it was the worst drubbing in American history.
Parker may be more noteworthy for publicly threatening to refuse his party’s nomination.
Other convention characters have more enduring reputations. Populist hero William Jennings Bryan, already the party’s standard bearer in two defeats, loudly opposed Parker. Newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst made a vigorous but hopeless bid for the nomination. Prominent lawyer Clarence Darrow, who would clash with Bryan 21 years later over evolution, gave the seconding speech for Hearst.
But the party’s East Coast money powers had had enough of Bryan (who, despite them, would be the party’s candidate one more time in 1908). They were solidly behind the conservative, pro-business Parker, who had overturned New York’s eight-hour workday — labor’s holy cause. Platform writers dealt with the fractious issue of silver coinage by ignoring it.
Meanwhile, St. Louis showcased itself at the fair in Forest Park, where delegates received free admission. The Globe-Democrat urged them to wear their convention badges to obtain “special favors” at restaurants and other attractions.
New York’s Tammany Hall political machine sent 800 delegates and glad-handers, who took over the Southern Hotel on Fourth Street. The Post-Dispatch said the Tammany boys declared the fair’s midway almost as good as Coney Island.
U.S. Rep. John Sharp Williams of Mississippi, temporary convention chairman, declared for the mint juleps at the Jefferson. “Had I known they were this good, I would have brought the delegation up a week ago,” he said.
On July 9, delegates voted in the first ballot to nominate Parker, who responded with a terse telegram from his home in upstate New York. If the platform didn’t include praise for the gold standard, “I request that you decline for me the nomination at once.”
Convention leaders accommodated him, reopening the party’s deep division on the money issue. Said delegate Dave Ball of Pike County, Mo., “I will not be the only one in the state who will go fishing election day.”
Parker lost Missouri, which had been reliably Democratic for 32 years. Roosevelt took 32 of 45 states and 56.4 percent of the popular vote. The last major party gathering here was in 1916, when Democrats renominated President Woodrow Wilson.