Illinois: Pathway to the Presidency

Photo from the Abraham Lincoln Documents Collection,
Illinois Digital Archives – A service of the Illinois State
Library and the Office of the Secretary of State
Illinois has been the home to four U.S. Presidents. That isn’t the most (Virginia claims that honor with eight) but it is still more than most states. But beyond the presidencies of Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama, Illinois has been an important step on the path to the White House for a total of eleven presidents who were either nominated or re-nominated in Chicago on their way to victory in November. In fact, in the century-and-a-half since it hosted its first convention, Chicago has hosted more presidential conventions than any other U.S. city.

Presidential nominating conventions looked a lot different in the 19th century than they do today. For one thing, the modern image of the nominee giving an acceptance speech to a hall filled with thousands of excited, cheering delegates was unheard of in the 1800s because the candidates normally did not attend the conventions at all. Instead, they left the business of fighting for the nomination in the hands of their “convention managers.” They would then receive a delegation of party leaders at their home to be formally notified of their nomination and to accept it.

Conventions were also very different in those days before instantaneous communications and easy inter-state travel because they were likely to be the only opportunity the parties had to have so many of their dignitaries from around the nation together in one place. As the nation expanded westward in the mid-1800s, Chicago was an ideal choice for a convention site. It was easily accessible for delegates traveling by train from the east coast, the south or the west.

The first convention to be held in Chicago kicked off on May 16, 1860, when the Republicans gathered to select their nominee. At the time it was picked as the host city, Chicago did not even have an auditorium capable of handling such a gathering. A temporary wooden structure known as the “Wigwam” was built at a cost of $5000 for the event. Though New Yorker William Seward was thought to be the favorite at the outset, Illinoisan Abraham Lincoln eventually triumphed on the third ballot.

Four years later, the Democrats did not find similar good fortune with their Chicago-nominated candidate George McClellan, who was defeated by Lincoln that fall. The Republicans returned to the Windy City in 1868 to nominate another Illinoisan, General Ulysses S. Grant. This time, there was no drama surrounding the Presidential pick, as Grant was nominated without opposition in a convention which met at Crosby’s Opera House. Like the 1860 Wigwam, Crosby’s would be destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.

With large parts of Chicago in ruins following the fire, both parties found other host cities in the 1870s. But they made up for lost time in the two decades which followed: holding six conventions in Chicago during the five elections between 1880 and 1896. Ohioan James A. Garfield was nominated by the Republicans in 1880 after a long series of ballots. He went on to be elected the 20th President of the United States, but was felled by an assassin’s bullet less than a year after taking office.

In 1884, both parties chose their nominees in Chicago, but in different locations. The Republicans went first, meeting at the Exposition Hall to nominate former Secretary of State James Blaine of Maine for President and Illinois Senator John A. Logan for Vice President. The next month, the Democrats met in the Interstate Exposition Building to nominate Grover Cleveland of New York. Cleveland prevailed in the fall.

Four years later, the Republicans returned to Chicago to nominate Indiana’s Benjamin Harrison who went on to defeat Cleveland that fall. This was the first Chicago convention to be held in a building which still stands today: the Auditorium Theatre at 50 Congress Parkway.  Four years after that, the Democrats and Cleveland came back to Chicago yet again, and this time Cleveland won the re-match, besting Harrison in the fall. The convention also nominated Illinoisan Adlai Stevenson for Vice President, the only Vice President from Illinois to be nominated at a convention held in Illinois.

Born in Salem, William Jennings Bryan became the next Illinoisan to receive a national party nod in Chicago when he was chosen by the Democrats in 1896 for the first of his three presidential nominations. It was at this convention that he delivered his famous “Cross of Gold” speech. However he was defeated by William McKinley in November. After meeting in Chicago in three of the past four election cycles, the Democrats then convened elsewhere for 36 years. Republicans, on the other hand, would host five consecutive conventions in Chicago, starting with Theodore Roosevelt’s nomination in 1904.

All five of those Republican conventions, from 1904 through 1920, were held at the Chicago Coliseum at 15th Street and Wabash Avenue, a building which stood until 1982. Theodore Roosevelt actually received two Presidential nominations at the Coliseum, but from different parties: he was the 1904 Republican standard-bearer and the 1912 Progressive or “Bull Moose” nominee. William Howard Taft was nominated at the Coliseum both during his successful 1908 campaign and his unsuccessful 1912 race. Charles Evans Hughes of New York won the nomination in 1916, but lost a razor-thin contest to incumbent President Woodrow Wilson that fall. In 1920, Ohio’s Warren Harding edged out Illinois Governor Frank Lowden and several others for the nomination. According to legend, that contest included a meeting at the Blackstone Hotel which provided the origin of the political term “smoke-filled room.”

Just as in 1884, both parties met in Chicago in 1932 to choose their nominees. Republicans re-nominated President Herbert Hoover, while Democrats selected New York Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt. Both conventions were held at the newly-built Chicago Stadium, home of the Blackhawks and future home of the Bulls. It was here that the tradition of nominees avoiding the convention came to an end, as Roosevelt flew into Chicago to accept the nomination in person. He went on to swamp Hoover in a landslide that fall.

Roosevelt was re-nominated at Chicago Stadium for an unprecedented third term in 1940. In 1944 Chicago Stadium once again hosted both gatherings. Roosevelt was again the choice of the Democrats, while Republicans picked New York Governor Thomas Dewey for the first of his two unsuccessful nominations for the White House.

The 1952 Republican National Convention was the first such gathering to be broadcast on live television. The delegates assembled at the Chicago Amphitheater (later known as the International Amphitheatre) to nominate General Dwight Eisenhower. The International Amphitheatre at Halstead and 42nd Streets would host five conventions in all, including both of the Democrats’ nominations of Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson II in 1952 and 1956, and Vice President Richard Nixon’s first presidential nomination in 1960. But none would be as infamous as the 1968 Democratic National Convention which nominated Vice President Hubert Humphrey for President inside while outside violence and rioting raged in the streets.

The most recent Presidential nominating convention to visit Chicago was the 1996 Democratic gathering at the United Center which re-nominated Bill Clinton for the White House. In all, Chicago has hosted 25 major party conventions (14 Republican and 11 Democratic), from which 11 different nominees (8 Republicans and 3 Democrats) have gone on to win a total of 14 Presidential elections.