Democratic And Republican Conventions That Were Total Chaos

Contested conventions are as much a part of American politics as speeches and platforms. From the first party convention in 1830, replacing the previous methods of congressmen simply picking a candidate, chaotic and sometimes violent gatherings have been a constant.

Contested Republican conventions have led to brawls and virtual unknowns winning nominations, while contested Democratic conventions are the stuff of riots and historic blowouts. They've resulted in party splits, insurgent candidates, fights between supporters, and once, even a gigantic cross burning. 

Here are some of the most chaotic party nominating conventions in American history.
  • 1836 Anti-Masonic Convention - Nobody Hates Masons Enough

    Before the election of 1832, members of Congress simply met to decide a presidential nominee for their party. It wasn't until 1831 that a party convention was held to allow delegates to vote on the matter. The first party convention was held by the fledgling Anti-Masonic Party, which grew out of the disappearance and likely murder of anti-Masonic writer William Morgan. The movement against Freemasonry was so strong that the party had enough clout to mount a serious challenge for the presidency.

    The single-issue party met in Baltimore in September 1831 and nominated William Wirt for the presidency. Though Wirt tried to get out of the nomination, he wound up taking seven electoral votes in the election. In 1836, the Anti-Masons met again, but this time, in a divisive and chaotic affair, nobody could agree on a candidate who was quite Anti-Mason enough. The party soon collapsed, and its members were absorbed by the Whig Party.
  • 1839 Whig Convention - It Almost Ends with a Duel

    1839 Whig Convention - It Almost Ends with a Duel
    Photo: Public Domain / Biography.com

    For their first national convention, the Whig Party met almost a year before the 1840 election, in Harrisburg, PA. Kentucky Senator Henry Clay led after the first four ballots, but due to a three-way split, didn't have a majority. On the fifth ballot, William Henry Harrison emerged victorious after delegates for both Clay and Winfield Scott switched votes.

    Clay and Scott were in New York waiting for the results to come in. When news of Harrison's victory was delivered, Clay became so incensed that he punched Scott, aggravating a war wound Scott had suffered. Scott responded by challenging Clay to a duel, but cooler heads prevailed and Clay apologized. Harrison would go on to win the election but die after only a month in office.
  • 1860 Democratic Conventions - Three Meetings, Two Nominees

    1860 Democratic Conventions - Three Meetings, Two Nominees
    Photo: Public Domain / PadreSteve.com

    The Democratic Convention of 1860 was held in likely the most pro-slavery city in the country, Charleston, and immediately began with a walkout from Southern delegates - they refused to even consider uniting the party on an anti-slavery platform. But the rules required the nominee to have a two-thirds majority of ALL delegates, rather than present delegates. So the vote slogged on for 57 rounds, with Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas (of the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858) leading every time, but never with enough votes to actually win.

    The convention finally agreed to pack it in and meet in Baltimore six weeks later, where the exact same thing happened. This time, after just two ballots, a voice vote was taken and Douglas declared the winner.

    But it wasn't over for the Democrats. The southerners who bolted held their own convention in Baltimore and nominated John C. Breckenridge, who had been James Buchanan's VP. Breckenridge and Douglas split the Democratic vote in November, which helped Abraham Lincoln to win. The Civil War began just months later.
  • 1880 Republican Convention - The Garfield Compromise

    1880 Republican Convention - The Garfield Compromise
    Photo: Library of Congress / Wikimedia Commons

    With his administration marred by scandal and controversy, Rutherford B. Hayes announced in 1877 that he wouldn't run for a second term. This left the Republican party scrambling for a nominee. At the 1880 convention, former president Ulysses S. Grant battled with Maine Senator James G. Blaine and Ohio Senator John Sherman for the nomination. The first-day highlight was a brawl over credentials that didn't end until 2 a.m., and Blaine's name was pronounced incorrectly when he was presented, leading to a chorus of booing.

    The balloting went on for 36 grueling rounds with nobody emerging as a clear winner. It wasn't until ballot 34 that James Garfield, who had gone to the convention to support Sherman and had no delegates, was put forth as a serious candidate. Within two rounds, the majority of Blaine and Sherman delegates had switched to Garfield, wanting to end the deadlock. Garfield emerged with the nomination, even though he protested up until the end that he didn't want it, and won the election.