This summer marks the anniversary of a political moment that took place in Philadelphia 75 years ago. For the first and only time in United States history, the city was the site of three political party conventions.
The 1948 presidential race was the first time in 16 years that Franklin Delano Roosevelt was not on the ballot, having died in 1945 while serving his fourth term. His successor, then-Vice President Harry S. Truman, was vying to be the Democratic nominee.
The Democrats’ platform touted their successes in recovering from the Great Depression and winning World War II. They highlighted their plans for foreign policy and domestic programs, and despite objections by delegates from most Southern states, included strong support for civil rights.
Democrats gathered in Philadelphia July 12-15, 1948. They had been preceded by the Republican National Convention in June from the 21-25. The Republican platform emphasized familiar themes of deficit reduction, lower taxes, and smaller government, as well as a frequent topic of the day–rooting out Communism. Compared to today’s GOP, however, aspects of the 1948 party platform were rather liberal, such as recommending an equal rights amendment for women, statehood for Puerto Rico (along with Alaska and Hawaii), and the right to collective bargaining. After three rounds of balloting, Thomas Dewey, governor of New York, was chosen as the candidate, with running mate Earl Warren, then-governor of California and eventual chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Also present in the 1948 race were two upstart groups. Both were born out of dissatisfaction with the Democrats, although at opposite ends of the ideological spectrum. Not appearing in Philadelphia was the States’ Rights Democratic Party, familiarly known as the Dixiecrats, and their nominee Strom Thurmond. Objecting to the Democrats’ civil rights agenda, they wanted states to have to right to enforce racial segregation. After many in their ranks walked out of the Democratic convention, the Dixiecrats subsequently hosted two conventions in Birmingham and Oklahoma City, the first in Alabama just two days after the Democratic gathering’s conclusion.
The Progressive Party, by contrast, was in accord with the civil rights stance, but broke with the Democrats over the administration’s Cold War policies, objecting to the Marshall Plan, the Truman Doctrine, and the buildup of the nuclear arsenal, and favoring diplomatic relations and humanitarian aid to the Soviet Union. On the domestic side, the Progressive Party platform was populist and anti-corporate, supporting workers’ rights, national health insurance, more than doubling the minimum wage, monopoly control, and equal opportunities for women. Their presidential nominee was Henry Wallace. He had served as FDR’s vice president during his third term, but was dropped from the ticket for the 1944 election in favor of Harry Truman after breaking with the administration and advocating against the Cold War arms buildup. Wallace’s running mate was Senator Glen Taylor of Idaho.
Although news reports from the time noted the scarcity of politicians in the party, the list of delegates and speakers included a significant representation of labor, education, the arts, and women, most notably Lillian Hellman, Rockwell Kent, H.L. Mencken, Norman Mailer, Paul Robeson, Coretta Scott (King), George McGovern, and Pete Seeger.
The presence of the latter contributed to the amount of singing that went on during the convention, with the New York Times noting that each session opened with a half-hour long “Sing for Wallace” program.
An unofficial theme song for the Progressive Party’s convention was “The Same Merry-Go-Round,” published by People’s Songs, an organization founded by Seeger, Alan Lomax, and Lee Hays to promote and distribute labor and folk songs. The lyrics ”The donkey and elephant go ’round and ’round on the same old merry-go-round” was illustrated by a float bearing a carousel with donkeys and elephants in place of horses, which was driven around Philadelphia and also appeared on the field at Shibe Park during the party’s formal nomination, which reportedly drew a crowd of 30,000.
The Progressive Party convention was followed by a Youths for Wallace convention in Philadelphia. With Wallace and Paul Robeson as opening speakers, they adopted a platform that mirrored that of the main convention, including the right to vote at age 18, unemployment insurance for those who graduated school, but couldn’t obtain a job, opportunity for free high school and college education, and equal pay for equal work.
At the time, Philadelphia might have seemed a curious choice for the Democrats and Progressives. Mayor Bernard Samuel was a Republican, whose party had been in power in City Hall for decades. Today he is mostly known as the last Republican elected to the mayor’s office, but Samuel’s 11-year tenure, the longest of any Philadelphia mayor, was significant on several fronts. He established the City Wage Tax, at that time 1.5 percent. To his credit, Samuel took several measures to prevent violence during the Philadelphia Transit Company Strike of 1944, as white transportation workers rebelled against Black workers being promoted to conductor and driver positions in response to wartime labor shortages, in defiance of their union’s stance. He supported the Better Philadelphia Exhibition of 1947, created by architects Oscar Stonorov and Louis Kahn with city planner Edmund Bacon to share their aspirations for a modern, post-war Philadelphia. Ironically, the exhibition has been credited with ushering in the reform-minded Democratic mayors Joe Clark, followed by Richardson Dilworth, who succeeded Samuel upon the establishment of 1951’s Home Rule Charter,
All three conventions took place in the Municipal Auditorium, later renamed the Philadelphia Convention Hall and Civic Center, at 3400 Civic Center Boulevard in University City. Designed by architect Philip H. Johnson, it was an Art Deco landmark at the edge of the University of Pennsylvania campus until it was demolished in 2005.
Although both the Republicans and the Democrats had convened in Philadelphia in previous years, it was unusual for them to choose the same city in the same year. To achieve this, the City’s administration assembled a bipartisan committee to court the parties, luring each of them with $250,000 in donations and covered expenses.
Another deciding factor was the advent of television. At that time, stations in New York City, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. were interconnected via coaxial cable, enabling the four TV networks to broadcast live coverage to 18 stations in nine cities. Although radio was still dominant in terms of audience and revenue, the availability of TV coverage added to the parties’ selection of Philadelphia.
After winning the conventions, things took a downturn for the city. With an insufficient number of hotel rooms and accusations of price gouging, many delegates traveled in from hotels as far away as Trenton and Atlantic City. Others resorted to alternate accommodations such as college dormitories.
Convention Hall was not air conditioned. The typical July weather of highs in the mid-80s and high humidity combined with the intense lights needed by the television cameras made for extremely sweaty gatherings. The Republicans waited more than 50 years to return to Philadelphia and the Democrats didn’t return until 2016.
In addition to the large sums the City gave to each of the two major parties, the administration miscalculated the other costs involved in hosting the conventions. After the third gathering had ended, Philadelphia City Council approved a request from the mayor and the president of the Convention Hall to double their original $10,000 appropriation for that year to cover a shortfall caused by overtime pay from the conventions.