Party like it's 1892

  • Article by: TOM MEERSMAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 31, 2008 - 2:50 PM

For the Republican Party, this week's gathering in the Twin Cities is a return engagement -- after 116 years.

The last time Republicans came to Minnesota for a national political convention, they arrived by train and moved around the host city of Minneapolis in horse-drawn carriages or newly electrified streetcars. It was 1892, and Minneapolis was eager to prove itself as an up-and-coming city to the rest of the nation.

Politics was the chief reason Minneapolis was chosen over eight other cities to host the convention, and it was the first time a community west of the Mississippi River had been selected by the Republican Party. GOP leaders wanted to blunt the growing strength of the Populist Party, which had won several Midwest local and congressional races in 1890 by advocating ideas that were radical at the time, such as the eight-hour work day, a graduated income tax and direct election of U.S. senators.

"The principal reason Minneapolis got the convention in 1892 was the fear that the Populists were going to win Minnesota and adjacent states and therefore deny the Republicans an election win," said William Lass, retired history professor at Minnesota State University, Mankato. "The similarity between then and now is that the Upper Midwest could have the swing votes that would decide the election," he said.

The convention went according to script, endorsing President Benjamin Harrison for a second term and finishing a day earlier than scheduled, but it didn't produce the winner in the November election.

Not the Frontier

City leaders had worked diligently to sway the Republican leaders to select Minneapolis. A delegation of about 100 Minnesotans in "three elegant Pullmans," two filled with men from Minneapolis and one with representatives from St. Paul, traveled to Washington in November 1891 to make their pitch, according to newspaper accounts. They had raised $50,000 to prove that they could finance the affair, and they provided a guarantee that Western Union would string additional telegraph wires between Minneapolis and Chicago to ensure adequate newspaper coverage.

The next June, when more than 200 newspaper reporters and nearly 1,800 delegates from 44 states, five territories and the District of Columbia began arriving in Minneapolis, they found a dynamic city with a population of 165,000. One newspaper writer from Pittsburgh reported that Minneapolis was not a "frontier town" and that it had a number of fine hotels and restaurants.

The city's Exposition Building, where the convention would be held, was built for industrial fairs. It had been finished only five years before and was located on Main Street and Central Avenue, just across the Hennepin Avenue bridge from downtown Minneapolis. Its 260-foot tower was the tallest structure in the city.

Issues du jour

The national gathering also drew speakers passionate about issues of the time, according to Annette Atkins, history professor at St. John's University and the College of St. Benedict. Several dozen delegates were black, and many of them met in a church with whites one evening for a program called "The Condition of the Colored People in the South." It included eyewitness accounts of racial prejudice and reports of more than 200 lynchings in Arkansas, "while in addition several had been flayed alive and burned."

Women's suffrage leader Susan B. Anthony lobbied delegates to advocate voting rights "without regard to sex." Anthony did not succeed in modifying the party's platform, but Republicans were far more sympathetic to her cause at the time than Democrats.

Bunting galore

On the weekend before the convention, early arrivals found a downtown bedecked with miles of red, white and blue bunting and hundreds of flags. They enjoyed downtown parades, excursions to Lake Minnetonka and a gala concert in the new auditorium in Exposition Hall. Opening day, June 7, was a time of speeches and enthusiastic bantering, although neither President Harrison nor his chief rival for endorsement, Secretary of State James Blaine, attended the convention.

The convention ran smoothly, for the most part, although the electric lights flickered and went out at 12:20 a.m. during one late-night session, causing confusion about whether to proceed and concerns about matches and fire. Although lamps were brought in, some delegates shouted that they couldn't see who was speaking and threatened to leave. The lights were restored after about 15 minutes of gloom.

In the end, Republicans finished their work one day early by nominating Harrison on the first ballot and then Whitelaw Reid, former minister to France and editor of the New York Tribune, as the vice-presidential candidate. Afterward, delegates lost no time in heading for the train station, which was caught unprepared for the surge of departures.

The selection of Minneapolis did not secure a Republican victory in November, however. Harrison carried Minnesota, as he had four years earlier, but nationally, voters returned Democrat and former President Grover Cleveland to the White House by a wide margin.

News researcher Roberta Hovde contributed to this report. Tom Meersman • 612-673-7388

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