August 18, 2008

Woodrow Wilson, PhD 1886, and the 1912 Democratic Convention

It was a generous gesture — the president of The Johns Hopkins University inviting a distinguished alumnus to share his home when he comes to Baltimore toward the end of June 1912 for an important meeting of political figures.

The president was Ira Remsen. The alumnus was New Jersey Gov. Woodrow Wilson, PhD 1886. The meeting was the 1912 Democratic National Convention to be held in Baltimore’s Fifth Regiment Armory.

Writing to Wilson on Jan. 23, 1912, Remsen said, “If you will need a house in Baltimore during the Democratic National Convention I should be glad to place part of mine at your disposal. Mrs. Remsen will leave about the middle of June, but I shall stay until after the Convention and will be the only occupant. My servants will be in the house and everything will go on as usual. You may have a double bedroom and bath, and the use of rooms on the lower story, as far as you may care to use them.”

Four days later Wilson replied, thanking Remsen but adding, “I am not at all sure that I shall attend the Convention and if I do, I foresee only too clearly that it will be necessary for me to live in public and not run to cover anywhere. I shall be obliged to lodge at the Belvedere. I am denying myself the pleasure and I want to thank you again very cordially.”

In late January 1912, some five months before the convention, Wilson may have had some reason to wonder if he would be going to Baltimore. He faced stiff opposition in his bid for the party’s presidential nomination.

The convention marked the first time that Democratic delegates had been chosen through the primary process. When the session was called to order on June 25, Wilson had some delegates pledged to him, but his chief rival, James Beauchamp “Champ” Clark of Missouri, speaker of the House of Representatives, had gathered the largest number of delegates. When New York’s powerful political machine, the Tammany Organization, endorsed Clark, his nomination seemed certain.

On the first ballot, Clark received 440-1/4 votes to Wilson’s 324. Two other candidates, Gov. Judson Harmon of Ohio and House Majority Leader Oscar Wilder Underwood of Alabama, received fewer votes.

By the ninth ballot it appeared that Clark had two-thirds of the delegates voting for him — enough to win. But suddenly the tide turned toward Wilson, thanks in large measure to some maneuvering and a powerful speech by the greatest orator of his day, William Jennings Bryan.

Bryan, a congressman from Nebraska and three-time candidate for his party’s presidential nomination, was also known as a friend of the common man. He was offended by Tammany’s ruthless tactics and its support of Clark. Using all his oratorical powers, he accused Clark of being in the pockets of the rich and upper class. Moved by his words, delegates turned against Clark and rallied for Wilson.

It took two more days, but on the 46th ballot Wilson won the nomination.

He had received his party’s highest honor at a site in Baltimore not far from where he had earned his doctoral degree 26 years earlier, a degree that had set him on a path to become an eminent member of the nation’s academic community as a professor and, later, as president of Princeton University. In an abrupt change of course, and perhaps propelled by his lifelong interest in politics, he had entered the race for governor in New Jersey. He won and served from 1911 until his election as president, a position he held for two terms. He is the only American president to have earned a PhD.