Party conventions were once raucous affairs where factions waged floor fights over the presidential nominee and the party platform. The decline of parties and the rise of television have left them more like carefully packaged infomercials than the rowdy meetings of yore. But the central role of speeches is unchanged. Most will be forgotten, but occasionally one ascends into history. Here are the 12 most memorable convention speeches:
William Jennings Bryan's "Cross of Gold," 1896
When former Rep. William Jennings Bryan of Nebraska addressed the Democratic convention, the major issue of the day was whether silver as well as gold should be minted as U.S. currency. Silver coinage would be inflationary and help, for example, debt-impoverished farmers. The 36-year-old Bryan was an avowed bimetallist who placed himself in the tradition of Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson against moneyed interests. His peroration has gone down in history: "Having behind us the commercial interests and the laboring interests and all the toiling masses, we shall answer their demands for a gold standard by saying to them, you shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns. You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold."
Those words, the New York Times reported the next day, were "the signal for an avalanche of cheers which speedily developed into a measureless outburst." This 14-minute demonstration, the paper added, was a "perfect Niagara of sound," and "struck terror to the hearts" of the pro-gold forces in the hall.
The Democrats nominated Bryan for the presidency the following day.
The Bryan speech has echoed in U.S. history. According to Safire's Political Dictionary by William Safire, it inspired 1930s Louisiana Gov. Huey Long's "every man a king" slogan, and included the earliest criticism of what is now known as "trickle-down economics," attacking the belief that "if you just legislate to make the well-to-do prosperous, that their prosperity will leak through on those below."
FDR's "New Deal," 1932
When Franklin D. Roosevelt took to the podium at Chicago Stadium to address the Democratic Party as its nominee, he was doing something unprecedented: giving an acceptance speech. By tradition, presidential nominees waited in feigned ignorance for a convention delegation to inform them of their selection. But upon learning that he had secured the nomination, FDR announced that he would fly—then still a novel and risky way to travel—from Albany to Chicago to deliver the address, displaying "theatrics that he was going to show his physicality," says historian Robert Dallek, as well as illustrating the vigor with which he would tackle the Great Depression.
The speech itself was the subject of staff infighting, with longtime aide Louis Howe proffering an entirely rewritten draft on Roosevelt moments after he landed. FDR used the first page of the new speech but then transitioned to the one he had brought with him, which included the historic conclusion that, "I pledge you, I pledge myself, to a new deal for the American people." The phrase had come from the pen of FDR speechwriter Samuel Rosenman, but neither man realized that it would become a historic catchphrase.
Hubert Humphrey's "Bright Sunshine of Human Rights," 1948
At issue when Minneapolis Mayor Hubert H. Humphrey addressed the Democratic convention was whether the party should adopt a minority plank to the platform advocating for civil rights for black Americans—an issue Southern Democrats viewed as an affront. "He spoke," biographer Albert Eisele later wrote, "with a fervor that brought sweat pouring from his face and spattering on the pages of his speech." He declared that "the time has arrived in America for the Democratic Party to get out of the shadow of states' rights and to walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights." The address lasted less than 10 minutes and prompted wild applause in the convention hall that lasted nearly as long.