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Judge Neuville

Politics of the Past: ‘Convention hustlers’ drew GOP to Minneapolis in 1892

Editor’s note: This summer and fall, Capitol Report is dipping into the Minnesota Historical Society’s political archives and scooping out documents and artifacts exploring the state’s rich record of voting reforms, colorful politicians, contested elections, curious facial hair and more.

Before 1892, no major political party had held a national convention west of Chicago, and many Easterners were puzzled by the Republicans’ decision to hold that year’s convention in Minneapolis, which was seen as a flour-milling, second-tier frontier town with inadequate hotels, inferior dining and unreliable transportation.

The provincial characterization was only partially accurate, but it was one Minnesota had hoped to dispel. A year before the convention, eager for a surge of commerce, publicity and national prominence, the state dispatched to Washington a delegation of nearly 100, who lobbied party elders to choose Minneapolis over New York, San Francisco and six other competing cities.

Minnesota’s delegation of “convention hustlers” cut a fine figure in the capital, according to news sources cited by Minnesota History magazine. “There is more vim and hustle in a cubic inch of the Flour City’s delegation than in a cubic yard of some of the delegations of our effete and ‘cultuahed’ Eastern contemporaries,” one Washington reporter wrote.

The hustlers talked up the Industrial Exposition Building, a towering hall built on the Mississippi River’s bank near St. Anthony Falls. Conceived in competition with St. Paul’s State Fairgrounds, the 6-year-old Exposition Building was the tallest structure in Minneapolis and had a seating capacity of up to 15,000. Along with the 400-room luxury West Hotel, located nearby, the building helped convince party bigwigs that Minneapolis was fit to host the 1892 convention, but there were also political considerations at play.

Two years earlier, the third-party Farmers’ Alliance had bested Republican candidates in all but one of Minnesota’s congressional races, and national party leaders hoped a Minneapolis convention could help stem agrarian unrest across the Midwest and bring Republicans back into the fold.  “We need this convention,” U.S. Sen. William Washburn of Minnesota said during the deliberations, “to stimulate the fresh energies of the Republican Party.” Minneapolis was selected to host the convention on the seventh ballot. When the news of Minneapolis’ victory reached the Twin Cities, the Minneapolis Times reported that “people threw up their hats and cried with joy at the success of the convention hustlers.”

Preparations for the convention consumed the city. The Exposition Building was decorated with gold drapes, gilded columns, drawings of eagles and gold stars painted on the skylights. Organizers predicted up to 125,000 attendees, and Western Union built extra telegraph wires between Minneapolis and Chicago to accommodate the glut of press coverage. George A. Brackett, who chaired the city’s preparation committee, conceived of an industrial-scale bean cooking system involving 30 giant iron pots filled with beans and buried in the ground.

The convention fell short of establishing Minneapolis as a first-rate metropolis. While it went off smoothly, without any major embarrassment, the contemporary press grumbled over vacancies at the West Hotel and the underwhelming bean-feeding scheme. A New York Times reporter, appalled by the “unlimited quantities” of pork and beans, wrote that “Minneapolis is a bad restaurant city.” Only about 35,000 people ended up coming to the cities.

Nevertheless, the convention itself was bright and bustling. From June 7 to 10, the Exposition Building’s 8 acres of floor space were packed with politicians, journalists, assorted luminaries and 1,800 Republican delegates seated comfortably in plush opera chairs. It was the first convention to include women, and much attention was paid to Therese Jenkins of Wyoming, the nation’s first female delegate.

Jenkins participated in the drafting of a Republican Party platform advocating protectionist tariffs, stricter immigration laws, sympathy for persecuted Jews and the elimination of paper currency. Jenkins cast her vote for President Benjamin Harrison, who was seeking a second term.

Harrison was an unpopular president whose swollen budget had led to hefty midterm losses. Serving at a time of congressional supremacy, he struggled to distinguish himself in office and his administration’s two signature pieces of legislation — the McKinley Tariff and the Sherman Antitrust Act — bore the names of other men.

At the convention, Harrison defeated his own secretary of state, James G. Blaine, but the vote was contentious. “Blaine men stood on chairs and yelled, and the Blaine women beat time with their parasols, and the chairman could be seen but not heard to hammer his desk with his gavel,” Harper’s Weekly reported. Harrison, perhaps America’s most forgotten president, lost the fall election to the Democrat who also preceded him in office, Grover Cleveland.

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