The Whig national convention of ratification was held in Baltimore… (Baltimore Sun )
With the presidential convention season upon us, political and campaign junkies will most likely find Stan Haynes' recently published book, "The First American Political Conventions: Transforming Presidential Nominations, 1832-1872," a fascinating and entertaining look at the way these quadrennial gatherings used to be — before primaries and caucuses took all the drama and fun out of them.
The years covered by Haynes, a Semmes, Bowen & Semmes attorney and Ellicott City resident, marked a critical time in the nation, with issues that included the Panic of 1837, slavery, the Civil War and Reconstruction.
It is a little-known fact that in the history of the Republic, no other American city has hosted more of these conventions than Baltimore — 20 in all, with the latest last month when the Green Party's Jill Stein beat out actress Roseanne Barr.
Seventeen men have been nominated for the presidency in Baltimore, and six of them were elected. The first of these six was Andrew Jackson, a Democrat nominated in 1832. The last president to be nominated in the city was Woodrow Wilson, also a Democrat, during a convention held in 1912 at the 5th Regiment Armory.
Easy accessibility to railroads, steamship lines and turnpikes helped make Baltimore an attractive convention destination.
The city's hotels were also a selling point, Haynes writes. Two of the Baltimore's most famous hotels — Barnum's City Hotel, the Ritz of its day, and the Eutaw House — were favored by New York delegations.
Other hotels jammed by delegates, party operatives, nominees, reporters and hangers-on included Guy's; the General Wayne Inn; Gilmor House; and two from the Revolutionary War era, the Indian Queen Hotel and the Old Fountain Inn, whose register was signed by George Washington.
Baltimore hotels were also noted for their ample Maryland gastronomy, serving up steaming tureens of terrapin stew, canvasback ducks, oysters and other seafood drawn from the bay.
The city offered spacious meeting halls such as the Athenaeum — site of the first three presidential nominating conventions in American history — Fourth Presbyterian Church, and the Universalist Church.
Other sites were the Odd Fellows Hall, the old Maryland Institute, Front Street Theatre, First Presbyterian Church, Calvert Hall and Ford's Grand Opera House, which was demolished in the 1960s.
The Battle Monument on Calvert Street was the setting for numerous political rallies that were held in the evening under gaslight. And the Washington Monument drew conventioneers, many of whom became easy targets of pickpockets who roamed the streets plying their illegal trade.
Haynes writes that there was "great oratory and not-so great oratory. Unwise rules came to be adopted, which later came to be honored as precedent. The conventions at times demonstrated compromise for sake of country and party, but also had their share of political dirty tricks and double-crossing."
You have to be at least 50 years old to remember when conventions were filled with intrigue as delegates and political operatives gathered to select their party's nominee while Americans stayed up late watching TV or listening to radios for coverage of the events.
There were floor fights over rules and, especially in the 1960s, over seating of delegations from the South. Much of the work, political brokering and party planks were hammered out on unmade beds in smoky hotel rooms over tumblers of scotch and bourbon.
Nothing was assured, unlike today, when the annual convention rite is no more than a coronation of the candidate, who arrives worry-free, having already sewn up the nomination and necessary votes in primaries and caucuses.
Gone forever are the marathon broadcasts of Walter Cronkite, Eric Sevareid, Chet Huntley and David Brinkley, from glass boxes overlooking the convention hall. Others reported from the floor, wearing headsets and antennas that made them look as though they had landed from Mars.
Gone is the nail-biting delegate count and the whoop heard around the world when finally the nominee crosses over and it's official. Gone is the midnight or 2 a.m. nominee acceptance speech to a nation largely in bed, because a prime-time address now reigns supreme.
Haynes writes of earlier conventions: "There was action, drama and conflict."
Next week: A look at several of the Baltimore conventions.