Southeastern PA

One Tank Trip: Sweep the Country: Political Conventions in Philadelphia

PHILADELPHIA - The donkey has already found a spot on South Broad Street in Philadelphia outside the stunning home of The Union League of Philadelphia.

Inside, on the ground floor, is the Heritage Center, which offers a nonpartisan look at conventions.

Philadelphia has had 11. Only Chicago has had more.

"Not only is this the 12th political convention, in terms of the parties, but it's the home of political conventions, probably the most important political convention in the history of the world," explained John Meko, executive director of Foundations of the Union League.

He's speaking about the constitutional convention. We learn in the exhibit as much as things have changed, they stay the same.

"From 2016 all the way back to the first convention in the exhibit, which is 1848, it's about personalities. It's about politics," said Jim Mundy, curator of the exhibit. "They did crazy things back then; they do crazy things now."

In 1856, Mundy pointed out the issue was immigration. In 1948, one of the main issues was civil rights. The exhibit begins with the convention in Philadelphia in 1848.

"This is the only model of the Washington Monument that is known to exist as it was originally proposed in 1836," Mundy explained.

There are cultural markers, like the model of the Washington Monument, in the middle of the exhibit to show what was happening at the time of the conventions. Those markers are mixed in with political memorabilia.

You'll see campaign handkerchiefs. One is from the Fremont-Dayton campaign in 1856. They were printed by the thousands, like the bumper stickers of today.

"I really like these shakers, if you will," Mundy said. "That's how they got excited in the 19th century, right?"

Map: The Union League

Sweep the Country: Political Conventions in Philadelphia covers the 11 conventions in the city between 1848 to 2000.

Items from 2016 Democratic National Convention will be added in September.

Next to the convention kitsch, there are some real rare mementos, like a handwritten speech that was written and delivered by William Boyle in 1936.

"He gave one of the seconding nominating speeches for FDR," Mundy said. 

There's another piece of memorabilia you might pass by, thinking it's just for coffee, from 1948. Three conventions were held here in the city that year. The mug portrays Hubert Humphrey giving a civil rights speech.

"And that speech literally transformed the Democratic Party from the party of the old confederacy of the 19th century into a modern political party, a vibrant party, but supporting civil rights in the 20th century and to have it on a coffee mug. It's ust really kind of 20th century-ish,"  Mundy said.

In the 21st century, marketers were on the move. You'll see Barbie dolls and macaroni and cheese from the GOP convention in 2000. All the while, politicians trying to tackle the issues on the table today.

The process has changed. Not much is decided at the conventions nowadays, but the discussion remains, and some might say that's part of the beauty of American politics.

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