Truman's First Democratic Convention

In 1900, Harry Truman began his deep interest in politics. He was just a high school student in Independence, but national politics became very important to him that summer. Kansas City had been chosen as the Democratic Convention site.

Harry's Father, John Truman, had many friends who were local Democratic leaders. Therefore, they helped Harry get a job as a page at the Democratic National Convention.

While Harry was running around doing errands for delegates and delivering messages, he enjoyed hearing all the discussions. Although gold had been discovered in Alaska, the convention delegates still favored bimetalism. They wanted to have both a silver standard and a gold standard.

Harry stood still in an aisle as the Convention business began. The secretary of the Convention was directed to read the Declaration of Independence. As he was about to begin his job, a flag draped statue of the candidate, William Jennings Bryan, was brought to the speaker platform. This started a long, loud demonstration from his supporters. The yelling and cheering fascinated Harry. Certainly, nothing could be more exciting than politics.

The moment that Harry would remember best was the great speech by William Jennings Bryan as the Democratic candidate for President. Bryan had a special way with words. Harry and his father would talk for days after the convention about their hopes for a Democratic victory in November. Surely, they felt, a man with such great speeches would win the voters to his side.

The Democratic Convention had been a big boost for Kansas City. It had been an opportunity for Kansas City to show the rest of the nation just how up-to-date it really was. Much fun had been poked at Kansas City by cartoonists and reporters from the big eastern cities. Kansas City was depicted as the shoot em-up cowboy of the wild and woolly west. Delegates were warned to look out for cows at the old Union Station in the west bottoms.

Harry and his father at one time that summer thought they would never get to see the Democratic Convention. Having cartoonists poke fun at Kansas City proved to be the least of the city's problems. On April 4, exactly three months before the date set for the Democratic meeting, a fire destroyed the Convention Hall at Twelfth and Wyandotte.

Convention Hall, the pride of Kansas City, the magnificent auditorium that had spread the city's fame, was a charred and smoldering ruin.

It caught fire at 1:00 A.M. and burned with such fury that in 15 minutes it was almost totally destroyed. The shock was great to the city---but within one hour after the officials realized the Hall was doomed, they were out getting new money for a new Hall. They went through the crowd that stared at the ruins and collected $4,000 in donations.

The city leaders then rolled up their sleeves and went to work. Thirty days after the fire, the debris had been cleared away, the site graded, contracts settled, and the walls started for a new Hall. Rain, materials not delivered, and strikes did not stop the building.

The new Convention Hall, which could seat 22,260 people, was ready July 4, 1900. Flags were waving and decorations were up. Guests were welcomed to Kansas City and the big party was on.

Harry and John Truman would talk often about the great Democratic Convention they attended in Kansas City and about the great Democratic speaker, William Jennings Bryan, who was never to become president.

by Kathleen Vest
Resources: Kansas City Magazine, August 1976; Man from Independence, Steinberg

Research questions:

  • Who was elected president in 1900?

  • What were the issues of that campaign other than the gold standard?
  • How long did that 1900 convention hall last?Is it still standing? If not, what is in its place now?