Lessons from the 1924 Democratic Convention: An Immigration Debate’s Impact

Immigration has been a defining issue in a campaign before, and the consequences transformed the Democratic Party.

This series was produced by Matt Spolar, in partnership with Politico.

For teachers
  • Producer: Matthew Spolar
  • Editor: Amy Lee Hochman
  • Associate Producer: Victor Couto

For Educators


This six-minute video illustrates the battle between two of the most powerful trends of the 1920s: the increasing political power of urban immigrants, and the increasing influence of the Ku Klux Klan. At the 1924 Democratic Party national convention, these two forces fought to a standstill, leading to the longest convention in the history of American politics. The video is useful to lessons covering the 1924 election, or for lessons focused on the cultural and demographic changes of the 1920s.

Background reading

Political conventions are designed to choose presidential candidates, but underneath all the noise they can reveal profound truths about America.

That was the case at the 1924 Democratic Convention in New York City, where the party split. New York Governor Alfred E. Smith led a faction of urban Democrats who supported a vision of a nation built on manufacturing, immigrants who provided cheap labor, and sprawling urban centers full of opportunity.

William Gibbs McAdoo represented older Democrats based in the rural South and West, firmly rooted in agrarian values, who had no love for the racial intermingling, political corruption and crime of the big cities. The fight came to a head when Smith Democrats sought a plank in the party platform that condemned the Ku Klux Klan but lost by a single vote.

That set the stage for what would be the longest continuing convention in America history. It took 103 ballots over 16 days to nominate a candidate. That candidate was neither Smith or McAdoo, but a compromise entrant, John W. Davis.

But from the disaster rose Smith’s campaign manager, Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was making his first real public appearance since 1921, when he began exhibiting symptoms of polio.

Roosevelt gave a rousing nominating speech for Smith, and demonstrated that despite his illness, he was a viable candidate who could move crowds. That set the stage for his transformative election in 1932.

Lesson Plan 1: 1924 Democratic Convention – Tension Over Immigration

Students will learn how the 1924 Democratic National Convention became a raucous battleground over the influence of the Ku Klux Klan.


Students will:

  • Analyze an illustration about immigration in the early 1920s.
  • Explain the significance of select excerpts of immigration legislation from the 1920s.
  • Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary that makes clear the relationships among the key details and ideas.
Essential questions
  • How did the issue of the Ku Klux Klan reveal a major split in the Democratic Party at its 1924 convention?
  • What was the effect of the Democratic party split in 1924?
  • How did the United States government approach the issue of immigration in the early 1900s?
  • Common Core State Standards
    • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.11-12.2:Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary that makes clear the relationships among the key details and ideas.
    • CCSS.ELA.LITERACY.RI.11-12.3:Analyze a complex set of ideas or sequences of events and explain how specific individuals, ideas, or events interact or develop over the course of a text.
    • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.11-12.7:Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, as well as in words) in order to address a question or solve a problem
    • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.9-10.4:Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including vocabulary describing political, social, or economic aspects of history/social science.
    • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.9-10.9:Compare and contrast treatments of the same topic in several primary and secondary sources.
  • National Council for the Social Studies C3 Framework
    • D2.His.1.9-12.Evaluate how historical events and developments were shaped by unique circumstances of time and place as well as broader historical contexts.
    • D2.His.5.9-12.Analyze how historical contexts shaped and continue to shape people’s perspectives.
    • D2.His.15.6-8.Evaluate the relative influence of various causes of events and developments in the past.
    • D2.His.16.9-12.Integrate evidence from multiple relevant historical sources and interpretations into a reasoned argument about the past.
  • AP U.S. History
    • Period 7: 1890-1945
    • Topic 7.8: 1920s: Cultural and Political ControversiesCultural and Political Controversies Skill 4.B: Explain how a specific historical development or process is situated within a broader historical context. Theme 5: Politics and Power (PCE).
  • AP Government and Politics
    • Unit 5: Political ParticipationTopic 5.3: Political Parties
      Topic 5.8: Electing a President
      Topic 5.9: Congressional Elections
      Topic 5.10: Modern Campaigns