The Democrats control the White House, their presumptive nominee is from Illinois; the nation is divided on a major social issue; political pundits are predicting a civil war if the presidential election goes a certain way; and the Democratic National Convention is being held in the Carolinas. Though it sounds like what is happening in Charlotte, N.C. this week, the scenario also played out with the party’s 1860 convention held in Charleston, S.C.
Charleston was not the best place to hold the convention. It was hot, muggy and humid which only raised delegates’ tempers. Speeches supporting one point of view or another were being given not only at the convention but in the streets, on balconies, hotel lobbies or anywhere else (and at any time) a speaker could find an audience. Consequently, a lot sleepy delegates were kept awake at all hours of the night by orations. Adding even more fuel to the fire was the pro-secession, pro-Southern mood of the city. Whether or not these things were considered when Charleston was selected as the convention site is uncertain. “Officially” Charleston was chosen to reassure the South that it was still important to the Democratic Party.
The convention reflected the mood of the nation. This was never more apparent than when delegates started quarreling over the platform, in particular the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. One faction, led by Sen. Stephen Douglas of Illinois, who was all but certain to receive the party’s nomination for President, supported the act arguing the case of “popular sovereignty” This would allow territories and states the right to vote if they wanted slavery or not, though it also had the unintentional effect of nullifying the Missouri Compromise of 1820. Southern states led by William L. Yancey of Alabama, wanted constitutional protection for anyone who took slave property anywhere on U.S. soil and to be assured the same Federal protection for slaves as they would any other property.
The delegates gathered at The South Carolina Institute Hall on April 23, 1860. The Douglas faction won the party’s platform fight 165-138, with slave states voting 11-108 against. Afterwards Yancey led a walk-out of fifty Southern delegates. This paralyzed the convention, it prevented the necessary three-fourths majority of delegate votes to pass nominations or conduct any other business. With the remaining delegates unable to get any further work done, the convention adjourned to be reconvened in Baltimore in June.
The recess did not help. The Baltimore convention was equally hot and humid and and even more split than the Charleston one. This time 110 Southern and Western delegates walked out of the convention and met elsewhere in the city. Joining them was Caleb Cushing, the chairman of the convention. Cushing’s presence was a bit odd. He was from Massachusetts and opposed to slavery, but he also hated abolitionist extremists. He believed in states-rights and was thus sympathetic to Southern Democrats. The Southern faction welcomed his presence at their convention and chose him to preside over them.
The competing conventions then nominated their own presidential candidates. The Northern Democrats nominated Douglas while Southern Democrats nominated then-U.S. Vice President John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky. The still-new Grand Old Party or the Republican Party met in Chicago in May and nominated former Illinois Congressman Abraham Lincoln.
So why the Southern Democrats all but assure Lincoln’s victory when they were so opposed to his election? Some believe that the pro-secessionists delegates used the split conventions and Lincoln’s victory as a pretext for secession. Others speculate that it was hoped that the election would have been deadlocked; forcing the Democrat controlled U.S. House of Representatives to elect the president, with the South receiving legislative concessions, in exchange for breaking the deadlock. This scenario came close to happening. Just the switch of a few thousand votes in a handful of states switched from Lincoln to one of the other candidates would have sent the election to Congress.
Those theories could be over-speculation. Remember both Baltimore and Charleston were hot and sweaty places. With heat and rhetoric competing for the top of the temperature gauge, just pure emotions could have been enough to set off the bizarre turn of events.
In response to Lincoln’s election in November, delegates from across South Carolina would gather in the very same South Carolina Institute Hall auditorium on December 20, 1860 to vote to secede from the Union. A year later the hall was destroyed in the Great Charleston Fire of 1861. Hibernian Hall, where the pro-Douglas delegates gathered, is the only surviving building in Charleston from that infamous convention.
Ironically, had the Democrats united around Douglas, they might have had a Southerner as president. Douglas died the following June from typhoid fever, and had he been elected, his Vice-President, former Georgia governor Hershel Johnson, would have become president.