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Updated on September 17, 2012

Tragedy at Charleston


Douglas persuaded Congress in 1854 to pass the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which contained what the Little Giant hoped was the final answer to the slavery question- Popular Sovereignty. Let the people themselves in a new territory decide whether they want slaves or not. What could be more American, a democratic solution to a problem that had plagued the nation for too long. Great idea on paper, but a bloody nightmare in the first place it was tried, Kansas, where a mini-civil war broke out between pro and anti-slavery settlers. President Buchanan, who detested Douglas, turned to the Supreme Court to end the feuding. The Court’s 1857 Dred Scott Decision just added more fuel to the fire by declaring that slavery could not prohibited anywhere in the U.S., new or old states. A low blow to the North, and in particular, Stephen Douglas. The Little Giant’s political career and his presidential aspirations were dead if the Scott ruling was actually implemented. Douglas responded with the Freeport Doctrine, saying that people in new states could still prevent slavery by refusing to give it legal protection. The bold proclamation rallied the Little Giant’s Northern supporters, but in the South, he became more hated than the most radical abolitionists.

This was the situation when the Democrats convened in Charleston for their national convention on April 23, 1860. The choice of city did not bode well for Douglas, as South Carolina was the hotbed of the Southern secession movement. As the delegates gathered at Institute Hall, the festive atmosphere usually present at such gatherings was conspicuously absent. Somber men waited anxiously in their seats, not knowing what was going to happen. Douglas had the most supporters, but probably not enough to garner the nomination unless he received some Southern votes. That was not going to happen. In fact, a group of firebrands, led by William Yancey of Alabama, were there not only to see Douglas defeated, but to ensure the whole convention failed. With the Democrats in disarray, the “black” Republicans of the North would win the election, causing the Southern states to break away and form their own nation. That was the firebrands’ ultimate goal, and Charleston is where it would begin. The convention did play out according to the script carefully prepared by William Yancey.

The convention never made it to a roll call of delegates before fatally deadlocking on the party’s platform. 3 separate platforms were presented for consideration by the delegates. Northern members called for a re-adoption of the 1856 platform, which downplayed the slavery issue, yet leaned toward popular sovereignty; Southerners wanted no restrictions on slavery anywhere; a delegate from Massachusetts, Ben Butler, offered a compromise between the two extremes. This was the first, but not the last time Butler provided some unintentional strangeness to the proceedings. Part of it came from the fact no one thought his idea had any chance, and the rest from his appearance. He possessed a large, lumpy body, topped by a small head, with eyes that went in opposite directions. Behind the odd figure, however, lurked a cunning and lawyerly mind that would be put to good use in the coming Civil War.

In a calm and deliberate speech to the hall, Yancey let it be known that if the Southern position was not adopted, the delegations from the Southern states would walk out of the convention. Delegate George Pugh of Ohio rose up in furious reply: Northern Democrats could not possibly go home if they agreed to the Southern stance. In fact, they had ruined themselves over the past few years by always appeasing the South. Now once more, they were being asked to lie down and put their faces in the dirt. “Gentlemen of the South- you mistake us”, roared Pugh, “You mistake us, we will not do it!” Whereupon, the convention broke into pandemonium, everyone yelling at the top of their lungs, delegates jumping on table tops, waving frantically to be recognized by the chairman. Close to despair, Chair Caleb Cushing of Massachusetts finally realized a delegate was signaling for him to gavel an adjournment, which in great relief he did.

The breathing spell did not help the dire situation. True to Pugh’s word, the Northerners would not budge on the platform, and possessing a majority, saw their view adopted. Just as true, the Southern delegations got up and walked out of the convention. The hall sat stunned for awhile, not knowing what to do, until trying to carry on. Even without the Southern delegates, Douglas could not muster the 3/4ths vote needed to win the nomination. The business went on for over 50 ballots, and featured the bizarre spectacle of Ben Butler voting each time for Jefferson Davis (who was not even a candidate), then a Senator from Mississippi, soon to be president of the Confederacy.

The convention finally gave up in frustration and anger, ending without selecting a nominee for president. They agreed to re-convene at Baltimore in June, while the Southerners decided to meet at Richmond. Many of the delegates left Institute Hall with tears in their eyes, acutely aware of the tragedy that had befallen the Democratic Party, the Grand Democracy-started by Andrew Jackson, that staunch defender of the Union. The Democrats eventually ran two candidates, the Northern branch-Stephen Douglas, the Southerners-John Breckinridge. These two were joined by John Bell, running under a group calling itself the Constitutional Union Party. None of the three had a realistic chance of winning the election, their only hope being to deny the Republican candidate enough electoral votes, thereby throwing it to the House of Representatives for a decision. It all came down to the Republicans, who were getting ready to meet in Chicago. The nervous eyes of the nation turned to the Windy City.



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