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Updated on September 12, 2012

Nominating Conventions 1860


Could the Republican and Democratic National Nominating Conventions have been any more boring? Perhaps the only thing comparable would be watching C-Span three hours a night for two weeks. At least on the Span you are spared the numbing commentary of the Talking Head (Stop Making Sense) commentators of CNN and Fox News. I guess we can’t really blame the parties. With the advent of the primary system, the nominee for president is a foregone conclusion long before the convention. It would be nice, however, to have some excitement. Perhaps the Democrats could have kept President Obama waiting until after midnight to accept the nomination like they did to Harry Truman back in 1948. The confidence the Democrats have in Obama seems about the same as it was for Truman (little if any), which is why a sitting president endured such a monumental snub from his own party.

Primaries have made the nominating process more democratic, but the national conventions basically unwatchable. From the Republicans all we heard is how President Obama can’t suck enough and has run the country into the ground. At the DNC, speaker after speaker portrayed Romney and the Republicans as the devil incarnate, who will dump on everyone from seniors, women, gays, Hispanics and every other minority group. It might be time to assign the national nominating conventions to the trash bin of history as they serve no practical purpose and waste a lot of money. Before we do, however, a look at the year, 1860, is in order, when the nominating conventions provided all the tension and drama the country could ask for and then some. In some respects, the fate of the United States hung on what happen at the DNC and RNC that year. So let’s journey back to a time when men were men, and conventions were conventions (a wee bit of hyperbole, but the nation had never seen such political theater and will likely never again).

By 1860, the North and South had spent 40 years trying to find a solution acceptable to both sections concerning the touchy subject of slavery in new territories or states. Each had become less willing to compromise and the shadow of Civil War loomed over the land. The presidential election of this year would go a long way toward determining whether the show down over slavery could be postponed once more or had come to a head at last. The Democrats were the only truly national party at the time, though even they were cracking apart at the seams over slavery. The other major party during the previous 30 years, the Whigs, had collapsed by the mid-1850’s, under the strains of the ever-present slavery question. They had been replaced by the Republicans, a purely Northern party whose main tenet was to stop the spread of slavery into new territories. The Democrats were in control of the White House with the non-inspiring James Buchanan in office. “Old Buck” wanted nothing more than to get out of Washington as fast as possible, with the national house crumbling all around him. He would not seek re-election. That left Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois, the “Little Giant”, as the presumptive favorite to garner the Democratic nomination. Douglas had picked up the mantle of compromise carried by Senators Henry Clay and Daniel Webster for so long in 1850. In a gallant but misguided attempt to find a permanent solution to the vexing slavery issue, the Little Giant sowed the seeds not only for his own destruction but a fatal split of the Democrat Party in 1860.



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