Douglas, Deadlock, & Disunion

PrintPrintEmailEmailLate in April, 1860, a strife-ridden Democratic party met at Charleston, South Carolina, to choose a presidential candidate. This was to prove one of the most fateful meetings of its kind in American history. At a time of mounting sectional antagonism, the Democratic party was the one remaining political organization that represented both North and South; its disruption would mean nothing less than a complete, if not irrevocable, division of the Union.

Unfortunately, the lingering debate over the limitation of slavery in the territories now threatened to bring about just such a disruption, for the Southern faction of the party refused to accept either a moderate slavery platform or the candidate favored by most Northern delegates, Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois. To a determined minority of Southern radicals, destruction of the party seemed preferable to compromise.

The account of the Charleston convention that follows was written by one of the most perceptive reporters on the scene, a Cincinnati newspaperman named Murat Halstead. During the campaign, his impressions of the 1860 conventions were published in a book called The Caucuses of 1860. Long out of print, and by now a collector’s item, Halstead’s classic of political reporting will be reissued this month by the Louisiana State University Press. Entitled Three Against Lincoln, the new version has been edited by Professor William B. Hesseltine of the University of Wisconsin.

 

The Honorable Stephen A. Douglas was the pivot individual of the Charleston Convention. Every delegate was for or against him. Every motion meant to nominate or not to nominate him. Every parliamentary war was pro or con Douglas.

On the route to Charleston, delegates and others who were proceeding to attend the Convention, talked about Mr. Douglas. The questions, in every car and at every station, were: Would he be? could he be? should he be nominated? Could he get a majority of the Convention? could he get two-thirds? Would the South support him if he should be nominated? Would the Administration acquiesce if he were nominated?…

There was in Charleston, as usual in such cases, much that was important in the business preliminary to the Convention, and there are many places in the city identified with the Convention in interest. Among these places, perhaps the most interesting are Institute Hall, where the Convention was held, and Hibernian Hall, which was the Douglas headquarters.

Institute Hall…will contain about three thousand people. The floor is perfectly level, and the seats are all old-fashioned, wooden-bottomed chairs, which have been independent of each other, heretofore, but which are now being screwed by the half-dozen to pine planks placed across the bottom. There is a good deal of gaudy and uncouth ornamentation about the hall. The frescoing is mere daubing. The principal effort in art is immediately over the stage. Three highly colored but very improperly dressed females are there engaged. One seems to be contemplating matters and things in general. Another is mixing colors with the apparent intention of painting something. The other is pointing, with what seems to be a common bowieknife, to a globe. The point of the dagger is plunged into the Black Sea. It may be held to be according to the proprieties that the continent which is outlined most conspicuously on this globe is marked “Africa.”…

The Hall is situated on the principal thoroughfare and near the business centre of the city. Hibernian Hall, the Douglas headquarters, is situated on the same street a square and a half distant. This building has two large halls and is two stories in height. The first floor is divided into two small rooms and one spacious hall where a gigantic bard of Erin is holding a harp such as was heard in Tara’s Halls before the soul of music fled. The smaller rooms are furnished with long tables, plenty of chairs and writing materials, and a large supply of Sheahan’s Life of Stephen A. Douglas. The second floor is one large hall and is full of cots for the Northwestern delegations. There are several hundred of them with white spreads and pillows. They are arranged in rows and sections, numbered and marked for the various states.

The Douglas men are to be found for the most part at “Mills House.” The fire-eaters congregate at the “Charleston.” Spacious passages and public rooms about these houses are already swarming with politicians. It must be admitted that the Southerners have the advantage in personal appearance. The strong men of the South are here in force, as they always are upon such occasions. There is sufficient wisdom among the oligarchy to be represented in Congress and Conventions by men of experience and intellect, and they attain weighty advantages in this way.