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Douglas, Deadlock, & Disunion
In 1860, Southern delegates bolted the Democratic convention at Charleston. An eyewitness describes the first giant step toward secession
June 1960 | Volume 11, Issue 4
Our Northwestern friends will go home with hatred of the Democratic party, as it has appeared here, rankling in their hearts. As Douglas will not be the nominee, they will wish to see the nominee defeated. Some of them say openly and earnestly they will go home and join the Black Republicans. I never heard Abolitionists talk more uncharitably and rancorously of the people of the South than the Douglas men here. Our Northwestern friends use language about the South, her institutions, and particularly her politicians, that is not fit for publication, and my scruples in that respect are not remarkably tender. A good many of them will eventually become the most intolerant Republican partisans. Their exasperation and bitterness toward the South, that has insisted upon such a gross repudiation of the only ground upon which they could stand in the North, can hardly be described. Many of them would not lift a finger to prevent the election of Seward to the Presidency. They say they do not care a d—n where the South goes, or what becomes of her. They say “she may go out of the Convention into hell,” for all they care.... No matter what this Convention does after this date, the Chicago Convention has all the cards in its hands to win the next Presidency …
After fifty-seven ballots, the convention adjourned, still lacking a candidate. A month and a half later, the Democrats reassembled at Baltimore. This second gathering proved to be no more of a love feast than the first, for once again Southern delegates bolted. By the time Douglas was finally nominated, the disruption of the party was complete.
On June 28, the Charleston seceders convened at Baltimore, and chose as their candidate James Buchanan’s Vice President, John C. Breckinridge. The political situation was further confused when the newly established Constitutional Union party, composed of remnants of the once-powerful Whigs and the nativist Know-Nothings, nominated John Bell of Tennessee.
Meanwhile, at Chicago the Republicans picked Abraham Lincoln—contrary to the expectations of Murat Halstead and most other contemporary observers, who had prophesied the nomination of the antislavery radical, William H. Seward. But as Halstead had so accurately predicted, the Democratic schism made Republican victory in the November elections certain (though Douglas ran second to Lincoln in popular votes, he carried but one state). Since the slave states would never accept a Republican President, Southern secession from the Union was the next step. Perhaps civil war was inevitable from the moment the Southern delegations walked out of Institute Hall: if the trigger was pulled at Fort Sumter, the gun had been primed and loaded at the Charleston convention.