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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
There has been a great deal more drunkenness here today than heretofore. Most of the violent spreeing is done by roughs from the Northern Atlantic citieswho are at last making their appearance. There have been a number of specimens of drunken rowdyism and imbecility about the hotels. And I hear, as I write, a company of brawlers in the street making night hideous. …
On Monday, April 23, the convention began. In two long days of hot argument and parliamentary maneuvering, the gains for both factions were small but significant. The pro-Douglas forces picked up thirty or forty potential supporters when the convention ruled that uninstructed state delegations should vote not as units but according to the individual preference of delegates. This victory, however, was more than offset by the decision to debate the platform before choosing a candidate. Recognizing that Douglas would never consent to run on a pro-slavery plank, the Southerners resolved to push one through at all costs. So the first great battle of the convention took shape.
Institute Hall, April 25, 1860
There was much noise and contusion about town last night. The Southern men kept up their spirits by aid of a band of music and speeches by the leaders of the fire-eaters. The speakers were very severe on the “bobtailed pony from Illinois.” … It is the general impression this morning … that there will be an explosion of the Convention—that it is indeed inevitable and that the Convention is only held together now by endeavors of the various factions, which are irreconcilably hostile, to make a record suitable for their ulterior purposes.
The hall is very much crowded. Those who have tickets send them out after they get in, and others come in. In this way everybody who understands the trick, and nearly everybody does, gets in. So there is an infernal crowd. Fortunately the atmosphere is much cooler than heretofore. The ladies have become anxious on the subject of the Convention. Their gallery is as full as possible, and still crowds of them are besieging the stairways.
The Convention was opened with prayer, which is presumed to have been very solemn and fervent, but nobody heard it.
The first thing in order was to inquire whether there was any committee ready to report. There being none, the unfinished business of yesterday was taken up. This was in relation to the adoption of a rule that, in debate, no delegate should speak more than once, nor more than fifteen minutes. …
The immoderately anxious Douglas men wanted the fifteen minute rule adopted. They were too anxious to put down the screws, however, and were defeated. The vote was 121 for the fifteen minute rule, and 182 against. Now, according to the rules adopted—being those of the House of Representatives—the hour rule is in force …
It is a general remark that the Convention has narrowly escaped doing a very foolish thing. It would have been unsafe to have choked down debate into fifteen minute speeches. It would not do to bottle up wrath so intense. It is now hoped that the South’s fire will pale in long speeches and become ineffectual in the course of their hour harangues....
I do not see how it will be possible to prevent a disruption of the Convention. The South makes it a point of honor that the platform shall not be one capable of a double construction, but shall be one which cannot be fairly interpreted to mean anything short of “sound Southern doctrine,” that is, the protection of slave property in the Territories and the unequivocal repudiation of the Douglas doctrine of squatter, or popular, sovereignty. The Northern delegates don’t care much about the honor of the matter. It is of the most grave consequence to them, involving, as I have before said, for them the issues of life and death. Their political existence depends absolutely upon their ability to construe the platform adopted here to mean “popular sovereignty,” in other words, upon such a form of words in the platform as will allow them to declare, in the North, that the officially expressed Democratic doctrine is that the people of the Territories may, while in their territorial condition, abolish or exclude slavery. They cannot, dare not, yield the opportunity for pressing this pretext. The South will not allow it. Here, then, is the “irrepressible conflict between enduring forces.”…