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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
The preponderant faction of the Northern Democracy say the Southern doctrine of protection of slave property in the Territories is “inadmissible”—that is the word—and I believe they have, when the pinch comes, a majority of the Convention. The South says a platform with two faces is no longer tolerable. And the South has in this position a majority of the States. There is a majority in the committee on Platform in favor of amending the Cincinnati Platform∗ so as to repudiate its Northern interpretation. [*The Democratic party platform adopted at the Cincinnati convention of 1856 had endoresed the doctrine of popular sovereignty in the territories.—Ed.] The States of Pennsylvania, Oregon and California, as here represented, are with the South in this matter. The inevitable consequence is, there will be two reports from the committee on Platform. The majority report, favored by a minority of the Convention—and the minority report, favored by the majority. Upon the adoption of the Cincinnati Platform, with its “popular sovereignty heresy” understood to be attached, and constituting its vitality, the South must withdraw. At least half a dozen States will certainly go, and how many more, and how many fragments of others, it is impossible to say. Then the majority Convention will nominate Douglas. The South will be sustained in its secession by the whole power of the Administration, and by the Southern Senators, who would be murdered politically by the nomination of Douglas in a full Convention, upon a platform on which it would be possible for him to stand....
The party must take refuge under false pretenses of doctrine, or go in pieces. The question is: Will the South yield the point of honor which they have been insisting upon, so far as to allow the platform to be made ambiguous? If they will, the Douglas men are so confident in their ability to nominate Douglas and in the potency of their war-whoop, that they will probably allow the Cincinnati Platform to be amended by the addition of something equivalent in the estimation of the South to the affirmation of the Dred Scott decision doctrine† [† This famous Supreme Court decision in 1857 decreed, among other things, that Congress could not prohibit slavery in the territories.—Ed.]
Douglas men are asserting warmly at the Mills House that they never will yield an inch—never, never. And they want a little Southern sensation on the platform. They want about forty Southern delegates to go out, for that would insure the nomination of Douglas and help him in the North. Their fear is, that the secession will be uncomfortably large. A slight secession of merely the “shred of Gulf States” would be a help; and a great secession, carrying with it the weight of the South, would be ruinous. Tomorrow is understood to be the crisis of the Convention. We hear hourly that a crisis involving the fate of the country is at hand....
The crisis which Halstead expected did not materialize immediately. All through the fourth day, the delegates marked time while the platform committee debated in closed session. Its task seemed impossible—as Halstead commented, it must either “bring in a subterfuge, or throw a bombshell.”
The platform committee managed to do both. The majority report, signed by the fifteen slave states, together with Oregon and California, provided the bombshell in the form of an extreme and forthright statement of the Southern position. It declared that neither Congress nor a territorial legislature had the power to exclude slaves or abolish slavery in any territory; and that the federal government was obligated to protect slave property wherever the constitutional authority of the United States might extend.
The minority report, which represented the prevailing sentiment of the Northern delegates, brought in the subterfuge. Reaffirming the Cincinnati platform of 1856, and its endorsement of popular sovereignty, the report went on to state that “all questions in regard to the rights of property in States or Territories … are judicial in character.” Hence the onus of decision in matters pertaining to slavery was passed on to the Supreme Court.
On the cold, rainy afternoon of April 27, general debate on the platform began. As discussion flared into acrimony, it became apparent that a crisis was indeed at hand.
The first thing after the Convention was called to order in the afternoon was a speech from Mr. E. Barksdale, editor of the Mississippian, which was a clear, well-expressed, shrewd, and keen ultra Southern speech, demanding the protection of slavery in the Territories and insisting upon adhering to principle rather than consulting expediency....
Mr. Austin A. King of Missouri … followed. He made an ultra Douglas speech, indorsing the Northern Democracy in the most unqualified manner. He told the South that their demand for the protection of slavery in the Territories would, if persisted in, result in a Black Republican Congress, which would give them such protection as wolves gave lambs....
Mr. Yancey of Alabama rose to reply and received a perfect ovation. The hall for several minutes rang with applause. It appeared at once that the outside pressure was with the fire-eaters....