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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
Mr. Yancey asked for more time than was allowed by the rules of the Convention, and by common consent was allowed an additional half hour. He filled up his time (an hour and a half) with great effect. There was no question after he had been upon the platform a few minutes that he was a man of remarkable gifts of intellect and captivating powers as a speaker. He reviewed the differences on the slavery question of the Democracy. He charged that the defeats of the Democracy in the North were to be traced to the pandering by the party in the free States to anti-slavery sentiments; they had not come up to the high ground which must be taken on the subject in order to defend the South—namely, that slavery was right. He reviewed the Kansas question, and detected enormity in the action of Stephen A. Douglas and his followers, in refusing to admit Kansas into the Union as a slave State under the Lecompton Constitution, and sorrowed over the fact that only three constitutional Democrats were to be found in the Northern States to vote against the admission of Kansas under the Wyandotte Constitution. He traced the history of Northern aggression and Southern concession as he understood it. He spoke of the deep distrust the South had begun to entertain of the Northern Democracy, and urged the propriety of the demand of the South that the Democratic party should now take clear and high ground upon a constitutional basis. He pronounced false all charges that the State of Alabama, himself or his colleagues, were in favor of a dissolution of the Union per se. But he told the Democracy of the North that they must, in taking high constitutional ground, go before the people of the North and tell them of the inevitable dissolution of the Union if constitutional principles did not prevail at the ballot boxes....
He distinctly admitted that the South did ask of the Northern Democracy an advanced step in vindication of Southern rights; Mr. Yancey’s hour and a half closed while he was in the midst of a series of lofty periods, and Mr. George E. Pugh of Ohio sprung to his feet. The speech of Mr. Yancey had been the speech of the Convention. Some time before it was concluded the day had expired, and the gas had been lit about the hall. The scene was very brilliant and impressive. The crowded hall, the flashing lights, the deep solicitude felt in every word, the importance of the issues pending, all combined to make up a spectacle of extraordinary interest, and something of splendor.
Mr. Pugh took the platform in a condition of considerable warmth.... He spoke of the sacrifice of the Northern Democrats of their political lives, battling for the doctrine of the South, now scornfully repudiated; and pointed out among the delegates, men who had been Senators and Representatives and who had fallen in the fight. In conclusion, he stated the Democracy, who were prepared to stand by the old faith, would be sorry to part with their Southern friends, but if the gentlemen from the South could only stay on the terms proposed, they must go. The Democracy from the Northwest would make itself heard and felt. The Northern Democrats were not children under the pupilage of the South, and to be told to stand here and there, and moved at the beck and bidding of the South. The hall was still, as it was understood that Pugh was the spokesman of Douglas, and that the fate of the Democratic party was in issue.
When Mr. Pugh concluded, Mr. John Cochrane pressed a motion to have a place assigned for his amendment to the majority report. [Cochrane had proposed a slightly modified version of the Southern platform.—Ed.]
After some discussion, it was ruled out of order.
Mr. W. D. Bishop of Connecticut now said he thought nothing new could be said of the dissensions of the Democratic party if the Convention remained in session and debated all summer. All these questions had been discussed time and again, and the minds of gentlemen made up; he therefore demanded the previous question.
In an instant the house was in an uproar—a hundred delegates upon the floor, and upon chairs, screaming like panthers, and gesticulating like monkeys. The president, for the first time, completely lost control over the Convention; not a word was audible. The reporters climbed upon their tables, the delegates mounted the chairs, the people in the galleries stretched their necks and hung over the balustrade, and literally, as was said of a scene in the House of Representatives, “you would see the Speaker’s hammer going, but could not hear it.” The Chair singled out a red-haired member from Misssouri, who was standing on a front seat, and shaking his gory locks, and trying to shriek louder and louder and to look more terrible than anybody else, and recognized him as moving to adjourn. The Chair probably thought it the part of prudence to see that the Convention adjourned, for voting on the platform in the midst of such a tornado, and at that hour (it was after ten o’clock), would be certain to blow up the Convention....
Presently the chairman managed to take the reins in his hands, and with great equanimity, firmness and calmness of manner, stated that there was no occasion for so much agitation and discomposure. A crowd gathered about Bishop, and some seemed to menace him. The delegates gathered in groups and grappled with each other, and surged about like waves of the sea....