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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 Convention separated in a bad humor. There was a call on the Southerners to remain and consult. It was a cold, rainy night, but there was intense heat about the hotels. Men stalked about with dripping umbrellas, and consulted eagerly and anxiously. Everybody said that there would necessarily be an explosion in the morning....
In an effort to prevent an immediate break, the conflicting platform reports were returned to committee the next morning. But the amended versions hardly differed from the originals—to most observers, the few changes and concessions seemed like so much hairsplitting. The debate that followed was, in Halstead’s words, “dreadfully dull and intolerably long—one dull fellow after another takes the floor and bores the immense and impatient audience for an hour.” Quite obviously, the Southern strategy was to wear down the pro-Douglas majority until it would agree to anything.
The convention adjourned for the Sabbath. Despite all attempts at conciliation during that restless interlude, the situation remained unchanged, and if anything, even deteriorated. Only the weather seemed to have changed for the better.
That day, Halstead noted, a great calamity had come upon the Ohio delegation: “Their private whiskey, of which they laid in a supply supposed to be equal to all emergencies, the nomination of Douglas included, gave out this morning. They attribute their good health which they have enjoyed to this article. The Kentucky whiskey, too, is nearly all gone. The barrel in which it is contained, and which occupies an honorable position and receives much attention in their parlor, gives forth, when consulted as to its condition, a dismal tone of emptiness.”
Monday, the seventh session of the convention, began, Halstead wrote, “with a curious mingling of despair of accomplishing anything, and hope that something will turn up, hope as illogical as those everlasting anticipations of Mr. Micawber.... The scenes around me are those of the dissolution of the Democratic organization.”
Now came the most crucial test of the whole convention—the vote on the adoption of the minority, or “Douglas-Popular Sovereignty-Supreme Court-ambiguous,” platform report. After one final attempt to table the measure, the balloting commenced. It was a tense moment, for everyone knew that if the minority report was substituted for the majority one, a Southern walkout was almost inevitable.
The minority resolutions were … carried as a substitute for the majority resolutions by a vote of 165 to 138—this 138 is the solid anti-Douglas strength. Now the question came on the adoption of the substituted report—the definite, irrevocable vote of the Convention upon the Douglas Platform was divided into its substantive propositions. The resolution reaffirming the Cincinnati Platform, believing Democratic principles to be unchangeable in their nature, was first voted upon, and it was carried by 237½ to 65. There was a motion now made to lay all the rest of the report upon the table. This would have been simply the adoption of the Cincinnati Platform, and it was defeated, 81 to 188. While this vote was being taken, Alabama, Mississippi and Arkansas withdrew their votes. Now the question arose upon the adoption of the Squatter Sovereignty part of the platform—that part wherein it is stated that, “inasmuch as differences of opinion exist in the Democratic party,” it will abide by the Supreme Court. The Honorable Bedford Brown now saw the crisis. The political tornado was about to burst. The barometer indicated a sudden storm. Mr. Brown did not know it was too late to save the party, and the country attached thereto, and he made an appeal to gentlemen, as piteous, as solemn, as agonizingly earnest, as ever a man offered up for his life, that the Convention should not pass that resolution, and thereby disrupt and destroy the Democratic party. He called upon gentlemen to pause upon the brink of the tremendous precipice upon which they stood, and to look into the gulf before they took the leap....
Mr. Stuart of Michigan wished to speak, but was put down by loud cries of “Order.”