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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. William A. Richardson of Illinois wished to speak. As the crisis had arrived, and as Richardson is a great man for a crisis and had withdrawn Douglas from the Cincinnati Convention, it was hoped that he had something to say which would relieve the party from its misery. There were cries of “Hear Richardson.” A thrill of excitement passed around the hall, and everybody leaned forward or stood up to see and hear the right-hand man of the Little Giant on the crisis. Richardson commenced with his usual hoarseness and solemnity, when Judge A. B. Meek of Alabama, a gentleman six feet eight inches in height, with a splendid voice, arose and made a point of order against Stuart of Michigan, who still seemed, by standing in his place, to claim the floor. Judge Meek’s point of order caused another sensation. Presently the Judge’s point of order was ruled not well taken and silence was obtained, when John Cochrane of New York jumped up and called “Mis-ter—Presi-DENT!” and proceeded to urge that Richardson might be heard. He believed Richardson was about to bring “peace offerings.” Everybody knew there could not be any “peace offerings” but the dead body of Douglas, and it was thought that would be a singular time to make an offering of the corpse of the Little Giant. The great crowds in the galleries heaved like big waves. They thought something prodigious was about to occur. But no sooner had Richardson opened his mouth and commenced to speak of the delegation from Illinois, and its intention in appearing there, than Mr. C. E. Hooker of Mississippi objected peremptorily, and insisted and persisted in calling Richardson to order, and by insisting upon his point of order, when ninety-nine out of every hundred persons were willing and anxious to hear Richardson, would not let him be heard. This was considered an act of discourtesy toward Mr. Richardson of the most flagrant character. A Southern gentleman explained it to me this evening by saying that the South was at that moment in a delicate position, and did not want any traps sprung....
The object of Richardson in attempting to gain the floor was then at once seen. He had desired to say that Illinois and the Northwest in general, had not been anxious to have anything but the Cincinnati Platform, and would be content with that, if the others would. This was to have been his peace offering—his olive branch. As the Douglas men did not understand the movement, several delegations stood firm and voted roundly for the adoption of the explanatory resolution, according to the original program. Most of the States passed the point, however, and consulted. New York retired from the hall to consult. It took some minutes for the new tactics of Richardson to get circulation, and in the meantime, as one delegation after another understood the point, the votes of States were counted, and finally, with a general rush, the only resolution having the slightest significance in the minority report, was stricken out. The Douglas army had retreated … By a flank movement, they had placed themselves upon the Cincinnati Platform pure and simple.
Those who had no insight into things thought at this moment that the dead point of danger was safely passed. The fact was (if we may change the figure somewhat materially from those hitherto used), the ship had struck the rock, and just as the passengers thought they were floating safely into deep water, the vessel was actually sinking. It was ominous that, from this time, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas and Arkansas, declined to vote.
The Convention now proceeded, as if in earnest, to take the vote by States on the several propositions tacked to the tail of the explanatory resolution from which this had been severed. These propositions were about protecting foreigners, and building a Pacific Railroad, and acquiring Cuba “on terms honorable to ourselves and just to Spain,” etc.; and the vote was unanimous in all cases excepting that regarding the Pacific Railroad, and nearly so in that case—the Gulf States still refusing to vote. There were several attempts during the reading of the poor clap-trap resolutions (the substance of all of which was in the Cincinnati Platform already) to get up a show of enthusiasm. The failures in each case were extremely dreary. The Convention was under the frown of King Cotton, and his displeasure was upon it like a blight or deadly nightshade. And now the platform was constructed as it stands, the most uncouth, disjointed, illogical, confused, cowardly and contemptible thing in the history of platforms, mean and cowardly as they have been from the beginning.
Mr. Stuart of Michigan moved a reconsideration of the vote, and proceeded to speak upon it. He was evidently laboring under the impression that he was full of a very powerful speech. When he undertook to find it, however, he discovered his mistake, and soon got into the old rut about the gallant and glorious Northwest, and how wonderfully the Northern Democracy had stood up for the South, and had fought, bled and died for the South—and he seemed to reproach the South with inconsistency, and with having demanded of the Northern Democracy more than they could bear. He stated that Mr. Yancey had admitted that the South had asked new guarantees of Southern safety from the Northern Democracy. Yancey corrected him. He had not made such admission. He had simply contended for the Southern construction of the Cincinnati Platform, and repudiated ambiguity. Stuart was getting into hot water at every plunge, and his fine round bald head glowed like the full moon as he was making matters worse.... Stuart finally retired from the platform having done a very inflammatory thing …