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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
And now commenced the regular stampede. Alabama led the Southern column. Mr. Walker of that State, a tall, slender, pale gentleman, able in controversy and graceful in movement, called the attention of the house to a communication from the State of Alabama, which he proposed to read from the clerk’s desk. There was a shudder of excitement, a universal stir over the house, and then for the first time during the day, profound stillness. Mr. Walker proceeded to give the reasons which had influenced Alabama to retire from the Convention at that point. They were, first, the instructions of the Alabama Convention; second, the conviction the delegation felt that it was its duty to retire as justice had not been done the South. When he concluded, which he did by stating that there could not thereafter be any representation from the State of Alabama in that Convention, the delegation left their seats and made their way to various points, where they took position as spectators. Mississippi went next, with less formality but more vim. Her declarations of the manner in which the Northern Democracy had been found wanting, and of her purposes, were exceedingly explicit. The Northern Democracy had been found anxious to dodge the issues before the country. That would never do for Mississippi. She cast her fortunes with those of her sister State, Alabama....
Colonel [ sic ] Simmons of South Carolina now spoke for that State in a quiet, dignified manner, and presented the reasons for the withdrawal of the State to the Convention. The secession of South Carolina drew down another tempest of approbation.... Florida was the next to go, and then Arkansas.... R. T. Merrick of Illinois now obtained the floor, and proceeded to make an appeal. He wanted to try the effect of eloquence upon the secessionists. He was becoming very red in the face, and was almost launching away into the empyrean, when he was cut short by several delegates, who did not want to hear eloquence, and the chairman of the Georgia delegation said Georgia wished to retire, to consult. Leave was granted—and now Virginia, through her spokesman, wanted time for consultation also. Georgia and Virginia expressed the deepest sympathy for their Southern brethren. Their destiny was with the South forever. The Southern feeling ran high, and it seemed that public opinion was about to enforce, as the test of loyalty to the South, secession from the Convention. A large number of gentlemen in the hall looked absolutely frightened. They considered themselves looking upon a spectacle of prodigious significance, and some were muttering with white lips that the hour of revolution was at hand. And there were Neros about, too, who thought the whole matter an extensive joke, and insisted upon calling attention to the ridiculous points....
When the Convention adjourned, the people stood in groups on the corners, and even in the middle of the streets. The outside pressure was for the seceders, and Southern feeling runs high. It is now believed that nearly the whole South will go out, and that there may be an attempt made to organize two “National Democratic” parties. I presume this will be done. The Douglas men are swearing vengeance tonight not loud but deep, and the Northwestern States say they will nominate him if they have to do it themselves....
The Douglasites find themselves in the position of a semi-Free Soil, sectional party, and the poor fellows take it hard. The bitter cup which they have so often pressed upon the Republicans is now thrust upon them....
Institute Hall, May 1, 1860
… Business commenced ominously.
Mr. Henry L. Benning of Georgia announced the result of the consultation of that State. It was the adoption, by a majority of the delegation, of the following resolution:
Resolved, That upon the opening of the Convention this morning our chairman be requested to state to the President that the Georgia delegation, after mature deliberation, have felt it to be their duty, under existing circumstances, not to participate further in the deliberations of the Convention, and that, therefore, the delegation withdraw.
Twenty-six out of thirty-four Georgia delegates then retired from the hall.
A majority of the Arkansas delegation announced their deliberate determination formally to retire; and retired.
The Virginia, Kentucky, North Carolina and Maryland delegations retired to consult …
Solomon Cohen of Savannah, Ga., who remained in the Convention, made a speech ultra Southern in tone. But he could not then leave the Convention, until the last straw had broken the camel’s back....
Mr. W. B. Gaulden, the slave-trader of Savannah, gave his reasons for remaining in the Convention:
He was a slavery-extension, slave-trade man. He believed the institution to be right, socially, politically, morally and religiously. He believed that, if the institution of slavery were to be abolished, civilization would go back two hundred years. The prohibition of the slave trade had put an end to all hope of extending the area of slavery at the present time. There was but one remedy at present for the evils the South complained of, and that was to reopen the African slave trade. (Cheers and loud laughter.) In this he looked to the Northern Democracy to aid them. (Renewed laughter and cheers.)