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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
He told his fellow-Democrats that the African slave-trade man is the Union man—the true Christian man. He told them that the slave trade of Virginia was more inhuman, more unchristian, in every point of view, than the African slave trade; for the African slave-trader goes to a heathen land and brings the savage here, and Christianizes and moralizes him, and sends him down to posterity a happy man. (Cheers and loud laughter.) …
He declared that the Virginia slave-trader, who tore a slave family asunder from those ties which cluster around civilization, whether it be the slave or the free man, was far more open to rebuke than the man who brought the African from a land where he has no ties of country or family around him.
He desired not to be discourteous to Virginia; but, with all deference to the State, he believed they were influenced more than they ought to be by the almighty dollar. He had himself purchased some slaves in Virginia, and had to pay from one thousand to twelve hundred dollars, while he could buy a better nigger in Africa for fifty dollars. (Loud laughter and great applause.) Now, if any of his friends from the North would go down to his plantation in Georgia—it was not far from here, and he hoped many of them would—he would show them Negroes he had purchased in Virginia, in Georgia, in Alabama, in Louisiana, and he would also show them the native African, the noblest Roman of them all. (Shouts of laughter and applause repeated round after round.)
The applause and laughter on the floor during this gentleman’s speech were overpowering. He was in deadly earnest, and talked with no little force of expression. He is a tall, hatchet-faced man, with brown complexion, high nose, great eyes, thin, straggling black beard and black hair....
Mr. McCook of Ohio moved the adoption of the following resolution:
Resolved, That this Convention will proceed at 2 P.M. of this day, by a call of the States, to nominate a candidate for President, and immediately thereafter, to nominate a candidate for the Vice-Presidency of the United States....
The first ballot for the nomination of a candidate for the Presidency was taken about dusk amid the most profound silence. When the name of Douglas was put in nomination, a feeble yelp went up from the Northwestern delegations. It was not hearty and strong, but thin and spiritless. There was no hopefulness in it, but something of defiance. It was as much as to say, “Well, if you can’t nominate him, you cannot nominate anybody else.”
The spokesmen of the Northwestern delegations tried to make their vote for Douglas impressive, but it was a failure. They said so many votes for “Stephen A. Douglas, of Illinois,” but it would not do. They were overhung now by a cloud of South Carolinians in the galleries and the cold steel of the new construction of the two-thirds rule had pierced their vitals. The Northwestern delegations, commencing with Ohio, had always, until now, produced something of an effect, voting in solid column, according to the direction on the Douglas program. But McCook of Ohio failed to give any rotundity to the vote, “twenty-three votes for Stephen A. Douglas.” Gavit of Indiana ripped out the vote of that State, and glared round with the air of an assassin. He looked as if he would cut any man’s throat who had anything to say against that. Richardson of Illinois looked as if at a funeral, and gave the vote of Illinois in a voice like the sound of clods on a coffin....
Still the futile bickering continued. That afternoon the Douglasites received another setback when the convention decided that no candidate could be nominated without a two-thirds majority of all elected delegates, and not merely of those present. In other words, even though the Southern states had officially seceded, their votes were counted as abstentions. With this ruling, a quick Douglas victory was out of the question.
Six men were formally nominated: Douglas, R. M. T. Hunter of Virginia, James Guthrie of Kentucky, Andrew Johnson of Tennessee, Daniel S. Dickinson of New York, and Joseph Lane of Oregon—all except Douglas more or less committed to the Southern viewpoint. In the first ballot, Douglas received 145½ votes, Hunter 42, and Guthrie 35½, with 30 scattered among the rest. Though 202 votes were needed to win, Douglas supporters were unable to push his total much above 150. After twelve ballots, the convention adjourned for the night. Summing up the results of the deadlock, Halstead foresaw Republican victory in November.
The Douglas men were very despondent after this day’s experience. The delegates generally are dispirited, worried out by the long wrangle, and disgusted. It is the prevalent impression that the Democratic party has been done for. Even if it should be possible to patch up a superficial reconciliation, and nominate with a whole Convention, the nomination would be worthless. I hear it stated here a hundred times a day, by the most orthodox Democrats and rampant Southerners, “William H. Seward will be next President of the United States.” And I have heard this remark several times from South Carolinians: “I’ll be damned if I don’t believe Senator Seward would make a good President.” The fact is, there is a large class to whom the idea of Douglas is absolutely more offensive than Seward.