- Historic Sites
It Happens Every Four Years
The political convention was devised to meet an unforeseen need, and now and then it has an unexpected result
June 1956 | Volume 7, Issue 4
While these nominees were fighting it out each succeeding leap year, a dangerous sectionalism was developing which in the end was almost to destroy the republic. As this crisis came to a climax in 1860, it finally appeared that the nominating convention, instead of being a convenient mechanism to unify and promote harmony, might be an instrument of confusion and danger.
Since the beginning of the republic, political leadership had been largely southern. That stable, slow-growing section kept its representatives longer in power and gave them seniority. But this leadership was conservative and it refused the legislation to aid internal development which northern interests wanted. The resulting feeling of frustration was bound to make an outburst inevitable. When the voting superiority of the faster growing North had been achieved by the great increase in population, the ambitious, the resourceful, and the discontented joined to form the new Republican party in 1856 on a northern platform of free soil and subsidy, and they nearly won the election.
This immediately cut the ground out from under the accustomed type of “national” political campaign, which had been devoted largely to shadow-boxing--professional politician running against unsullied military hero. The new Republicans, operating with a frankly anti-southern platform, were within a few electoral votes of victory, and the Democrats were in an exceedingly difficult position.
The Democratic problem now was how to adjust to this new attack. How could they develop a candidate, a platform, and a campaign which would keep them and their southern leadership in power? They felt themselves to be a national party, but they were really southern in their policy and their motivation; they refused to approve the development programs demanded by growing northern interests—protective tariffs, railroad subsidies, land distribution and the like. Some sort of adjustment obviously was called for if the party was to win in 1860; but specifically what should it be, and how should it be brought about?
This was the key question which the 1860 convention of the Democratic party was called upon to answer. What would the nature of the Democratic adjustment be? Would the party bring forward some aggressive leader with a program which could actively compete for northern votes, or would it merely choose a neutral candidate and take a position of defending the rights of the South and appealing to the northern sense of fair play?
Dominant southern leadership was demanding the latter tactic; and no political convention before this one ever faced such a dilemma. Fate seemed determined to make the solution of this problem even more difficult than it would normally have been.
Previously, conventions had always been held in what was more or less neutral territory—usually in Baltimore, which was of easy access to all shades of political opinion and which was not too much dominated by any single group or faction. But in 1860, by some strange chance, the Democrats were to meet in Charleston, South Carolina, than which there was no community more wholly and more uncompromisingly southern.
In Charleston the gallery and “society” itself were southern to the core—and militantly so. Also, although the convention was to be held in April, the weather was unbearably hot. Hotel accommodations were both scarce and expensive. The hall in which the convention was held was inconvenient and very noisy, so that debate was carried on with extreme difficulty. Every circumstance seemed to conspire to make the position of delegates from the northern free states most disadvantageous.
These northern Democrats were laboring against heavy psychological odds. Their party was in grave danger. The advance of the Republicans had already cost the Democrats most of the northern free states in the local elections, and the Democratic delegates from these states were desperate. They argued that the southern wing of the party was reasonably safe in the slave labor states; therefore (they said) every effort ought to be made to enable the northern wing to regain enough lost ground to win the coming election. They demanded the nomination of their most dynamic vote-getter, Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois.
Douglas was a realist who had adopted the simple principle that the existence of slavery depended ultimately on local tolerance of the institution. He applied this idea to the new communities developing in the West. He was prepared to make a vigorous campaign on this democratic principle of local self-government. His followers in the northern wing of the Democratic party believed almost fanatically that he was the only Democratic nominee who could hope to win the election.