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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
The southern leaders of the party had no candidate, but they did have a platform and they insisted that it must be adopted. Bluntly, they demanded federal protection of their property rights—i.e., of slavery—in the developing territories of the West. Today this concept looks unrealistic, because it is now impossible to see how the federal government could have forced a hostile frontier community to accept slavery. But the southern leaders in that romantic age had little sense of realism. They were faced with the loss of power which they feared might mean the destruction of their social system through some statutory effort to free their slaves. They also had a strong sense of their rights, and under the prevailing code felt themselves honor bound to demand their protection and to rally to their defense. Finally, they feared that their opponents at home would seize any chance to make capital out of a charge that they were yielding to northern demands.
The key to the situation was the fact of the two-thirds rule, that unique characteristic of the Democratic procedure. Douglas had a majority of the convention but lacked the two-thirds. The southerners, led by a group of senators, conscious of their apparent veto power, hoped to block Douglas and then to negotiate for some more neutral candidate.
The Douglas managers decided on bold tactics. As they had a majority, they would reject the southern platform and force through their own. If this angered certain of the hotheaded southern delegates to the point of causing them to leave the convention, well and good. It would be easier for Douglas to get two-thirds of those that remained. So they jammed through their platform.
Certain delegations from the lower South would not take this program and marched out, hoping to show Douglas’ followers their determination not to accept him and thus make negotiation necessary to reunite the party. It would not appear that many at this point really wanted the party to be destroyed. But the Douglas men would not negotiate. At length, after a six weeks’ recess failed to change the situation, a majority of the Democratic convention nominated Douglas and a minority put up a ticket led by Vice President John C. Breckinridge.
The breakup of the party did not disturb the southern leadership too much because some of them felt that the multiplicity of candidates would work to their advantage. As the old Whigs had come up with a Constitutional Union ticket, there were now four parties in the field, including the Republican and the two Democratic slates. This, it was argued, would mean that no one could secure a majority of the electors and that the election would thus be thrown into Congress. The House was so confused by faction that no one was expected to command a majority. The Senate, however, was safely southern and would not choose, as Vice President, a Republican who might succeed to the Presidency.
Thus a man sympathetic to the South would enter the White House. Why worry about the split? The chances of Republican success seemed remote.
This disruption seems in no small part due to the peculiar character which the national political convention had acquired. Its members, led by experienced veteran political operators, were primarily concerned with the problems of operation—who was to run what and with what. They were preoccupied with the problem of party control as well as party victory. They seemed to have little concern about the effect of their actions on the welfare of the nation.
Thus the new Republican party profited by this split in the ruling party and won the election. This victory set in motion a succession of political activities which resulted in secession and war. Speculation will never cease as to whether conflict could have been avoided had the Charleston convention been able to conclude its usual business in customary fashion. The failure of the convention had results far-reaching and calamitous. It was as though an important balance wheel in a complex machine had flown off its shaft. Fortunately, this calamity has never been repeated.
The conclusion of hostilities gave the new Republican party a hold on the presidency that was only relaxed twice in the remainder of the Nineteenth Century. During those decades, the conventions were very strictly in the hands of professional operators and the candidates continued to be drawn from the ranks of soldiers or fellow professionals. Grant and Hancock were soldiers; Hayes, Garfield, Harrison, and McKinley were both soldiers and politicians; Seymour, Tilden, Cleveland, and Bryan were experienced office-holders and political operators. Only the latter—and the one exception during the period, Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune --struck any strange notes in the symphony.
The Twentieth Century, however, introduced convention activities which were foreshadowed by the nomination of Bryan by the Democrats in 1896. There was to be a new struggle for power. Broadly speaking, it was the struggle of a new innovating generation fighting the “Old Guard.” It was the West against the entrenched East, and in the Democratic party the Solid South battling or being fought by the rest of the party.