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High Stakes, High Drama at the 1860 Democratic Convention

High Stakes, High Drama at the 1860 Democratic Convention
AI visualization of the 1860 Democratic national convention.

Continuing our biographical series on William Lowndes Yancey, this week's episode tracks his evolution from Unionist to full-blown secessionist, culminating in splitting the Democratic party at the 1860 national convention.

David M. Potter, in his book The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War 1848-1861, provides more detail on that fateful convention:

Just when it needed bisectional harmony more than ever before, the party met in the city least likely to support the cause of bisectional harmony. The atmosphere of Charleston [South Carolina] – physically a miserable place for such a large convention – heightened the tensions within the party. Less than a year later, military warfare between North and South would begin in this same city where, in April 1860, some of the party leaders were seeking to avert political warfare.
The Democratic convention of 1860 remained in session for ten days in Charleston and then adjourned for six weeks, to convene again in Baltimore on June 18 for another six-day session. No American party convention has exceeded it in length except the Democratic convention of 1924, and one has been the scene of such a bitter and complicated contest. Altogether, the convention took fifty-nine ballots on the nomination of a presidential candidate, in addition to many votes on parliamentary issues, and it witnessed two major scenes of disruption by the withdrawal of delegates from the South. It ended with a schism which not only destroyed the last remaining party with a nationwide constituency, but also foreshadowed with remarkable accuracy the schism that appeared in the Union itself less than a year later.
Despite all the elaborate maneuvering for advantage in the convention, and all the hairbreadth votes which seemed so crucial at the time, the basic situation was fairly simple: [Stephen A.] Douglas had the support of a bare majority of the delegate votes. With this majority, he could prevent the adoption of a platform calling for a congressional slave code ... but, because of the two-thirds rule (which had blocked the nomination of another northern candidate, Martin Van Buren, in 1844), he could not gain the nomination. Further, neither side was prepared for the kind of concessions which so commonly resolve the deadlock in party conventions. As the southern rights supporters saw it, the Supreme Court, in the Dred Scott decision, had validated their claims, and they were not going to barter them away in an equivocating platform. But Douglas could reply that he was not insisting on a divisive doctrinal test – it was the South which took a rigid attitude. And as for the two-thirds rule, he felt that his majority placed the opposition under a moral obligation to acquiesce in his nomination; he had twice stepped aside, first for [Franklin] Pierce in 1852 and then for [James] Buchanan in 1856, though he could definitely have blocked Buchanan; now, he would not let a minority deny him the nomination by creating a deadlock.
The convention assembled in an atmosphere of acute tension and excitement, for the participants all sensed that a disruption was imminent. Delegates from the Northwest were determined to resist southern demands for a platform with a plank calling for a slave code ... . But the South was equally resolute. The Alabama Democratic convention had explicitly instructed its delegates to withdraw if a slave code platform were not adopted, and other state conventions in the lower South had instructed their delegations to insist upon such a platform. Three days before the formal opening of the convention, the delegates of Georgia, Arkansas, and the five Gulf Coast states met in caucus and agreed to withdraw from the convention if Douglas should be nominated.
With a break so imminent, the moderate elements in the convention made desparate efforts to find a formula on which the opposing forces could agree, and they also resorted to dilatory tactics in an effort to avoid the dreaded showdown. But the delays gave more opportunities for impassioned speeches, delivered in theatrical circumstances, to packed galleries of ardent southerners. ...
The oratorical climax came on the evening of the fifth day, as William L. Yancey of Alabama took the spotlight. Already well known in the South as the most silver-tongued of a race of uninhibited orators, and the most fervent exponent of southern rights, Yancey was greeted with a prolonged ovation, after which he launched into a vigorous, unqualified defense of the extreme southern position. Brushing aside all the peripheral questions about rights in the territories, he told the northern delegates that their initial error had been to accept the view that slavery was evil and then to acquiesce in its containment. Instead, they should have defended slavery on its merits. The South, he asserted, would now at last insist upon its rights, including the plank for a territorial slave code.
The responsed from the North came from Senator George E. Pugh of Ohio. Blunter than Yancey, but no less forceful, Pugh reproached the South for first causing the ruin of northern Democrats and then taunting them with their weakness. Now, he said, they were told that they must put their hands on their mouths and their mouths in the dust. "Gentlemen of the South," he said, "you mistake us – you mistake us. We will not do it."
The lines of battle were drawn, and on the next day, the convention took up the question of a platform. After much preliminary skirmishing and one referral back to the platform committee, the issue finally resolved itself into a choice between a majority report by the southern group (which controlled a majority of the states' delegations and therefore a majority of the platform committee, in which each state had one vote) and a minority report by the Douglas forces. The southern wing proposed a platform which affirme the "duty of the Federal government, in all its departments [meaning Congress also] to protect, when necessary, the rights of persons and property [meaning slaves] ... in the territories." The Northern wing proposed to leave to the Supreme Court the question "as to the nature and extent of the powers of a territorial legislature, and as to the powers and duties of Congress ... over the institution of slavery within the territories." To the Douglas forces, this meant that they were willing to leave the question open, instead of forcing a categorical doctrine; to the South, it was just one more refusal to recognize clearly established Southern rights.
When the question came to a vote, the minority report won adoption, 165 to 138 (free states, 154 to 30; slave states, 11 to 108). As this result was announced, Alabama formally withdrew from the convention, followed by Mississippi, Louisiana, South Carolina, Florida, Texas, one-third of the Delaware delegation, part of the Arkansas delegation, and the next day by Georgia and most of the remaining delegates from Arkansas. Twelve years previously, William L. Yancey, with but one supporter, had walked out of the Democratic convention on this same issue. But now he carried the entire lower South with him.

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