It sounds outrageously preposterous today, a Democratic national convention held in Charleston, South Carolina. But the Democratic party of April 1860 was very different from the one of today.
Northern and Southern Democrats were fiercely anti-abolitionist, the primary difference being that Northern Democrats supported Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas’s Freeport Doctrine, whereby federal law would not protect slavery in any territory where the people did not want it. Southern Democrats would hear none of it, demanding a government that supported the rights of masters to employ their slaves wherever, whenever, and however they wished. They were accustomed to a Southern-dominated Supreme Court, a Southerner or a Southern sympathizer in the White House, and an equally divided Senate that protected slave owners’ rights as new states were admitted into the Union. They feared the prospect of new states tilting the balance in the Senate as Americans settled territory not conducive to a slave-based economy.
The Democratic delegates expected Senator William Seward of New York to win the Republican nomination. Republicans accepted slavery where it was already legal, but opposed its further expansion. A unified Democratic Party could win the White House only by winning some states outside the South’s borders.
Many Southern delegates saw little difference between Seward’s position and that of Douglas if future states were likely to outlaw slavery anyway. The Southern “Fire Eaters” wanted more and were prepared to go their own way if they didn’t get it. They demanded a plank in the party platform providing:
. . . that the Democracy of the United States hold these cardinal principles on the subject of slavery in the Territories; First, that Congress has no power to abolish slavery in the Territories; Second, that the Territorial Legislature has no power to abolish slavery in any Territory, nor to prohibit the introduction of slaves therein, nor any power to exclude slavery therefrom, nor any right to destroy or impair the right of property in slaves by any legislation whatever.
It was too much for the Northern delegates to swallow. The Douglas forces won a hollow victory when the plank was voted down. But Douglas needed two thirds of the delegates’ support to win the nomination. The Fire Eaters walked out when they did not get their way and the chairman ruled a candidate had to win two thirds of the delegates including in that number the delegates who had walked out. The delegates agreed to reconvene in Baltimore in June.
In Baltimore the Douglas forces got a new chairman, new rules, and pro-Douglas delegates from the cotton states, thereby securing the nomination. The Fire Eaters held their own convention, nominating the sitting vice-president, John Breckinridge. The party had split, paving the way for Lincoln’s, not Seward’s, election. Six months later, South Carolina became the first state to secede from the Union.
Thus, although the first shots were not fired until April 12, 1861, the seeds of self-destruction were sown in the same city one year earlier.
For an excellent historical account of the Charleston convention, see chapter 1 of Bruce Catton’s The Coming Fury (1961). For a fictional account (with the same results), see chapter 62 of my novel, New Garden (2013), where one of the principal characters serves as a North Carolina delegate.