Friday, June 18, 2010

June 18, 1860: The Democratic Convention, Take Two

Stephen Douglas

On Monday, June 18, 1860, the Democratic Party reconvened in Baltimore, Maryland.  The first convention, at Charleston, South Carolina, in April, had broken up over the ideology of front-runner Stephen A. Douglas, with many delegates walking out.  Pro-Douglas supporters went to work in several Southern states, getting the state conventions to name new delegations -- friendlier to Douglas -- to replace the ones that had walked out.  Everyone was present now in Baltimore, but which delegates were entitled to seats?

The problem was passed to the credentials committee.  From Bruce Catton's The Coming Fury...
It would take the credentials committee three days to wrestle with this problem, and until the wrestling ended, the convention could do nothing but wait, its collective temperature rising hour by hour. Douglas men paraded the streets with brass bands, pausing when the spirit moved them to listen to stump speeches; Southern die-hards, in turn, had a way of gathering in front of the Gilmore House, where (William) Yancey was staying, for stump speeches of their own; and nothing that was said or done at any of these meetings served to promote harmony. At the Douglas meetings, held often enough on the steps of the home of the eminent Reverdy Johnson, former Senator, former Attorney General, and a leader of the "moderates" on the slavery question, orators shouted that devotion to Douglas was the only true test of Democratic fidelity. At the Gilmore House, in turn, the Douglas men were denounced as abolitionists in disguise, and Yancey cried that these Doulas leaders were selfish men who, ostrich-like, "buried their heads in the sands of squatter soveriegnty" and thereby exposed their anti-slavery posteriors. On the fringes of these meetings there were often a number of fist fights.
John Breckinridge

On June 21, the credentials committee emerged with two reports.  The pro-Douglas majority report held that the new delegations from Alabama, Louisiana and Arkansas should be seated.  The Georgia delegation would be equally divided between old and new delegates.  The minority report demanded seating the original Charleston delegations.  The convention would vote to decide the matter.  Choosing the majority report would mean that Douglas would almost certainly gain the nomination.

The New York delegation, which had been thought to be solidly for Douglas, shocked his supporters by asking for more time to make up its mind.  That put the showdown off until the following evening.  The convention chose the pro-Douglas majority report and the exodus of Southern delegates quickly followed.

On the following day, June 23, the remaining delegates got down to the business of picking a nominee.  On the first ballot, Douglas got 173 of 190 1/2 votes cast.  On the second ballot, he received 181 1/2 out of 194 1/2.  A motion was quickly adopted declaring Douglas the nominee.  Later that evening, Senator Benjamin Fitzpatrick of Alabama was chosen as the nominee for vice-president.

Like Charleston in April, Baltimore had two conventions on this final day.  The defectors worked quickly, putting together a platform that asserted the pro-slavery positions they had fought for at Charleston, commended a projected acquisition of Cuba, and endorsed a plan for a railroad from some point on the Mississippi to some point on the Pacific Coast.  John C. Breckinridge, the current vice president, was placed in nomination.  He won a two-thirds majority on the first ballot, and was given the nomination unanimously.  Joseph Lane of Oregon was named for the vice-presidency.  The country now had two Democratic parties and two Democratic candidates.

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