Americans will soon turn on their televisions and, from Tampa and Charlotte, will see the latest versions of an American political ritual that began in the campaign of 1832—the presidential nominating convention. Although Baltimore was the city of choice for the early conventions, by the middle of the 19th century, other cities began to attract the attention of the parties. The first convention to be held in the South was that of the Democratic Party in 1860. Charleston was selected as the host city by the party in an attempt to promote sectional unity between its northern and southern wings. Things did not go as planned.
The most divisive convention in American history opened at Charleston’s Institute Hall on Meeting Street on April 23. Built in 1854, the hall seated 3,000 people and was the home of the South Carolina Institute, an organization founded to promote “art, ingenuity, mechanical skill and industry.” As the springtime temperature in Charleston reached 100 degrees that week, tempers were equally hot inside the convention.
The leading candidate for the Democratic nomination in 1860 was Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois, the party’s second place finisher to James Buchanan at the 1856 convention in Cincinnati. Buchanan, the incumbent president, was not seeking re-election. Douglas was a well known national figure, having beaten Abraham Lincoln in 1858 in their contest for an Illinois senate seat, with their famous debates having been widely publicized.
The hot button issue in 1860 was slavery in the territories and, more specifically, whether local territorial legislatures could exclude slavery prior to a territory becoming a state. Most southerners believed that there could be no such prohibition, since the territories were owned in common by all of the people of the United States and since slavery was recognized in the Constitution. Douglas had stated in his 1858 debates with Lincoln that there could be a prohibition of slavery by territorial legislatures, leading most in the South to oppose his nomination.
The Democrats at that time required a two-thirds vote of the delegates to win the nomination. Douglas had the support of a majority of the delegates, but lacked the required two-thirds. His opposition failed to coalesce around any single candidate. It was decided to draft and approve the party’s platform before voting on its nominee. The platform committee met for four days, was unable to reach a consensus, and issued a divided report to the convention. After two more days of debate on the committee’s report, the convention rejected a proposed platform plank mandating federal protection of slavery in the territories. As a result, more than 50 Southern delegates, led by William Lowndes Yancey of Alabama, walked out of the convention. After the convention’s president ruled that Douglas still needed two-thirds of the original 303 delegates to win the nomination, a near impossibility, the party went through 57 ballots over four days before realizing the futility of continuing.
Party leaders decided to have a cooling off period and suspended the convention, to continue in Baltimore six weeks later. It is the only time in American history that a convention has been suspended and resumed in a different city.
In Baltimore, things only got worse. Tempers flared and delegates physically assaulted one another. An even larger number of Southern delegates bolted from the convention and set up their own convention a few blocks away. The debacle in Baltimore was precipitated by the convention’s refusal to seat the delegates who had left the proceedings in Charleston. Delegates from Oregon, California, and Massachusetts joined in the walkout, believing that their Southern colleagues were being wrongfully excluded and had the right to reclaim their seats.
As a result, on the same day, June 23, 1860, two separate Democratic conventions in Baltimore nominated two separate candidates for the presidency—Stephen Douglas of Illinois by the original convention, and John Breckinridge of Kentucky, who was the sitting vice president of the United States, by the convention, consisting mainly of Southerners, who had left the main convention and who declared themselves to be the “true” convention of the Democratic Party. The split by the Democrats made a victory in the fall election by the Republicans and their nominee, Abraham Lincoln, almost a certainty.
Charleston’s Institute Hall had one other moment in the political spotlight. In December 1860, it was the site of the South Carolina convention that passed the state’s Ordinance of Secession, with the Palmetto State leading six other Southern states out of the Union before Lincoln’s inauguration. The building would last only one year more, being one of more than 500 Charleston buildings that were destroyed in the city’s Great Fire of December 1861.
Stan M. Haynes is the author of the recently published book, The First American Political Conventions: Transforming Presidential Nominations, 1832-1872. For more information about the book, go to www.americanpoliticalconventions.com.