As we write this, our fifth entry in our series on the serious and striking comparisons between the U.S. in the months (and years) before the 1860 presidential campaign and the 2016 presidential campaign, the Republican National Convention is just beginning in Cleveland. And so we turn to May 1860, and the Democratic National Convention that fell apart in Charleston, SC that month over sectionalism.
Again, our point of comparison between the 1860 and the 2016 presidential campaigns is sectionalism. In 1860, slavery drove sectional division north and south. In 2016, as we say in our first post,
Today’s sectionalism, then, represents a divide between liberals and conservatives that seems as strong as the divide between North and South ever did. Liberals and conservatives are found in every geographic region of the country, which means there is no region that serves as a safe haven for either…
Sub out “slavery” for “gun control”, “immigration”, or “religious freedom”, and you find that the language used in the 1860 campaign is strangely similar to the language used so far in the 2016 campaign.
The 2016 Republican convention has just begun, so we cannot compare it fully to the 1860 Democratic convention, but the anticipation that there will be some measure of delegate revolt against Donald Trump at the Republican convention this week, and perhaps a real fight to ensure his official nomination as many Republicans skip the convention, and some delegates lobby for the right to set aside the commitment they made during the primaries to vote for Trump, and others predict that a last-minute alternative candidate will be presented during the convention all lead us to think of the collapse of the 1860 Democratic convention.
It could be that none of the things we describe will happen this week, and the Trump nomination will be seamless. But let’s take a look at what can happen when a convention is torn apart by sectionalism.
In 1860, the Democratic party was perilously divided between proslaveryites and antislaveryites. The Whig party had already dissolved over the issue, as slavery divided its members and made compromise on that or any other issue impossible. Now the Democratic party faced the same threat: could it unite behind a candidate to run against the new Republican party? Stephen Douglas, the author of the Kansas-Nebraska Act that destroyed the Compromise of 1850 by allowing people in any territory, regardless of geography, to vote on whether they would enter the Union as a free or a slave state, was the presumptive nominee going into Charleston.
But Southern proslaveryites were not satisfied with Douglas, because to get re-elected in free Illinois in 1858, Douglas had had to backtrack on the KNA that free Illinoisans hated by coming out against the Dred Scott decision in which the Supreme Court stated that not only were black Americans not U.S. citizens, but they never could be, and slavery could never be abolished by the U.S. judicial or legislative systems.
At the Charleston convention, U.S. Rep. William Yancey of Alabama, a violent proslaveryite, led a protest of the Douglas candidacy by representatives of seven deep-South states who formed a caucus within the party that re-wrote the Democratic presidential platform to be aggressively pro-slavery. They knew Douglas could not accept the nomination on those terms.
The rest of the delegates went on with the nomination process, but they could not reach the necessary two-thirds majority for Douglas, in part because the party chairman Caleb Cushing insisted that the proslavery caucus that had withdrawn from the convention had to be counted. Without those delegates, Douglas could not get a two-thirds majority of all delegates. On May 3, the convention was dissolved, and rescheduled to try again in Baltimore, MD, six weeks later.
In the end, the Democratic party could not recover from the divide driven into it by slavery. 110 proslavery delegates walked out of Baltimore. The remaining moderates nominated Douglas, while the fire-eaters who left created their own “Southern Democratic” party and nominated John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky. (Adding to the chaos was one more candidate: former Whigs created the Constitutional Union party and nominated John Bell; their only platform was to keep the Union together in the face of civil war over slavery.)
On May 4, the day after the Charleston convention folded, the New York Times featured a bitter editorial:
The Charleston Convention has abandoned the attempt to nominate a Democratic candidate for the presidency. …The contest between the two sections of the Union has at last penetrated the Democratic party and rendered it impossible for the two wings to agree upon a declaration of principles. When the majority adopted its platform the minority seceded. Thereupon the delegates who remained, and constituted the rightful Convention, resolved that a vote of two thirds, not of the actual body, but of the whole original number, should be essential to a nomination. In other words, the seceders were still to be counted, and to have all their original weight as members of the Convention! Upon what ground of reason or of common sense the majority, and especially the delegates from this State, thus put themselves bound hand and foot into the power of the seceding minority, it is not easy to conjecture. The result was to give the South the victory. They have controlled the Convention, and prevented the nomination of any candidate. Whether on reassembling at Baltimore they will harmonize their differences remains to be seen.
The disruption itself is a fact of very marked importance, not only in the history of political parties but in of the country itself. It seems to sever the last link of nationality in the political affairs of the Union. When all other organizations have been gradually giving way, one after another, to the pressure of sectionalism, timid and conservative men have fallen back upon the national position of the Democratic Party, and felt that so long as this was maintained the Union would be secure. The first effect of this Charleston split will be to alarm this class by the dread of immediate dissolution.
Some of the Republican journals refer to this incident as only another proof of the “irrepressible conflict” between Freedom and Slavery—and as showing that the contest must go on until one or the other is extirpated. If we believed this to be the true view of the question, we too should despair of the Union. But we do not. We do not believe that the conflict is between Slavery and Freedom… we regard the struggle as one for political power—and Slavery as playing merely a secondary and subordinate part on either side. Unquestionably, thousands of Northern men seek the overthrow of Slavery, and thousands of Southern men seek its permanence and extension, as the aim of their political contests.But both would be disappointed. Neither class would reap the advantage which it anticipates from victory.
…The South believes sincerely that the North seeks power in order to crush Slavery. In our opinion it denounces Slavery mainly that it may acquire power.
The editorial goes on to say that power is unstoppably passing from South to North and the South needs to accept the new order since the North has no intention of abolishing slavery in the South (only in the territories). This power shift is only fair, the editorial claims, since the South has had all the power in Washington for too long, and now it’s the North’s turn. That’s the gist of the article—that the slavery issue is just a tool Northerners can use to restore an equitable balance of power in the nation.
This editorial is remarkable in many ways. Its description of Americans clinging to the hope of party unity in the face of mounting irreconcilable differences in society and politics rings true to us today, as we see desperate attempts to unify the Republican party behind a candidate who does not represent most Republican principles, and as we see Democrats desperately trying to unite the party behind Clinton after the excitement and revolutionary flavor of Sanders’ campaign. We must have party unity at all costs in our divided nation, or the last traditional political big tents will be gone, and with them the last vestiges of people with different opinions being able to find common ground and work together nationally.
The claim of the editorialist that slavery really has nothing to do with the battle between North and South is an intelligent insight that is almost correct. He is saying that people who want power will ride any bandwagon to get it, and that if slavery is the issue that you can use to gain power, people will use it even if they could not care less about slavery itself. Politicians can rise to power by taking a stand on slavery and making slavery the top issue—all while never doing anything to actually impact slavery by abolishing or expanding it. That’s what the writer means when he says stopping or extending slavery is merely “the aim of their political contests”, and that both sides would be disappointed if they won the battle, because if the battle ended there would be no way to ride to power anymore.
This is certainly true. We see politicians today taking strong stands on social issues simply because this will make them well-known and get them elected. The many instances of “family values”, “Christian values” candidates who have been found having affairs with women or with men, or being involved in corruption, or simply changing sides to join the family and Christian values vanguard when it became powerful enough to benefit them make this clear. If, for example, the right to abortion was suddenly no longer challenged, many politicians would no longer have a political identity and would have to find another divisive issue pronto on which to make their name.
But the editorialist is wrong in another sense. Slavery was really an issue and the breakup of the Democratic party was really caused by slavery and the breakup of the Union and the war that came were really about slavery. The editorialist will not admit that people actually cared about slavery because if he does, he must admit that war is coming, and he does not want to do that. The only way breaking up the 1860 convention could give the seceders power was if they knew that their constituents cared enough about slavery to support them walking out of the Charleston convention, and cared enough about slavery to split the party in an election year.
Those constituents cared about slavery as a political issue because they cared about it personally—as something within their society every day. They supported slavery, for a variety of reasons. Yes it’s true that the strong majority of Southerners did not enslave people. But that doesn’t mean they did not support slavery, as the basis of their economy, as a regional tradition, as a way to reserve political power to whites, etc. To say that slavery was just a word politicians used was wrong.
And the same is true today. Many people cling to the notion that America is not really divided, that politicians are just sowing division as a concept they can trade on. This was originally the case, when neo-conservatives began to sow that division in the late 1970s. By now, 40 years later, the division is real. It is flowering and bearing seed in every state as people who have been told for decades that the federal government is their enemy and that it should be overthrown take their chance to do so.
We can’t say what will happen this week in Cleveland. But we anticipate that the editorials written after it closes will bear close reading to see how much they echo the writer of 1860.