The 1860 Democratic National Convention: The Party Splits

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  • 0:07 Democrat Issues
  • 1:47 First Convention
  • 2:55 Another Round
  • 4:51 An Open Door
  • 6:07 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Troolin

Amy has MA degrees in History, English, and Theology. She has taught college English and religious education classes and currently works as a freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will examine the split that took place in the Democratic Party at its 1860 national convention. Facing insurmountable differences, the Democrats nominated two presidential candidates, one for the North, the other for the South.

The Democrats Face the Big Issues

As the 1860 presidential election approached, the Democratic Party should have been a stable, united entity. After all, it had been around since 1792 when it was formed under the leadership of Thomas Jefferson, and it had received its current name in the 1830s under Andrew Jackson's administration. With its long history, it should have been able to face conflict without falling apart.

By 1860, however, the Democrats were facing some big issues that they couldn't ignore and couldn't solve. Slavery and states' rights were at the forefront of Democratic discussions, and the party soon found itself splitting down regional lines.

Northern Democrats were firm in their belief that slavery should not expand into the western territories. Southern Democrats were just as adamant that slave owners should be able to take their slaves wherever they pleased, even into the West if they so chose. Northerners tended to favor the power of the Union over the rights of individual states. Southerners were quite the opposite in their views, claiming that states should have the right to govern their own affairs, especially with regard to slavery, without interference from the national government. As the Democrats approached their 1860 national convention, their party had turned into a battleground, and many faithful party members wondered how they would ever be able to select a presidential candidate who would at least be tolerable to the entire party.

The First Convention

On April 23, 1860, the Democrats met in Charleston, South Carolina with the goals of finalizing their platform and nominating a presidential candidate. Stephen Douglas of Illinois seemed like a good choice to many party members. He was an experienced politician who had helped craft some important legislation, including the Compromise of 1850 and the Kansas-Nebraska Act, both of which tried to solve the issue of slavery's expansion into the West.

The Southern Democrats hated Douglas; for although he was not completely opposed to slavery in the West, he wanted to limit the institution's use in the territories. The Southerners simply could not stomach such a view.

After several days of arguing, fed-up delegates from ten Southern states walked out of the convention on April 30. The remaining delegates lacked the two-thirds majority needed to nominate Douglas. There was nothing else to do but close the convention and try again at a later date.

Another Round of Conventions

The party tried again at a second convention in Baltimore, Maryland on June 18, 1860. The Southerners soon departed in disgust, but this time enough delegates were left to secure Douglas' nomination. They also decided on a platform of popular sovereignty, that is, allowing the people in a territory to vote on whether or not they wanted slavery.

The Southerners refused to agree to either Douglas or popular sovereignty, so they held their own convention, also in Baltimore, and nominated Kentucky politician and current vice-president John C. Breckinridge on June 28. The Southern Democrats' platform called for the unhindered expansion of slavery in the West and also supported the annexation of Cuba, a stronghold of slavery that would increase the slaveholders' political power.

A third group of Democrats decided they didn't like either option, Douglas or Breckinridge. More concerned about preserving the Union than dealing with slavery or states' rights, they formed their own Constitutional Union Party, held their own convention, and nominated Tennessean John Bell for president. Their motto, 'The Union, the Constitution, and the Enforcement of Laws,' succinctly summarized their platform.

The Democratic Party had now split three ways. A disgruntled newspaperman commented on the situation soon after the Baltimore conventions. The controversy, he noted, 'has divided and demoralized the party, -- sharpened and made more prominent its differences of principle, -- aggravated its sectional and personal hatreds, and nominated (three) candidates, each of whom will aim, specially and primarily, to defeat the others.'

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