Local News

August 21, 2010

The election of 1860: The Democratic divide

DALTON — The presidential campaign of 1860 was like no other in American history. This campaign produced four candidates, none of whom enjoyed a truly national following. As a result, the contest developed into a peculiar configuration featuring two Southern candidates with no appeal in the North, and two Northern candidates with no appeal in the South.

How did this happen? The division between North and South grew out of a number of factors, but the primary cause involved the question of expanding slavery into the western territories of the United States. This issue first appeared on the national scene in 1819, but by 1860 it had become the single most important political issue in American life. The presidential campaign that unfolded during the summer and fall of that pivotal year foretold the secession crisis that erupted just a few months later.

As the 1860 calendar year opened, President James Buchanan was in the final year of his star-crossed term of administration. A Democrat from Pennsylvania, Buchanan had proven incapable of moderating the growing sectional dispute, and at times he added fuel to the fire through controversial decisions.

The Democratic Party was anxious to replace the discredited Buchanan with a stronger individual, but by 1860 the sectional issue had taken its toll on the oldest of the political parties then in existence. Also in the hunt was the fledgling Republican Party, established in 1854 on a platform dedicated to preventing the expansion of slavery, and a Constitutional Union Party had recently been organized as a haven for former Whigs and various splinter groups.

On April 23 the Democrats convened in Charleston, S.C., where the atmosphere was heavy with apprehension. U.S. Sen. Stephen Douglas of Illinois quickly emerged as the leading candidate. Douglas, known as the “Little Giant,” was a moderate whose position on the expansion of slavery was to let the western territories settle the issue by popular vote. Southern Democrats, however, insisted that the Democratic platform contain a provision asserting the right of slaveowners to take their slaves into any of the territories without jeopardy. With neither side willing to budge, and with Douglas unable to secure the necessary two-thirds majority, the convention adjourned after 10 days of tortured proceedings.

Following a six-week recess, the Democrats reconvened on June 18 in Baltimore.  When Douglas again appeared as the front-runner, delegates from several Southern states marched out of the convention hall with plans to nominate their own candidate, thus splitting the Democratic Party in two. Douglas was then named the Democratic presidential nominee. Herschel Johnson of Georgia was selected as his running mate in an effort to retain Southern support.

On June 26, delegates from most of the 15 slaveholding states, plus California and Oregon, gathered in Baltimore to nominate candidates for the Southern Democratic ticket. From among several noteworthy Southern political leaders, the delegates chose John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky.  His running mate was U.S. Sen. Joseph Lane of Oregon. The Breckinridge Democrats ran on a platform that sought to protect slavery in the South and allow for its expansion into the West.

Breckinridge was a natural choice for the Southern Democrats because he was currently serving as vice president of the United States. Having been selected as Buchanan’s 1856 running mate to help balance the Pennsylvanian with a Southerner, Breckinridge seems not to have been severely damaged by his association with the Buchanan administration.

Thus during the spring of 1860 the Democratic Party fragmented into two parties: The Northern Democrats, with Douglas as their candidate, and the Southern Democrats, with Breckinridge as their standard-bearer. Historians have speculated on the Southern Democrats’ decision to split the party, virtually assuring that neither Douglas nor Breckinridge could win the presidency. Some suggest that this was calculated to diffuse the electoral vote and throw the election into the House of Representatives. Others hint of a deliberate ploy by Southern Democratic extremists to ensure Lincoln’s election and thus force the secession of the slaveholding states. Perhaps it was the product of overheated sectional emotion.

Whatever the case, the Democrats were clearly in trouble.

This is the first of a series of articles that will appear between now and November on the presidential election of 1860, which touched off the decision by Southern states to secede from the United States.


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