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[Ed. Note: This is the beginning of a five-year project, examining the Civil War 150 years after the fact, in real time. It's been said before -- and I believe it to be true -- that the Civil War was fundamental in shaping the character of our nation. You cannot understand what America is today without understanding the nature of that conflict. And since none of us are as smart as all of us, I'd appreciate all the help I can get from other bloggers out there. Let me know what you've written, and I'll publish links.]
First, let's get something out of the way before we start: the Civil War was about slavery. Any other bone of contention between North and South could have been resolved through negotiation. Slavery was at the core of the Southern economy, though, and it was something for which the leadership of the South was willing, even eager, to fight. This will become crystal-clear over the next year, as we examine the events in the run-up to Fort Sumter.
A century and a half ago this week in Charleston, South Carolina, the Democratic National Convention came to order at Institute Hall. You have to understand that conventions worked differently, back in the day. These days, we know who the party's nominee will be before the opening gavel, since the primaries have settled the issue months ahead of time. There will be some negotiating on the fine points of the platform, but the broad outlines of that will have also been settled. Not so in 1860. Both nominee and platform were totally up for grabs. And that was a problem, since there were serious divisions between the Northern and Southern wings of the party.
The Dred Scott case, decided by the Supreme Court in 1857, was extremely unpopular in the North even among Democrats. Stephen A. Douglas, the front-runner going into the convention, had only narrowly beaten off a challenger in the 1858 Illinois Senate race by repudiating the Dred Scott decision. This was a very unpopular stance with the Southern delegates, particularly those among them known as the "Fire-Eaters", who wanted an explicitly pro-slavery platform.
Negotiations on the platform lasted for about a week. Douglas' argument, that a pro-slavery platform would cost them votes in the North, carried considerable weight. The minority report on the platform, the Northern position, was adopted on April 30 by a vote of 165 to 138. Fifty Southern delegates then promptly walked out of the convention. They went down the street to Military Hall, convened themselves as the "real" convention, and basically waited for the rest of the convention to cave to their demands. They didn't. With the platform settled to the majority's satisfaction, the convention proceeded to nominations.
The dueling conventions, therefore, produced two Democratic candidates for President that year: Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois representing the Northern wing of the party, with Herschel V. Johnson of New York as his running mate; and John C. Breckenridge of Kentucky representing the Southern wing, with Daniel S. Dickenson of New York as his running mate.
You don't need to be a professional political consultant to guess that a split convention wasn't going to end well for the Democratic Party that November. Everyone in both of the Charleston conventions had to have known that. By and large, these weren't stupid men. On the other hand, though, their opponents had also recently undergone a split themselves; the Republicans were still a very new party, and there were still a few Whigs running around here and there. A split party couldn't contest a three-way race, but they might have a fighting chance in a four-way race.
Still, one thing is undeniably clear. The Southern delegates were perfectly willing to throw their party's chances on the fire for the sake of their "peculiar institution." They were utterly inflexible, unwilling to move, steadfast in their refusal of compromise. Other issues may well have provided fuel for the conflagration to follow, but the Southern intransigence on slavery provided both the spark and the dry tinder.