IN A CRUDE FRESCO ABOVE the stage of Charleston’s Institute Hall three “highly colored but very improperly dressed females” presented themselves to the thousands of Democratic delegates searching for their places among the wood-bottomed chairs or buttonholing one another in the aisles. One of the neoclassical nymphs “seems to be contemplating matters and things in general,” observed Murat Halstead, a sharp, sarcastic political reporter from Cincinnati. “Another is mixing colors with the apparent intention of painting something.” And the third, ah, the third was “pointing, with what seems to be a common bowie-knife, to a globe,” where the continent outlined most conspicuously was marked Africa.
The national Democratic convention in Charleston was under way at last. Charleston was filling up with the thousands of drunks and blackguards from The Democracy, and Bunch warned Lyons what to expect from “the dreadful convention which is hanging over us.” He used the billboard language of brawling prizefights to make his point: “That ‘battle, murder, and certain death,’ will form a portion of the ‘platform,’ no one seems to doubt.” But Bunch, who desperately wanted to be ringside, would be flat on his back during much of the big event. His head ached; his throat burned. The damp air of the city in early May did him no good at all.
BUNCH WROTE THAT many of those who came to the convention did so because they wanted to claim, “I was of those who fought at Charleston.” Between 2,000 and 2,500 people, including hundreds of delegates and their many hangers-on, descended upon the city. And while hotelkeepers and bar owners actually were disappointed in the numbers, most of the other locals were relieved. “The good people of Charleston have been tormented for many weeks with visions of burglaries, shootings in the market-places, and the other amenities which distinguish the workings of American institutions,” Bunch reported. “But we have re-inforced our police—arrested several perfectly innocent persons on no charge whatever—talked a good deal about what we will do to offenders, and are now standing in a watchful attitude, fully satisfied with ourselves generally and individually.”
Bunch said he’d “purchased a long and very stout steel bolt for my street door,” which previously had been undefended. Probably it was a good investment. Since 1856 Bunch’s home and office had been in an elegant if relatively simple three-story house on Meeting Street near Smith’s Lane. The promenade on the Battery was just a couple of blocks away. The convention at Institute Hall, the Douglas headquarters at Hibernia Hall, and both the major hotels, the Charleston and the Mills House, also were on Meeting. In fact, most of the new arrivals attending the convention didn’t know any other street in the city, except, perhaps, Beresford Alley, where they could visit Grace Piexotto’s famous house of prostitution, just a block and a half from the convention. So they wandered up and down, and the drinking just kept getting heavier, the carousing and the confrontations more chaotic. As the newspaperman Halstead concluded one of his dispatches, “I hear, as I write, a company of brawlers in the street making night hideous.”
The political culture of the time considered it unseemly for the leading candidates to attend a convention, so Douglas stayed away from Charleston. And the radical Southerners in attendance did not so much have a candidate as a cause. But there was no question that among them William Lowndes Yancey of Alabama reigned as “the prince of the fire-eaters.” At a time when fame spread mainly in print, there often was a disconnect between reputation and appearance, and so it was with the mild-mannered Yancey, who came across in person as quite bland. “He is a compact, middle-sized man, straight-limbed, with a square-built head and face, and an eye full of expression,” wrote Halstead. “No one would be likely to point him out in a group of gentlemen as the redoubtable Yancey, who proposes, according to common report, to precipitate the Cotton States into a revolution, dissolve the Union, and build up a Southern empire.” The Douglasites accused him of being a “disunionist,” but that epithet would hardly frighten Yancey or his Southern friends. Indeed, they were likely to wear it as a badge of honor. “I very much doubt whether the Douglas men have a leader competent to cope with him in the coming fight,” Halstead reported. “It is quite clear that while the North may be strongest in voters here, and the most noisy, the South will have the intellect and the pluck to make its points.”
There in the big hall in Charleston, under the gaze of the nymph with the bowie knife pointing at Africa, Halstead also noticed a man he’d met before, seated at a round table covered with books, newspapers, and writing materials. This politician had long, thin, white hair “through which the top of his head blushes like the shell of a boiled lobster.” His face was red, too, “the color being that produced by good health and good living joined to a florid temperament. His features are well cut, and the expression is that of a thoughtful, hard-working, resolute man of the world. He is a New Yorker by birth but has made a princely fortune at the New Orleans bar. He is not a very eloquent man in the Senate, but his ability is unquestioned,” and he was, unquestionably, President Buchanan’s man, or, as most people thought, Buchanan was his.
“The name of the gentleman is John Slidell,” wrote Halstead. “His special mission is to see that Stephen A. Douglas is not nominated for the Presidency. If I am not much mistaken, he just now manipulated a few of the Northeastern men with such marvelous art that they will presently find they are exceedingly anxious to defeat the nomination of Douglas, and they will believe that they arrived at that conclusion coming uppermost in their minds in their own way.” Slidell “is a matchless wire-worker,” wrote Halstead, and the news of this puppet-master’s approach “causes a flutter. His appearance here means war to the knife.”
Slidell knew how to count noses, and the numbers had been clear to him from the start. As Bunch explained in a note to Lyons and in a formal dispatch to Lord Russell in London, the arithmetic of the convention was simple: there were 303 delegates, of whom 183 were sent by eighteen free states and 120 by fifteen slaveholding states. To win the nomination for the presidency, a candidate—and Douglas was the candidate—would have to get 202, a two-thirds majority. But passage of the party platform required only a simple majority of 152. The nose-counters like Slidell knew that Douglas could get his platform—and probably would—but he could not get the nomination. So there was an air of chaotic inevitability about the whole show. Douglas would be defeated, but then what?
Over the course of forty years The Democracy had become the party for a nation of immigrants and westward-moving settlers and also for the South with its slaves. The coalition portrayed itself as an alliance of outsiders, a majority of minorities: the relatively poor newcomers in Eastern cities, the men of the North West (which was what we’d call the Midwest today), and the people of the South dominated by the money and mind-set of the slave-owning planters. Since the days of Andrew Jackson that populist sense of being outliers fighting against a bigger system and violent enemies, whether abolitionists or nativist Know-Nothings, Whigs or Republicans, was summed up by the phrase “unterrified Democracy.”
Bunch found the term vaguely risible and told Lyons that he planned, that first weekend of the convention, to hold a big “unterrified Democracy” party, but by Thursday he was confined to bed by his violent cold and sore throat. It was probably just as well. Nobody felt much like celebrating at that point. By Friday, April 27, four days after the convention began, the two sides of The Democracy were establishing once and for all that on the questions most important to them they had almost nothing in common.
Rain poured down outside the window of Bunch’s bedroom, clattering on the roof. U.S. District Attorney James Conner, one of Bunch’s friends and frequent allies trying to fight the slave trade, came by to offer a detailed picture of what had gone on at the convention that morning. Competing platforms had been presented, and it looked as if the Southern one would be rejected by the Douglas majority, and some or all of the Southern delegates would walk out. “Altogether, there seems to be every prospect of a very pretty quarrel,” Bunch wrote from his bed.
In the convention hall that afternoon, when Halstead looked up from amid his piles of writing paper and pencils sharpened at both ends, he saw that many of the ladies in the gallery had missed their meal during the recess. The South Carolina beauties had splendid eyes and hair, “with fine profiles and bright countenances,” and “the ladies are a great feature of the Convention,” he wrote, while “the delegates are desperately gallant.” But because of the sudden heavy downpour the women in the gallery had been more or less trapped. “There were hundreds of ladies in the hall without umbrellas in hand or carriages at command,” Halstead noted, and there was no way they would brave the storm in their new dresses and elegant bonnets. “The atmosphere of the hall was already damp and chilly—and their fine feathers are drooping.” Even when the rains let up, they did not dare leave, because everyone knew what was coming, or, better said, who was coming.
Yancey was coming.
The fire-eaters had done their work well. Two of the five new resolutions they proposed for the platform had barely eked out a majority in committee, but they had passed, and they played hell with the convention. Their ostensible purpose: to make the Federal government the ally of slavery, and more. The Federal government was supposed to be the slaver’s enforcer, and not just in the existing United States, where runaways to the North had to be returned to the South, but in its territories, where nothing could be done to impair the right to own slaves, and, yes, even “on the high seas,” where the Federal government should be duty bound “to protect, when necessary, the rights of persons and property.”
No one failed to understand the meaning of that line about protecting property on the high seas. As a delegate from Massachusetts pointed out, it was put in the platform to open the way for the African slave trade, and no amount of dissembling could change that fact. The unthinkable had been made official. The Northern Democrats knew it would be political suicide to go into the election with those planks in their platform. But the fire-eaters insisted. They said it was a matter of principle, a matter of the U.S. Constitution.
“Mr. Yancey is a very mild and gentlemanly man, always wearing a genuinely good-humored smile and looking as if nothing in the world could disturb the equanimity of his spirits,” reported Halstead.
Yancey rose to speak. Institute Hall thundered with applause.
If the Democrats had been defeated in elections in the North, said Yancey, it was because they had given up the moral high ground, “which must be taken on the subject in order to defend the South—namely, that slavery was right.” Yancey “traced the history of Northern aggression and Southern concession as he understood it” and argued that the time had come for the party to take a clear “constitutional” position. “He pronounced false all charges that the State of Alabama, himself, or his colleagues were in favor of a dissolution of the Union per se.” But he told the Northern Democrats they had to go home and tell their voters that failure to back this platform and win at the ballot boxes in November would mean “the dissolution of the Union.”
The crowd applauded again and again, galvanized by Yancey’s electroshock logic and its secessionist implications. The wilted ladies in the balconies flushed pink with emotion even as the daylight faded outside the windows and the gaslights were lit. This had been the speech of the convention, and the scene, as Halstead saw it, was unforgettable. “The crowded hall, the flashing lights, the deep solicitude felt in every word, the importance of the issues pending, all combined to make up a spectacle of extraordinary interest, and something of splendor.”
The critical votes came two days later, on Monday, April 30, one week after the convention began. The last-minute maneuvers by the Douglas men were over. Many of the hangers-on from the North had left, and the galleries were full of Charlestonians whose sympathies were entirely with the fire-eaters, egging them on. Suddenly an elderly gentleman on the floor called the chair’s attention so he could ask “a privileged question.” The gentlemen in the galleries were spitting tobacco juice onto the delegates below, he said. The gentlemen of the gallery were “respectfully requested not to use the heads of the gentlemen below them for spittoons.”
There was not one ballot, but several. The Douglas platform was adopted, the Southern platform was rejected, and the Southern states began, first, to withdraw their votes, and then their entire delegations, from the convention. At a critical moment, just as one of the speakers pleaded desperately with the delegates not to destroy the Democratic Party, but to pause at the brink of the precipice and look into the abyss below, Yancey caught Halstead’s eye. “He was smiling as a bridegroom,” Halstead remembered.
Bunch was still sick. “I have crawled out today for a little air and news and am writing a brief line from the Club to say that the Convention has broken up,” he told Lyons. “Seven states having seceded, and four others are deliberating.” There was “an immense deal of excitement” as “our fire-eaters consider the Union at an end.” That night serenades and processions were planned. “My friends around me are drinking ‘Death to the Union,’ and blood and thunder generally,” Bunch wrote.
On that same night of April 30, Halstead the newspaperman strolled from the convention hall down toward the Battery. The moon “silvered the live oaks along Meeting Street, and made the plastered fronts of the old houses gleam like marble.” Halstead was not sympathetic to slavery or to the South. He was a Republican, in fact—a Seward man, no less. But he was caught up in the moment. It was eleven o’clock, going on midnight, but the town was still full of people hurrying around, “looking excited and solicitous,” or talking and laughing on street corners. The Mills House Hotel and the hall next door, where the Douglasites had congregated, looked dark and deserted. But at the courthouse at the corner of Meeting and Broad a throng was listening to Lucius Q. C. Lamar, a famous cousin of the Lamar who owned the Wanderer. Then Yancey spoke again, in his typical gentlemanly way, saying he was saving his strength for the meeting in the morning. He left it to Charles E. Hooker, a South Carolinian who’d moved to Mississippi, to set the night ablaze with what Halstead called “a flaming, fire-eating harangue.” Then the crowd moved down to the offices of theCharleston Mercury, the fire-eaters’ favorite newspaper, and called out for Robert Barnwell Rhett Jr., the old radical’s hardworking son, to cheer him on as he raced the next edition into print on the historic evening.
“There was a Fourth of July feeling in Charleston last night,” Halstead wrote the next day. “There was no mistaking the public sentiment of the city. It was overwhelmingly and enthusiastically in favor of the seceders. In all her history Charleston had never enjoyed herself so hugely.”
“Considerable excitement prevails here,” Bunch wrote to Lyons that afternoon, confirming the schism in the convention. “The South evidently thinks that it has done a very clever thing, but that is a way the South has.”
The next day, on May 2, after those left in the original convention had voted fifty times, they still could not manage to nominate Douglas. The chair had ruled that the two-thirds rule still applied, and the nominee had to have that proportion of the votes based on the numbers of the original convention: 202 of 303. Douglas got 150, 150½, 151, and once he got 152 votes, but there were never enough. So the old convention adjourned to Baltimore; the new, Southern convention adjourned to Richmond; and the whole process dragged on into June. Eventually the Democrats fielded three candidates while the Republicans put forth only one. The first part of Bunch’s prediction from the year before had come true: “The Democratic Party broken up and the whole power of the Country thrown into the hands of the ‘Republicans.’ ” It was, Bunch wrote to Lyons, “a frightful fiasco.”