The Democracy’s Charleston Convention

While Yancey traveled over to Charleston, carrying the Alabama ultimatum in his satchel, the National Democracy’s southern establishment traveled down from Washington, bearing a fury that heightened Yancey’s prospects. Two weeks before the blowup in Charleston, a little-noted congressional brawl had intensified Northerners’ and Southerners’ contempt for each other. On April 5, 1860, Congressmen Owen Lovejoy of Illinois had provoked the national House of Representatives’ version of the U.S. Senate’s Brooks-Sumner 1856 confrontation.

– 1 –

The House’s and Senate’s Yankee protagonists differed. Where Charles Sumner exemplified the impeccably groomed Boston intellectual, Owen Lovejoy personified the shabbily attired midwestern farmer. Where the Harvard University scholar insulted the slaveholders with rehearsed affronts, Lovejoy crucified the Slave Power with uncalculated blasts.

Owen Lovejoy had spontaneously damned the slavocracy for almost a quarter century. Most congressional politicians enjoyed maneuver and compromise. Lovejoy preferred to till midwestern acres and to evangelize fellow farmers. Yet he endured the, to him, unchristian atmosphere of politics throughout the rise of the Liberty Party in the 1840s and the Republican Party in the 1850s. For Lovejoy, enduring political mission had begun at the foot of his brother’s coffin. “I shall never forsake the cause that has been sprinkled with my brother’s blood,” he had there sworn.1

Before John Brown addressed his judges, Owen’s brother Elijah had been Yankees’ favorite antislavery martyr. In the mid-1830s, Elijah provoked southern-style repression in Alton, Illinois, located across the Mississippi River from Missouri. In 1837, a northern mob slaughtered Elijah Lovejoy in the warehouse containing his newspaper press while he aimed rifles as well as Bibles against their curses.2

Thereafter, many Northerners plastered abolitionists with more than curses. But Yankees killed no other antislavery agitator. Nor did any other northern zealot fight the Slave Power more unendingly than did the martyr’s brother. “Thou invisible demon of slavery,” Owen Lovejoy cried in 1859, “I bid you defiance in the name of my God.”

Lovejoy’s defiances included aid for runaway slaves. The congressional fugitive edict, declared this devotee of the Liberty Line, commands a Yankee to “turn himself into a bloodhound” and to “thrust his canine teeth into the quivering flesh” of the “rifle-scarred and lash-excoriated slave.” Then the northern capturer must “hold the captive till the kidnappers come with fetters and handcuffs” and with “a pat on the head … and the plaudit, ‘Good dog Bose.’

“Sir, I will never do this.”3

In his April 5, 1860 speech, Lovejoy reaffirmed that he would never have any more “hesitation in helping a fugitive slave than I have in snatching a lamb from the jaws of a wolf.” Nor would he credit slaveholders’ “right to go with this flesh in your teeth all over our territories.” Nor would he fail to support abolitionist campaigns inside the South. Three months ago, he noted, a southern congressman had asked “a man who would endorse the Helper book … to stand up, that he might look upon the traitor.”

Look then upon this alleged traitor, invited Lovejoy, while I cast my eyes upon Slave Power traitors against republicanism. In endorsing Hinton R. Helper’s Compendium, declared Elijah’s brother, I affirm not his every expression but his right to “address … his fellow-citizen in a peaceful way.” The Slave Power would hang such dissenters. I say to the hangman that “if you cannot keep slavery and allow free discussion,” if you must annihilate “all the rights of free citizens,” if you must wield “violence, outrage, tar and feathers, burning, imprisonment, and the gallows,” then slavery “must be immolated at the shrine of liberty, free speech, free discussion.”

Freedom of discussion, emphasized Lovejoy, empowered Helper or anyone to propose “a Republican party in North Carolina and in all the other slave States. I hope … and I expect to see” that “done before very long.” Tyrants cannot forever repress a southern antislavery party. You despots may kill Kentucky’s “Cassius Clay, as you threaten to do,” just as “you shed the blood of my brother on the banks of the Mississippi twenty years ago.” But you will again find that “the blood of the martyr” will be “the seed of the church.” Just as “I am here today, thank God, to vindicate the principles baptized” in Elijah’s blood, so from Cassius Clay’s blood “a Republican Party will spring up in Kentucky and all the slave States ere long.” Then “more moderate” and “more sensible” Southerners will displace “violent … disunionists.”

Sensible southern moderates, declared Lovejoy, know that the violent South can not have black slavery and white republicanism too (for slaveholders throttle republican discussion). They know that Southerners cannot be Christians and slaveholders too (for slave sellers gut Christian families). Moderates know that the South cannot have slavery without polygamists too (for no white wife can stop a tyrant from bedding his slaves). They know that slaveholders cannot own humans without being pirates too (for slavery has “the same moral force” as pirates’ “division of their spoils”). Moderates know that the South cannot help encouraging slaveholders and robbers too (for a tyrant steals the child “from the bosom of its mother and says ‘It is mine; I will sell it like a calf; I will sell it like a pig’”).

The southern pigsty, Lovejoy concluded, summarizes “all villainy.” God finds the stench “more offensive” than “the violence of robbery, the … cruelty of piracy,” and “the brutal lusts of polygamy.” Unless we bar you from free territories, we will bar ourselves, for if you sit “there leprous, dripping with … disease, no one will go in.”4

So declared one of Abraham Lincoln’s favorite Illinois congressmen. Representative Lovejoy screamed Helper’s insults and cheered Helper’s remedy while inching close enough to Southern Democrats to spray them with spittle. He emphasized his contempt with swinging fists that barely missed their scornful faces.

Roger Pryor retaliated first. You “shall not, sir, come upon this side of the House, shaking your fist in our faces,” warned the Virginia congressman. As Pryor lunged forward and Lovejoy held firm, forty-odd congressmen streamed around the orator and the challenger, shoving, screaming, stomping. Georgia’s Congressman Martin J. Crawford “cocked my Revolver in my pocket and took my position in the midst of the mob.” Assuming that “you want to be in at the end,” James Hammond wrote the Virginia secessionist Edmund Ruffin, “come at once” and “see the fun.” A “great slaughter… may occur any day,” Hammond added to another correspondent, for “everybody here has a revolver,” and “no two nations on earth are or ever were more … hostile.”5

The hostility coursing through gunmen on the congressional floor, almost a year to the day before cannon blasted Fort Sumter, swelled loathing throughout the nation. Calculating Southerners had rational reasons for wondering if a Southern Republican Party might menace slavery. But enraged slaveholders also had emotional reasons for finding Northern Republicans intolerable. Lovejoy combined it all, the possible practicality of Hinton R. Helper’s strategy and the insufferable sting of Charles Sumner’s condemnation. A South Carolinian, upon hearing about the southern warriors who swarmed at Owen P. Lovejoy, wondered “how men were able to control themselves and keep hands off.”6

No Preston Brooks laid a hand—or a gutta cane—on the House’s version of Charles Sumner. Instead, after Old Miss Pennington futilely pounded his gravel for a tense twenty minutes, Southern Democrats retreated a few steps, back to their seats. Owen Lovejoy also stepped back a few steps, to the House clerk’s desk. There, his pounding fists and provoking smears brought Elijah’s revenge to climax. In his wake, and with the Charleston National Democratic Convention only two weeks away, could Northerners and Southerners ever clasp hands again, in any national party or peaceable union?

– 2 –

From a Washington hot with hate, National Democratic Party chieftains struggled toward torrid Charleston, where the rhetoric steamed more than even the temperature. The difficulty of the journey prefigured the ordeal facing America’s last mid-nineteenth-century national party, once its politicians reached the South’s most eighteenth-century city. To voyage from the capital of the Union to the capital of disunion, travelers had to switch trains six times. At each transfer point, they had to drag body and bags hundreds of yards. Every time they struggled between the termination of one set of tracks and the beginning of another, Charleston seemed more remote from the American center.7

Once inside Charleston, party leaders found an even more alien atmosphere. Anticipating a repetition of Washington, D.C.’s early spring chill, politicians brought heavy woolens. They came upon a steam bath. Charleston’s heat and humidity peaked at August’s inhuman levels.

Not many suffering strangers found comforting hotel rooms. Antebellum Charleston, domain of private hosts, offered few public accommodations. The most fortunate visitors possessed the aristocratic credentials to sleep in a patriarch’s exclusive mansion. Less fortunate outsiders had never so flooded this insiders’ mecca as when the National Democratic Party convention came to town. Innkeepers, sensing a bonanza, charged staggering prices.

While Charleston’s native materialists plagued the strangers, so-called faro bankers descended on the city. These gamblers faintly resembled the turkey buzzards who snatched offal from Charleston’s open air market. A faro banker offered a fortune to any sucker who would pay to guess which two cards would next be slapped down. Not even a rare win over the dealers ensured loaded pockets. Itinerant pickpockets, another type not usually seen in Charleston, lightened many a heavy wallet. Yankees’ thinning cash forced some delegates and spectators to share a room five ways.

Hard-pressed Northerners boarded less expensively at Stephen A. Douglas’s campaign headquarters in Hibernian Hall. There, several hundred cots, arranged by states, had been wedged into a huge second-floor space. The stench of too many bodies, jammed into a boiling upper floor, offset the congeniality of sleeping next to one’s own. No victim of Hibernian Hall ever forgot that warm air does rise and hot air does soar.

At high noon on Monday, April 23, when delegates walked down Meeting Street from Hibernian Hall to Institute Hall for the opening of the convention, providence took mercy on Charleston’s afflicted strangers. The skies suddenly dropped an icy rain into the muggy air. The natives on Meeting Street cursed rather than cheered. How can cotton planters profit, whined gentlemen, when searing heat draws forth premature blossoms, then frost nips the buds?

When soaked politicians entered Institute Hall, the talk swerved back toward politics, as sweaty conditions returned. High, thin galleries and higher, thinner windows lined all four sides of the convention arena. Even with all windows open, scant rain-cooled air wafted down. For spectators and delegates packed in below, only handheld fans rustled up wisps of moving air.

The rustle, when combined with Institute Hall’s poor acoustics, rendered the convention’s speeches difficult to hear. The hall’s layout, with seats nailed in sixes to a flat floor, made the speakers even more difficult to see. Most delegates glimpsed ahead only dripping necks, drenched suits, and three paintings of femme fatales, high above the stage. All but one of these ladies, portrayed in various stages of undress and inertia, seemed as foreign to this city as the faro bankers. The exotic exception, alone and apart, thrust a bowie knife at a globe.

Steamy April evenings followed by icy spring mornings might be tropical exceptions. Pickpockets and faro fleecers might be alien invaders. Confiscatory hotel prices might be momentary intrusions. But that Lone Rangeress, slashing at strangers the world over—she felt like Charleston’s permanent own.

As the Democracy’s party savers struggled against northern and southern defiances akin to the lady’s, the convention sessions became prolonged, the convention days extended, the conventioneers’ dollars scarce, the delegates exasperated. Before the party’s fate could be decided, many northern spectators deserted the scene. The South Carolina lowcountry’s finest folk filled abandoned seats. From the galleries above the action, squires and their ladies jeered at every attempt to save the party. These coastal folk particularly scorned the upcountrymen on the convention floor, South Carolina’s own delegates. The rank antagonism between scornful South Carolinians above and participating South Carolinians below indicated that the state no less than the party faced paralyzing division.

– 3 –

South Carolina’s political divisions had been widening ever since the Compromise of 1850. That national settlement discouraged secessionists everywhere except in South Carolina. There, a unique postcompromise debate concerned only how to secede. The more reckless Separate State Secessionists, strongest in the lowcountry, wished to depart the Union without waiting for another state. The more cautious Cooperative State Secessionists, strongest in the upcountry, wished to delay disunion until several other states agreed to cooperate.

Lowcountry gentlemen lost in 1852. Thereafter, coastal Separatists could manage only whines about the rest of the South’s supposed mobocracy. After Christopher Memminger’s debacle in Virginia, many Charleston Cooperationists could only manage dreams of joining, controlling, and domesticating the Separatists. But upland squires, having apparently won the right to endure the Union’s depravity until some other southern states would leave, moved on to enjoy other states’ mobocratic politics.

The difference measured lowcountry folks’ greater suffering (although oppressions kept the whole state first among secessionists). While South Carolina’s upcountry cotton terrain was black with slaves (and with a 57 percent black population, more enslaved than western Lower South states), lowcountry Sea Island cotton and rice habitats were blacker still (70 percent black, and in some parishes 90 percent). While upcountry men started debilitating their soil with the cotton weed two decades before the rest of the Cotton Kingdom, lowcountry culture was a century more aged still, with its terrain still more worn. While South Carolina upcountry cotton producers recovered less completely than southwestern cotton planters from the depression of the 1840s, many lowcountry rice and luxury cotton producers plunged deeper toward economic ruin. While the upcountry lost blacks and whites to the booming Southwest, the lowcountry suffered three times more depopulation. The less afflicted upcountry became ever less ready to gamble on Separate State Secession and ever more willing to lead the National Democratic Party.

South Carolinians’ divide over participation in the National Democracy involved a clash over democracy itself. William Lowndes had epitomized the elderly lowcountry’s ancient aristocratic conviction. No squires, went the antique creed, could be safe in mobocratic institutions. Republics required the best men to rule, the worst men to follow, and the enlightened to teach uncompromising principle to the depraved. In contrast, political parties required office seekers to pander to voters’ compromised preferences.

In the nineteenth century, while the rest of the South’s politicians tumbled into mass political parties and massive courting of the (white male) folk, old-fashioned lowcountry gentlemen defied the new-fashioned democratic trends. Slaveholders elsewhere usually cheered that racial slavery required equal white men to command unequal blacks. Instead, the lowcountry slavocracy more often proclaimed that aristocratic republicanism required superiors to command all those lesser, including poorer white males. Again, the rest of the South relished the institutions of white men’s egalitarian mobocracy, including national political parties, popular elections for all offices, and no property qualifications for the winners. Instead, South Carolina hung on to almost all her ancient curbs against riffraff rule.

During the first decade of the nineteenth century, South Carolina gentlemen did allow poor white men (except paupers!) to vote for state legislators. But legislators still had to meet a property requirement. Lowcountry parishes also still retained more legislative seats than their white population justified. Inside the gerrymandered legislature, propertied squires still elected all other officials, including governors, judges, U.S. senators, and U.S. presidential electors. Moreover, the gentry still tolerated no sustained parties in the legislature and few popularly contested elections for legislators. Above all else, lowcountry snobs still thought that the National Democratic Party must be shunned.

By the early 1850s, however, most upcountry gentlemen had “had enough,” declared Preston Brooks, of the “stupidity” of an aristoi sniffing at the disgusting mobocracy. To exercise power and influence, South Carolina would have to enter the nineteenth century. The state government would have to be democratized. The National Democratic Party would have to be embraced.

I “am disposed to take things as we find them in politics as in real life,” explained Brooks. “We know that a President is to be elected.” We know that a nominating convention must first select the candidate. Why, then, “throw away our influence in theorizing against practice”? Or as James L. Orr, the leader of the South Carolina National Democrats, exclaimed about his favorite upcountry reactionary, Laurence Keitt, “I have no doubt that his experience in Washington will make him every year more useful to his constituents by teaching him to be more practical”—as practical as Preston Brooks had become.8

While the fire-eating Keitt might seem unlikely to become the mild Orr’s compatriot, the two merry upcountry foes looked weirdly alike. Both Keitt and Orr had a gargantuan presence: over six feet tall, overly plump in the stomach, overly red in the face. Both had a natty air, with Orr’s shiny black hat and shinier gold-headed cane exciting more attention than Keitt’s baby blue waistcoat. Both dandies provided charming company at any table groaning with food.

But where Keitt could never sit still, Orr loved to dawdle. Where Keitt jumped from one impractical scheme to another, Orr carefully calculated any shift in position. Where Keitt aspired to lead South Carolina’s revolution, Orr schemed to become America’s president. Where Keitt forever faulted the Yankees, Orr never found fault, so it was said, save occasionally with his cook. There among South Carolina’s aristocratic fossils flourished that supreme American pragmatist, the conniving national party politician, with aspirations to drag Laurence Keitt no less than Preston Brooks into the American two-party system.

The pragmatic Orr wanted South Carolina’s voters, not the legislators, to select U.S. presidential electors (by the mid-1850s, commonplace everywhere except in South Carolina). He wanted South Carolinians, not just every other southern state’s politicians, to share dominance over the National Democratic Party. The upcountry’s favorite politician wished to revoke the lowcountry parishes’ privilege of selecting more representatives, despite containing less voters. In 1855, Orr’s admirers almost achieved popular election of presidential electors, winning in the State House but losing in the Senate.

In the late 1850s, Orr followers controlled most South Carolina congressional seats. They much influenced both the state’s U.S. senators, James Hammond and James Chesnut, Jr., both from the upcountry. On the eve of secession, they raised one of their own, the upcountry’s Francis Pickens, to the governorship. Orr himself became a sometimes Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. And in 1856, then again in 1860, members of his faction marched into the National Democratic Party as South Carolina’s delegation. So many South Carolina folk had not relished such smoke-filled rooms for many years.

To defeat the state’s pragmatists, lowcountry reactionaries would have to suffer politicos’ haunts. If they could bear to fight the Orrites inside the Democratic Party’s state convention, they could win selection as South Carolina’s delegates to the party’s national convention. Then by agitating down on the convention floor in Charleston’s Institute Hall, they could lead a southern secession from the party, the precondition for secession from the Union.

But lowcountry gentlemen scorned a descent from the galleries. In a prescient letter, written three months before the Charleston convention, Robert Barnwell Rhett, South Carolina’s prime revolutionary tactician, spelled out a strategy for minority revolution, without the South’s most committed revolutionaries. The destruction of the Union, Rhett wrote privately on January 29, 1860, must begin with the “demolition of the party.” So long as the Democratic Party, as a “‘National’ organization, exists in power at the South, … our public men” will “trim their sails.” Antiparty patriarchs could never hope for antiparty action from party politicians, or from deluded constituents, or from a united South. “It is useless to talk about checking the North or dissolving the Union with unanimity and without division of the South,” and without superior men, possessing “both nerve and self-sacrificing patriotism, … controlling and compelling their inferior contemporaries.” A “few, bold strong” delegates from “Alabama or Mississippi” would have to wrench their two Lower South states out of the convention. Then other Lower South states would be compelled to depart.9

Still, Rhett and his crowd disdained to supply the necessary “few, bold strong” Lower South delegates. If we fight inside the mob’s conventions, William Henry Trescot explained, we will suffer mobocracy’s pollutions. James L. Orr and his followers “work to contest the spirit and forms of our past life.” But “I believe in her as she has been—esto perpetua—I want no change, and least of all such change as they will bring us.”

Trescot, like Rhett, conceived that “a revolutionary genius could bring about” the only change desired: “a real crisis” in the Democracy’s national party convention and then in the Union. But Trescot “scarcely” hoped that anybody “will arise in the convention and produce his commission to lead us.” Among Southern Democrats in or beyond South Carolina, all “public man from the South … give out very uncertain sounds.” Nor could the Trescots emit their certain sounds inside the party’s proceedings without destroying “our independent influence, the result of character rather than positive political strength.”10

There wrote the revolutionary who barred himself from entering the first arena of revolution. Despite trepidation that Orr would seize their state, despite recognition that a revolution inside the Democratic Party had to precede a revolt against the Union, despite understanding that a revolutionary genius might manipulate a couple of Lower South states to shatter the National Democratic Party’s convention, the Rhetts and Trescots imprisoned themselves in the galleries. Some rescuer downstairs would have to save the reactionaries, and not only from the National Democratic Party. A non–South Carolina hero would also have to deliver South Carolina secessionists from their own state, too split to provoke a divided South out of the Union.

– 4 –

William Lowndes Yancey, a special target of Rhett’s distrust, had discerned how Alabama and Mississippi could produce Rhett’s party-shattering scenario. But when the Democratic Party’s national convention convened, few delegates on Institute Hall’s floor and fewer South Carolina disunionists in the galleries expected the Alabama Platform to devastate the proceedings. Both the Democracy’s precedents and its convention rules encouraged alternate prophesies.

According to the National Democratic Party’s rules, a nominee had to win two-thirds of the convention’s votes. With Northerners comprising 60 percent of the delegates and Douglas controlling 84 percent of the Yankees, the Illinoisan and his pure Popular Sovereignty program commanded half of the convention’s voters. But while the Little Giant’s supporters could block anyone else’s nomination, the South’s 40 percent of the delegates, wielding nineteen votes more than a third of the convention, could block Douglas from that necessary two-thirds majority.

A dozen Southerners each hoped that a deadlocked convention would turn to yours truly. They remembered that the deadlocked 1844 convention had embraced the Tennessee slaveholder, James K. Polk. Various Southerners hoped to become another Polk, for the Democracy could hardly win in 1860 if Southern Democrats left Charleston enraged.

Southern delegates had more leverage over the convention’s platform than over its selection of a nominee. Each state had one representative on the 1860 platform committee. The South, with fifteen states to the North’s seventeen, controlled 47 percent of the committee (in contrast to 40 percent of the convention). If the fifteen Southerners on the platform committee could cajole only two of the seventeen Yankees to vote the slaveholders’ way, a prosouthern Majority Report could repudiate Douglas’s Freeport Doctrine.

If Douglas’s slight majority on the convention floor rejected such a Majority Report, they would risk a fatal southern exodus. If Douglas delegates then scuttled the two-thirds requirement for a presidential nomination, in order to bypass the South’s more than one-third of the delegates, Douglasites would double the risk of a southern departure. If the Democracy’s southern power base disappeared, so would the nominee’s national election prospects. The more likely outcome, Southerners thought, would be the highly practical Douglas’s surrender. Then one of those dozen aspiring Southrons would win the convention’s prize.

Northern Democrats harbored alternate hopes. Douglas’s committed convention majority could stop any other candidate. Douglas supporters could also dictate the party platform on the convention floor, whatever the platform committee’s Majority Report declared. Moreover, in past conventions, alternate candidates had withdrawn after the leading candidate had achieved a simple majority of votes. Douglas had supplied that courtesy in 1856, so that James Buchanan could be nominated. Douglas supporters expected reciprocal courtesy in 1860. But would Southerners surrender to a simple majority’s preference? Or would Douglas surrender to the two-thirds rule? Or would everyone’s failure to surrender annihilate the Democracy?

– 5 –

With uncertainty abounding, a tense convention stalled for four days. On the convention’s fifth day, April 27, 1860, the platform committee sent both its southern-supported Majority Report and its northern-supported Minority Report to Institute Hall’s floor. In the Majority Report, the proposed platform language embodied Jefferson Davis’s (and William L. Yancey’s) supposedly reasonable extremism. The convention’s platform, urged the Majority Report, should declare the “duty” of the federal government “in all its departments, to protect, when necessary, the rights of persons and property in the Territories” [emphasis mine]. Or in other words, the Democracy would pledge congressional protection of territorial slavery not now but in the future, if settlers’ antislavery decisions needed to be reversed. So much for Stephen A. Douglas’s dictum that Popular Sovereignty—the settlers’ own decision about slavery—must be final.11

The Majority Report’s “when necessary” wording fulfilled the Alabama Platform’s “in substance” condition for Alabama delegates to remain in the convention. We will settle for protection “whenever and wherever … necessary,” Yancey told the Charleston convention. We will not press any necessity now, lest we seem to be “dictating to” northern delegates. But they must pledge future congressional redress, if territorial fanatics rob slaveholding settlers. Or as Yancey explained in Alabama later, we asked the convention not for congressional protection now but for “legislation only in the event that there exists,” in a future territory, “obstacles to the full enjoyment” of our property rights (emphasis his).12

Southern delegates relished that version of Jefferson Davis’s moderation. A unanimous southern minority controlled the platform committee because two Northerners, from California and Oregon, deserted the Douglasites. At midcentury, slaveholders had feared that the two free labor states’ entrance into the Union would throw the South into a permanent, helpless minority. Instead, Oregon and California had usually sent Democrats to Congress. Those Democrats had usually voted with the slaveholders. Unintended consequences did abound on the road to disunion.

The outvoted Northerners on the Charleston convention’s platform committee issued a Minority Report, substituting evasive language about Popular Sovereignty, hopefully inoffensive to the slaveholders, for the Majority Report’s “when necessary” terminology, irreconcilable with the Douglas position that no necessity could overturn the settler majority’s vote. Thus the Douglas partisans’ Minority Report affirmed the “duty of the United States … to provide ample and complete protection for all its citizens.” With their 50 percent of the convention delegates, Douglas supporters had the votes to affirm the Minority Report’s soothing words and to reject the Majority Report’s insufferable “when necessary” lingo.

In deciding whether to press their advantage, however, Northern Democrats faced a Hobson’s choice. On the one hand, if they surrendered to Jefferson Davis’s dilution of pure Popular Sovereignty, no Southerner would depart the convention. But then infuriated northern voters would likely depart a party that had become slave of the Slave Power once too often.

On the other hand, if Douglas delegates rejected “when necessary,” they would free themselves from the Slave Power. But the rejection would defy Alabama’s ultimatum: Repudiate Freeport Doctrine abolitionism “in substance” or our delegates are “positively instructed” to depart. If Alabama delegates left as instructed, Mississippi delegates, bridling at the convention’s rejection of Jefferson Davis’s compromise, might depart too. If many other Lower South Democrats left with the Alabamians and the Mississippians, not only the party’s southern base but the party itself would be crippled.

– 6 –

When politicians dislike their choices, they like to talk. They pray that a discussion will bring one side or the other to see the folly of forcing a Hobson’s choice. The platform crisis led the convention to stage that greatest of midnineteenth-century American public spectacles, the epic debate.

North Carolina’s William Avery initiated the convention’s major verbal drama. Avery, chairman of the platform committee, emphasized that congressional protection of slavery, “when necessary,” was hardly a “mere” abstraction. Everyone in this convention, Avery pointed out, favors annexing Cuba at the earliest possible date. All Democrats also anticipate that the American flag will someday wave over Central America and Mexico.

Douglas’s “principle of Popular Sovereignty,” continued William Avery, “will exclude every southern man with his slaves” from any of these territories. The more numerous Northerners can migrate for $200 per settler. The less numerous Southerners must spend $1500 to buy and move each slave. No slaveholding capitalist would risk his investment if the North’s more mobile King Numbers could rout King Cotton in a territorial legislature. Only an assurance of congressional intervention, when necessary, would attract southern investors.

Without congressional proslavery assurance, continued the North Carolinian, Caribbean expansion plus Popular Sovereignty would yield “a cordon of free States on the Gulf.” The South would then lie between free soil regimes above and below, with no outlet for redundant blacks. All southern white men would eventually face a racial holocaust, with poor blacks emerging as equal to poor whites. Our Majority Report’s “life and death case, for the South,” concluded Avery, rests on the master principle that Popular Sovereignty, without a future congressional check when necessary, is “as dangerous and subversive” as Black Republicanism.13

Northern delegates selected a Southerner to refute Avery. Austin King, governor of Missouri in the late 1840s and early 1850s, begged fellow Southerners not “to contend for a mere punctilio, when it will profit you nothing.” King ignored Avery’s argument that the punctilio could save slavery in future territories. Instead, he emphasized that no slaveholders now wished to go to any present U.S. territories. So “it is foolish and idle” now to “fuss about abstractions.” That “when necessary” abstraction will suicidally “drive the Northern Democrats to the wall, and alienate them, and thereby secure the election of [William H.] Seward to the presidency.”14

As Northerners applauded and Southerners shrieked “traitor,” those who recalled Missouri’s recent embattled history knew that Austin King’s southern credentials had often been suspect. True, King had always owned slaves (five in 1860). True, he had never denounced the institution. True, when Frank Blair, Jr., had lately started a Missouri wing of the Republican Party (and had given Hinton R. Helper sustenance), King, like Thomas Hart Benton, had broken his longtime ties with Blair.

Yet King still suspiciously espoused the old Blair/Benton slur that Davy Atchison and other proslavery Missourians were but “Nullifiers,” always conspiring to break up the Union. In 1849 as governor, Austin King’s most controversial action had aroused special suspicions. Six years earlier, the U.S. Supreme Court, in Prigg v. Pennsylvania, had declared that state administrators need not enforce federal fugitive slave laws. It was then still a year before the U.S. Congress supplied federal enforcers. Fearing that the vacuum in slaveholder protection would invite slaves to flee, the 1849 Missouri legislature enacted a state fugitive slave law. Governor King reestablished the vacuum. He vetoed the law.

Austin King always had answers to the charges of secret disloyalty. In 1849, he vetoed the state legislature’s fugitive slave law, he claimed, not because he opposed police protection of slaveholders. Rather, the U.S. Constitution, as the Supreme Court’s Priggdecision had emphasized, gave only the federal government power to police fugitives. In 1860, he supported Douglas not because he wished Popular Sovereignty to leave slaveholders unprotected. Rather, no slaveholders now lived or wished to live in U.S. territories—and slaveholders now needed Douglas to protect the Union against a Black Republican’s election.

Slaveholders believed that the gentleman protested suspiciously much. Too many actions precisely like a hostile Yankee’s, they thought, hinted at a heart not precisely like a slaveholder’s. How could any but a softheart blithely ignore William Avery’s case for congressional intervention, when necessary, in future Caribbean territories? Would such a pleader stand with or against us, as slavery’s crises intensified?

If such questioners could have glimpsed the future, they would have muttered, I told you so. During the secession crisis, Austin King would be all for the Union. During the Civil War, he would be all for Lincoln’s Union-saving crusade. In the U.S. Congress in January 1865, he would be all for Lincoln’s Thirteenth Amendment, freeing all America’s slaves.

But while King would be standing by the Great Emancipator in 1865, his plea for Douglas in 1860 revealed not a northern man in southern clothing but the futility of borderland neutrality amidst Missouri’s venomous extremes. Austin King ever cherished Thomas Hart Benton’s nonagitation position. He ever denounced Missourians’ agitations, for or against slavery, that so constantly shattered the state’s and thus the nation’s equilibrium, whether Davy Atchison sought Bleeding Kansas or Frank Blair, Jr., sought aid to Hinton R. Helper or John Clark sought repudiation of Helper (and Sherman). King, long allied with Blair and Benton to put down Atchison’s proslavery agitations, now could not abide Blair’s antislavery agitations. He saw that the agitations that tore apart Missouri would also tear apart the national establishment, starting with the National Democratic Party.

As an elderly statesmen, approaching sixty years of age and witness to state and national turmoil since nullification days, King ached to be for once the Missourian who quieted the nation. This lawyer-farmer’s tall, slim, vigorous body, and especially the thick shock of hair that spiked upward from his long, thin face, gave witness to an energy beyond most aging seers’ resources. The obscure Missouri ex-governor would become a famous national hero if his plea for sectional nonagitation galvanized enough southern borderites to go for neutrality, prosperity, Union, and Douglas.15

– 7 –

Instead, Austin King’s convention speech showed again that his angry state, dead center in the nation’s North-South axis, could not stop provoking national hatreds, whatever the provoker’s intentions. Much of the slaveholders’ problem, from the Lower South perspective, involved a Border South that remained too neutral to be sufficiently southern. Austin King in Institute Hall proved that proslavery commitment had not consumed all Southerners—and that neutrality about slavery had consequences. With the pro-Douglas borderite’s supposed treachery ringing in Yancey’s ears, the Lower South’s convention leader rose to his feet, as “the hall rang for several minutes with applause.”16

This was the moment “for an Alabamian to be heard,” William Lowndes Yancey commenced, “after the strange and unnatural speech they had just heard from a son of the South.” He asked for an extra half hour, so he could demonstrate what a loyal son must do for the motherland. To more applause, the convention granted his wish. Many delegates now expected to hear the oration of the convention.

Yancey’s became indeed a memorable outcry, partly because many auditors had false expectations about the speaker. For a man so prominent to posterity, Yancey had been indistinct to most contemporaries. He had not been in Congress for almost two decades. He had not often corresponded with non-Alabamians. He had almost never spoken outside Alabama. To most delegates, Yancey had been known only as a ferocious orator and an uncompromising extremist—a caricature of a fire-eater.

As he spoke for “whenever necessary” in Charleston, he had all the advantages of a fresh face, different from the ferocious image. His round, jowly visage and perpetual smile seemed that of a mild friend. “The terrible Mr. Yancey is not so terrible after all,” remarked a surprised observer. On the podium he looked modest, unassuming, humorous, and, of all things, “a right good fellow.” His voice sounded sweet, conversational, mellow, so soft that he had arranged to have the cobblestone streets outside Institute Hall covered with straw. Then convention delegates might hear his hushed call for Jefferson Davis’s guarded version of Popular Sovereignty.17

Since William Avery had spoken to the practicalities of congressional territorial protection, especially in the Caribbean, Yancey concentrated on his favorite subject: the abstractions at stake. Southern intransigence for principle, he claimed, would reverse forty years of slavery’s decline. From now on, he urged, Northern no less than Southern Democrats must base every action on the positive good of slavery. That attitude will purify “the state of public opinion at the North as well as at the South.”

Yancey told northern delegates: You must no longer destroy the Union by acting on the principle that slavery is wrong. Instead, you must save the nation by teaching your constituents to protect both section’s property. Turning to southern leaders, Yancey warned his fellows: Do not save the party by submitting to Yankee damnation of your inequality. Instead, you must save your institution by demanding northern protection of your equality. You must not “demoralize yourselves” and “demoralize your own people” by renouncing purifying “principle for mere party success.” If you “ask the people to vote for a party that ignores their rights,” you “ought to be strung upon a political gallows higher than that ever erected for Haman.”18

As Yancey warned the South’s Austin Kings that they deserved a hanging for teaching a shamed people to bow the neck, Charleston’s daylight faded, gaslights flickered in the twilight, and enchanted Southerners strained to see the amazingly amiable figure, making even “when necessary” seem congenial. But whatever the Alabamian’s mellow body language, Yankee delegates found the Alabama ultimatum to be outrageous blackmail. “Gentlemen of the South,” thundered Ohio’s George Pugh, “you mistake us—you mistake us—we will not do it,” not now, not whenever slaveholders demanded congressional nullification of settler’s sovereignty.19

– 8 –

After Austin King had failed to rout the Avery-Yancey insistence on “when necessary,” and after George Pugh had condemned congressional negation of a settlers’ majority, public orations had only hardened both sides’ differences. So politicians turned to their next best tactic for softening the uncompromising: private, last-minute, frantic negotiations toward a compromise. With that too failing, men of affairs turned to Christian folks’ last recourse: a day of rest and reflection on the Sabbath.

On Monday morning April 30, the convention could not further delay decision. By a vote of 165–138, delegates substituted the North’s favorite milk toast, the platform committee’s Minority Report, for the South’s favorite imperfect substance, the Majority Report. Southern delegates voted for Jefferson Davis’s, William Lowndes Yancey’s, and the Majority Report’s “when necessary,” 108–12. Northern delegates voted down possible future congressional negation of settlers’ wishes, 153–30.

Southern determination to qualify Douglas’s Popular Sovereignty proved 90 percent solid. Northern determination to keep unqualified Popular Sovereignty remained 84 percent strong—too overwhelming for the straying southern 10 percent to matter. Douglas’s pure principle would have won, 153–150, even if every southern delegate had voted for the Davis impurity. Of the twelve southern converts to Douglas’s purity, ten represented Austin King’s Border South. That least southern South still voted 22–10 with the disruptive Yancey (or as borderites saw it, with the soothing Jefferson Davis).

After voting to reject Davis’s partial rejection of Popular Sovereignty, delegates and observers held their collective breath. Many Northerners suspected, as they always suspected, that southern threats to secede from party or nation epitomized a bully’s bluff. If Yankees called the bluff, the bully would back down. For the first and not the last time in the 1860–61 period, the crisis of the Union had become a poker game. Would the South fold?

The Lower South’s answer slowly approached when Leroy Pope Walker, an ailing Alabamian, inched toward the clerk’s desk. “A shudder of excitement” coursed through Institute Hall and then, “for the first time during the day, profound silence.” The hush lingered when the tall, pale, courtly Walker, looking as little like a southern hothead as Yancey, barely disturbed the silence with a drawl softer than even Yancey’s.

To those impatient to know whether Alabama would retreat or revolt, Walker’s indistinct reputation offered as insubstantial clues as his murmur. Although the Alabama stranger was son of a U.S. senator and would be prominent enough to become Jefferson Davis’s first Confederate secretary of war, he would have little impact on Confederate councils. He never served in U.S. office. His correspondence rarely transcended Alabama. Inside the state, he seemed too quirky a Yanceyite, being an ex-Whig and a northern Alabamian, to serve as Yancey’s puppet. But he had presided over the state convention that had written Yancey’s first gospel, the Alabama Platform of 1848. He now presided over the Yancey-led Alabama delegation at the 1860 Democratic National Convention. So his became the duty to indicate whether twelve years’ worth of Alabama Platforms had been mere bluster.

Walker went by his middle name, Pope, not by his first name, Leroy. His announcement came off like a papal pronouncement. His auditors first made out the word “retiring.” Shunning the battle cry “seceding,” Pope Walker murmured that Alabama’s delegates were “retiring” from their convention seats. Avoiding also the classic southern whoop that northern hypocrites savaged slaveholders’ honor, this gentle cavalier put his complaint passively: “Justice had not been done the South.” Never again would “any representation from the State of Alabama” grace “that convention,” he whispered.20

After tentative cheers trickled down from the still partially uncertain auditors in the galleries, William S. Barry, chairman of the Mississippi delegation, turned the trickle into a torrent. He shouted that his state’s representatives were “seceding” too (not “retiring”). Then D. C. Glenn of Mississippi thrust the mood further beyond Pope Walker’s understatement. Glenn scrambled atop his chair, flailed his arms, then whipped around to frown down George Pugh’s Ohioans. With a face as “pale as ashes” and eyes that “rolled and glared,” he declared that the Yankees “must go their ways, and the South must go her ways.” Our enemies, spat the Mississippian, might hallucinate that Mississippi and Alabama departed by their lonely selves, “like Hagar in the wilderness.” But “in less than sixty days,” our foes “would find a united South, standing shoulder to shoulder.”21

Yet a third verbal tone next proclaimed that the departure was spreading past Pope Walker’s quiet retirement and D. C. Glenn’s screeching defiance. Alexander Moulton of Louisiana, a thick, graying clump of a man who reminded contemporaries of a surly bulldog, barked out his contempt for party traces in a French accent. As Moulton declared that “the Douglas principles, adopted today by the majority, can never be the principles of the South,” his fellow Louisiana delegates announced with their feet that, as Moulton put it, they “will not participate any more in the proceedings of the Convention.”22 Then South Carolina’s Orr followers crept reluctantly toward the door, then Florida’s delegates rushed toward the exits, then Texas’s representatives bounded toward Meeting Street, and finally the Lower South revolt claimed its sole Upper South delegation, that of Arkansas (representing the sole cotton-dominated state north of the Lower South).

– 9 –

By the late afternoon of April 30, Georgia alone, south of Arkansas, remained on the National Democracy’s map. Meanwhile, except for Arkansas, every Upper South state remained in the convention. As would be the case immediately after Lincoln’s election, Georgia’s leaders promptly staged a brilliant debate over whether their most divided of Lower South states should join the precipitous southern South or the antiprecipitous northern South. This time, Georgians displayed their indecision only in secret caucus, several hours after almost all other Cotton South delegates had evacuated Institute Hall. (Except for the Georgians, only two Louisianans, two South Carolinians, and one Arkansan remained in the convention.)

While the Georgia caucus left no records, Georgia orators spoke unreservedly right before and after the secret confrontation. From their comments, the caucus debate can be more or less reconstructed. W. B. Gaulden’s blunt words comprised Georgia delegates’ most outrageous statements. The Savannah tycoon, loaded with slaves and eager for more, blasted the stupidity of exiting the convention over the wrong issue. The only “remedy for the evils the South complained of … was to reopen the African slave trade.” Once fortified with millions of fresh Africans to match the North’s millions of fresh Europeans, the South could compete equally for territories.

Gaulden urged Georgia’s delegates to remain in the convention, drop the distracting “when necessary” issue, and look “to the Northern Democracy to aid them” in the necessary way. If materialists protested that importations of Africans would depress the American economy, Gaulden would remind them that “he could buy a better nigger in Africa for fifty dollars” than “in Virginia” for “one thousand to twelve hundred dollars.” If would-be saints trembled that slave-trading profits would degrade American Christianity, he would demonstrate that the “African slave trader” is “the true Christian man,” for he “goes to a heathen land and brings the savage here, and Christianizes and moralizes him.”

If Northern Democrats still thought that importations of more blacks would mongrelize American Christians, continued Gaulden, he would invite them “down to his plantation” and introduce “Negroes he had purchased in Virginia, in Georgia, in Alabama, in Louisiana, and he would also show them the native African, the noblest Roman of them all.” If Georgia’s convention quitters wished to laugh at him, “he was in deadly earnest.” And after they said that his strategy caused “mortification and disgust to the delegation from Georgia,” Gaulden had “as much pity and contempt for them, as they could possibly have for him.”23

Henry Cleveland, editor of the Augusta Daily Constitution, found the convention useful not to import noble Africans but to nominate a sublime presidential candidate. Cleveland claimed that Douglas would eventually concede, knowing that his nomination would capsize his party. Douglas would then support the Augusta hinterland’s hero, Alexander Stephens.

President Stephens, Henry Cleveland added, would find better ways to protect the slavocracy than a counterproductive national territorial slave code. Any protection of slavery that a northern majority would accept would protect us “as the lion does the lamb.” And, “oh yes, let us have protection, or dismember the party, for protection will people with southern planters the sandy wastes of the great American desert, crown with vineyards the earth-bare slopes of the rocky mountains, and be just the thing for the South when Greenland is annexed.”24

Congressman Martin Crawford piled cynicism atop Henry Cleveland’s ridicule. Crawford concurred that Southerners possessed “no” extra Negroes to protect and no territory where protection “is necessary.” He presumed that no “good general” would “risk his whole army in a battle” where victory would offer no immediate fruit and where “defeat and disaster awaited him.” Yancey surely knew, declared Crawford, that the Alabama ultimatum offered “nothing” except “discord and ruin to our party.”

The Alabama Platform, Crawford explained, had only been hatched to elect “its author to the Senate.” Upper South delegations resisted Yancey’s departure, continued the cynic, only because ambitious Southerners prayed that presidential lightning “might strike” them, after Douglas accepted defeat.25

“I am fully aware,” answered U.S. Senator Robert Toombs, “that personal hostilities and personal advantages are at the bottom of the strife; but there is a right and a wrong to the controversy for all that.” Departure from a pack of disguised abolitionists, added James R. Sneed, was everlastingly right. Sneed, editor of the Savannah Republican, prayed that “truth, virtue, and patriotism” would now banish Stephen Douglas’s “trickery, fraud, and demagoguism … from the land.”26

Above all else, Georgians reluctantly had to decide who were their true brothers, overly zealous Lower South seceders or overly compromising Upper South stay-at-homes? Because that new basis of decision had become inescapable, some Georgians posted “flaming handbills” that Henry Cleveland was a southern traitor. “If it is treason not to bolt,” retorted Cleveland, “I will always be a traitor.”27

The Georgia caucus finally voted 22–12 to bolt with Lower South patriots, not to stay with Upper South conciliators. Just as Robert Barnwell Rhett had predicted, after Alabama and Mississippi left, other Lower South states felt compelled to follow. The next day, four of the dozen Georgia dissenters announced that the delegation’s majority must dictate their departure too. So twenty-six of thirty-four Georgians marched from Institute Hall. By high noon on the first day of May, Charleston’s lady folk, determined to decorate every empty delegate seat, rejoiced to place flowers in twenty-six more tombstones of the Democracy.

– 10 –

The afternoon before the Georgia caucus, South Carolina delegates had to decide whether to join the Lower South exodus. James L. Orr’s supporters had pledged to stay in the National Democratic Party’s convention. But as they wavered about departing their Institute Hall seats, they faced a Charleston political outcry unmatched for a decade. Wherever they stepped, whether in the convention or the hotels or the drawing rooms, scornful South Carolinians pelted them with epithets. “You are a southern traitor.” “You are a South Carolina disgrace.” “You are a hypocritical deserter.” “You said you would embrace a cooperative alliance of several seceding states. Now look at your shame!” “Our patriots have quit the stable, and you prefer to wallow in manure.” As the verbal scorn went over the top amidst threats to tar and feather the alleged traitors, Robert Barnwell Rhett claimed that physical lynchings imminently loomed, unless Orrites followed the Lower South out of Institute Hall.28

Perhaps Rhett’s lately formidable foes quailed at possible physical violence. More likely they quavered at omnipresent verbal violence. Assuredly they reveled in their welcome after the withering social pressure helped shove them outside the convention. Once on Meeting Street, the new exiles became long-lost heroes. Ladies showered them with kisses. Gentlemen flooded them with invitations. In view of their relief at being celebrated as the reborn sons of chivalrous fathers, only some antirevolutionary hero could ever again goad Orr’s supporters to stand athwart South Carolina’s revolutionary destiny.

The Orrites’ surrender offered the first 1860 proof that wicked extralegal pressure could drag along antisecessionist stallers, just as most Georgians’ surrender offered the first proof that a secession of part of the Lower South could drag along the rest. South Carolina delegates’ capitulation also offered the first (and arguably only) proof that the locale of this convention decisively mattered. While everything else that transpired in the Charleston convention might have happened anywhere, Orr’s antirevolutionary roadblock might not have dissolved anywhere else. Without Charleston’s merciless hounding of South Carolina’s enemies of exodus, Orrites possibly would still have been standing, to fight against the next step in the southern revolution.

Only two South Carolina delegates remained in Institute Hall. Only one of the nonseceders loudly protested. The protestor was, ironically, William Lowndes Yancey’s first political mentor. Greenville’s Benjamin F. Perry, the upcountry’s eternal enemy of South Carolina extremism, dismissed the galleries’ hoots and hisses.

Perry pointed out that South Carolina Democrats’ state convention had overwhelmingly voted down automatic departure, if the Alabama Platform provoked an exodus. The upcountry’s intractable unionist noted that the South, armed with the two-thirds rule and with more than a third of the delegates, could easily stop Douglas. A stalemated convention might eventually select a Southerner such as Virginia’s Robert M. T. Hunter as its presidential nominee.

As for the platform, Perry preferred the southern-oriented Majority Report, which articulated his construction of Popular Sovereignty, to the northern-oriented Minority Report, which permitted any construction. But he could hardly blame the South’s best northern friends for preferring verbal fudge to a linguistic poison that would kill the Democracy’s attempt to defeat Northern Republicans. Southern delegates, concluded Perry, should have stayed and won. They then could have massed with northern delegates to win the White House for yet another Democrat—and probably for a southern slaveholder who would favor future protection of slavery in the territories, if it ever became necessary.29

A large majority of southern delegates subscribed to Perry’s logic. So did most Georgia and South Carolina delegates, before the Lower South flood swept them adrift from their preferences. After the Lower South exodus, the entire Upper South, with the exception of three of four Arkansans and one of three Delawareites, remained in Institute Hall. In all, fifty southern delegates left and seventy stayed. Since the Georgians and South Carolinians controlled 38 percent of the Lower South’s 39 percent of southern convention votes, the decision to depart initially swept up only 25 percent of the Southerners (and only 10 percent of the Democracy’s delegates, North and South).

Rhett and Yancey had perfectly anticipated how a minority of the southern minority could escape southern and national majorities. Rhett had written that if a revolutionary genius could maneuver just Alabama and Mississippi out, other Lower South states would have to follow. Yancey had seen that if he based the Alabama ultimatum on Mississippi’s Jefferson Davis’s minimal insistence on territorial protection, when necessary, he could link Rhett’s two crucial states as twins of revolution. Then, Yancey foresaw, Upper South opponents could not stop a spreading revolution to their south, even if they refused to join it. And they might later have to join it.

In May 1860, Yancey would have been delighted to foreknow that after Lincoln’s election, the Cotton South, when leaving the Union, would repeat his party-shattering strategy of departure not by some single South but by a fraction of the Lower South’s minority of the southern minority. Then once again, the most precipitous Lower South states would drag along the most reluctant tropical states. The only difference, the next time, would be that South Carolina would be first among seceders and Arkansas would lag behind, with the rest of the Upper South.

As architect of a triumphant plan for reconstructing or ruining the Democracy (or the Union), Yancey had accomplished more than improving his chance to whip Benjamin Fitzpatrick. His Alabama ultimatum, based on Mississippi language, had failed to cleanse the National Democracy. But the two states had lifted the Lower South out of the party quagmire. He had thereby fatally crippled the last best institutional hope of the Union savers. He had taught Lower South patriots to rescue slavery without worrying about whether Upper South foot draggers would join the rescue mission. And he had liberated the titans who would lead the next step of the revolution, Rhett’s self-imprisoned lowcountry South Carolinians, from their counterproductive purism and from James L. Orr.

Yancey thus had every right to boast to Charlestonians packed before the courthouse, on the night of the historic departure, that “perhaps even now, the pen of the historian was nibbed to write the story of a new revolution.” The crowd had every right to respond with “three cheers for the Independent Southern Republic.” Even an optical illusion seemed appropriate. As the first Founding Father of the Southern Confederacy invited his historians to prepare their pens, silvery moonlight gleamed from starry skies, giving the city’s multicolored grand mansions the appearance of snow-white marble monuments of a new nation’s capital.30

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