Stephen Douglas and the 1860 Convention

Stephen Arnold Douglas

Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois had coveted the presidency for many years yet the events of 1860, focusing on the expansion of slavery, would deny him that dream.

The Democratic Party Convention in Charleston, South Carolina in the spring of 1860 foreshadowed the demise of the only national political party to potentially field a presidential candidate in the fall. Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas realized this when he wrote on June 20th, “there is eminent danger that the Democratic party will be demoralized if not destroyed by the breaking up of the Convention.” Douglas had hoped to receive the nomination, but his supporters were thwarted by Southern fire eaters like William Yancey and even the sitting president, James Buchanan.

The Choice of Charleston for the National Convention

Every historian writing about the events of 1860 concurs that Charleston was a poor choice for the Democratic Convention. Northern Democrats hoped to move the convention site to Baltimore, a more neutral location, but Southerners rejected this. South Carolina had long been in the forefront as a champion of Southern causes; the South’s greatest apologist, John C. Calhoun, had represented the state for decades.

It would be in Charleston where the first shots of the Civil War were fired on Ft. Sumter. In the spring of 1860, Charleston memories vividly recalled the late 1859 raid at Harpers Ferry and many Southerners believed John Brown had received help from Northern Republicans. The Charleston Mercury churned out daily propaganda, reminding its readers that the South was rapidly becoming a minority entity in the expanding United States.

Stephen Douglas Clings to Popular Sovereignty

Although Douglas remained in Washington, recovering from serious illness, he was, according to Damon Wells, “…the only Democrat in 1860 who could unite his party and lead it to victory…” But Douglas advocated popular sovereignty in regard to the expansion of slavery in the western territories acquired in 1848. Seeking to circumvent the 1857 Dred Scott decision, Douglas formulated his Freeport Doctrine which still allowed citizens in a territory to decide the slavery issue.

Southerners would have none of it and Deep South delegates vowed to walk out of the convention if popular sovereignty was adopted instead of a plank in the party platform calling for a congressional slave code. Addressing the convention on the final day, Alabama’s extremist William Yancey exhorted his listeners that the North must protect the rights of the South and that failure to do so would lead to secession. The Committee on Resolutions, controlled by Southern extremists, declared in a resolution that it was “the duty of the federal government…to protect, when necessary, the rights of persons and property in the territories.” Slaves in the South were property.

The Role of James Buchanan

Douglas and Buchanan had clashed early in the Pennsylvanian’s presidency and the vengeful Buchanan had retaliated by withholding patronage. The 1860 convention contained numerous Buchananite delegations with instructions to stop any nomination of Douglas. According to scholar Damon Wells, Buchanan had promoted Charleston as the convention city, knowing that Douglas could never receive the party’s nod in this Southern capital.

The End of the Convention and the End of the Party

After the convention rejected the extremist resolutions, Yancey bolted the hall, followed by delegations from other Deep South states. But the two-thirds rule regarding nomination was still in place and was interpreted to include all seated delegates, including those that had bolted. This meant that Stephen Douglas would never achieve nomination.

The two-thirds rule was supported, ironically, by Border State delegates as well as those from New York. Historians explain New York’s stance on the basis of commerce with the South: disunion would hurt such trade and harm Northern manufactures. After fifty-seven ballots, the convention was deadlocked and adjourned.

Effects of the Charleston Convention

The Democratic Party split into three factions, causing party defeat in the Election of 1860. Although Stephen Douglas represented the Northern Democrats, he received the lowest number of electoral votes, yet it was Douglas who most vocally preached the message of federal “non intervention” by Congress “with slavery in the territories” (letter to William A. Richardson, June 20th, 1860). The Charleston Convention may not have nominated Douglas, but it paved the way for a Lincoln victory.


  1. The Letters of Stephen Douglas, edited by Robert W. Johannsen (University of Illinois Press, 1961)
  2. Eric H. Walter, The Fire-Eaters (Louisiana State University Press, 1992)
  3. Damon Wells, Stephen Douglas: The Last Years, 1857-1861 (University of Texas Press, 1971)