The 1860 Democratic Convention

Last week I discussed the 1860 Republican Convention and the nomination of Abraham Lincoln for the presidency. I thought that this week I would tell you about the Democratic Convention that occurred that same year in order to determine the Democratic nominee for president.

If you remember your American History you will recall that Lincoln didn’t get a single vote in any of the southern states, but yet he still managed to win the election. How was this possible? Well, it all seemed to start with the Democratic convention.

Unlike our current conventions, in 1860 you didn’t know who the presidential nominee was going to be until after the convention was over. The delegates from each state would head to the convention and then it was anybody’s guess as to who they were going to vote for on the ballot. Some delegates would head to the convention with a person in mind, but as the voting went on they would often change their votes if it looked like one person would win over another.

The Democrats in 1860 were not a united group. Before they even started to vote for their nominees they were trying to decide on the party platform. At this time in our nation’s history the biggest over-lying issue was the question of slavery. There were the moderates, like Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas (the same Douglas who participated in the Lincoln-Douglas debates), who felt that it should be up to the territories as to if they would be slave states or free states when joining the Union. Then you had the pro-slavery crowd, mostly from the South, who wanted to make sure that the party platform included the plank that would protect slavery in all of the territories. This one issue would split the Democrats into essentially a North/South discussion.

The Northern states refused to adopt this plank, so a portion of the southern delegates walked out and refused to take part in this convention. Despite the fact that these delegates walked out, the convention chair people decided that in order for the nominee to be chosen they would need to get 2/3 of the vote of all delegates (counting the ones who walked out) and not just 2/3 of the delegates who were present during the voting. If you recall from last week, the Republicans had three ballots when Lincoln was nominated. The Democrats went through 57 ballots and never settled on a nominee. Senator Douglas had the most votes on all of the ballots, but not enough to actually be declared the winner. It was decided to meet again a few weeks later in Baltimore to try one more attempt at nominating a presidential candidate.

In Baltimore, despite the fact that more delegates refused to attend, they decided this time to go with whoever received more votes. They overturned the ruling from the previous convention saying that the nominee would need 2/3 of the entire delegate count. When all was said and done, Senator Douglas became the official Democrat nominee for president.


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