1860 Democratic National Conventions

The three 1860 Democratic National Conventions were crucial events in the lead-up to the American Civil War. The first Democratic national convention adjourned in deadlock without choosing candidates for President and Vice President. A second official convention nominated Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois for President and former Senator Herschel V. Johnson of Georgia for Vice President. A third, “rump,” convention, primarily Southerners, nominated Vice President John C. Breckinridge for President and Senator Joseph Lane of Oregon for Vice President.

1860 Democratic National Convention
1860 presidential election
Date(s)April 23–May 3, 1860 &
June 18–23, 1860
CityCharleston, South Carolina &
Baltimore, Maryland
VenueSouth Carolina Institute Hall,
Front Street Theater &
Maryland Institute (Southern)
Presidential nomineeStephen A. Douglas of Illinois (Official)
John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky (Southern)
Vice Presidential nomineeHerschel V. Johnson of Georgia (Official)
Joseph Lane of Oregon (Southern)
South Carolina Institute Hall, Charleston, S.C, by Barnard, George N., 1819-1902
Stereoscopic image of South Carolina Institute Hall by George Norman Barnard

Charleston convention

The Democratic convention at Charleston, South Carolina - Interior of the hall of the South Carolina Institute in Meeting Street (cropped1)
Wood engraving illustrating the Charleston convention

The 1860 Democratic National Convention convened at South Carolina Institute Hall (destroyed in the Great Fire of 1861) in Charleston, South Carolina on 23 April 1860. Charleston was probably the most pro-slavery city in the U.S. at the time, and the galleries at the convention were packed with pro-slavery spectators.[1]

The front-runner for the nomination was Douglas. Douglas was considered a moderate on the slavery issue. With the 1854 Kansas–Nebraska Act, he advanced the doctrine of popular sovereignty: allowing settlers in each Territory to decide for themselves whether slavery would be allowed – a change from the flat prohibition of slavery in most Territories under the Missouri Compromise, which the South had welcomed. However, the Supreme Court’s ensuing 1857 Dred Scott decision declared that the Constitution protected slavery in all Territories.

Douglas was challenged for his Senate seat by Abraham Lincoln in 1858, and narrowly won re-election by professing the Freeport Doctrine, a de facto rejection of Dred Scott. Now militant Southern "Fire-Eaters", such as William Yancey of Alabama, opposed him as a traitor. Many of them openly predicted a split in the party, and the election of Republican front-runner William H. Seward.[1]

Urged by Yancey, the delegations from seven Deep South states (Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, Texas, and Florida) met in a separate caucus before the convention. They reached a tentative consensus to "stop Douglas" by imposing a pro-slavery party platform which he could not run on if nominated.[2]

The "Fire-eater" majority on the convention's platform committee, chaired by William Waightstill Avery of North Carolina, produced an explicitly pro-slavery document, endorsing Dred Scott and Congressional legislation protecting slavery in the territories. Northern Democrats refused to acquiesce. Dred Scott was extremely unpopular in the North, and the Northerners said they could not carry a single state with that platform. On 30 April, the convention by a vote of 165 to 138 adopted the minority (Northern) platform, which omitted these planks. 50 Southern delegates then left the convention in protest,[1] including the Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Texas delegations, three of the four delegates from Arkansas, and one of the three delegates from Delaware.

The departed delegates gathered at St. Andrews Hall on Broad Street, declared themselves the real convention, and awaited conciliatory action by the Institute Hall convention. That didn't happen. Instead, the Institute Hall convention proceeded to nominations. The dominant Douglas forces believed their path was now clear.[1]

Six major candidates were nominated at the convention: Douglas, former Treasury Secretary James Guthrie of Kentucky, Senator Robert M. T. Hunter of Virginia, Senator Joseph Lane of Oregon, former Senator Daniel S. Dickinson of New York, and Senator Andrew Johnson of Tennessee.

Douglas led on the first ballot, with 145½ of 253 votes cast. However, the convention rules required a two-thirds vote to approve a nomination. Furthermore, convention chairman Caleb Cushing ruled that two-thirds of the convention's whole membership was required, not just two-thirds of those actually present and voting.

Douglas thus needed 56½ more votes, or a total of 202, from the 253 delegates still present. The convention held 57 ballots, and though Douglas led on all of them, he never got more than 152 votes. On the 57th ballot, Douglas got 151½ votes, still 50½ votes short of the nomination, though far ahead of Guthrie, who was second with 65½. In desperation, on 3 May the delegates voted to adjourn the convention, and reconvene in Baltimore six weeks later.

Candidates receiving votes for president at the Charleston convention:

Presidential candidates

BradyHandy-StephenADouglas restored

Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois


James Guthrie of Kentucky


Senator Robert M. T. Hunter of Virginia


Senator Joseph Lane of Oregon


Former Senator Daniel S. Dickinson of New York


Senator Andrew Johnson of Tennessee

A few votes went to former Senator Isaac Toucey of Connecticut, Senator James Pearce of Maryland, and Senator Jefferson Davis of Mississippi (the future Confederate President), who received one vote on over fifty ballots from Benjamin Butler of Massachusetts. Ironically, during the Civil War, Butler became a Union general, and Davis ordered him hanged as a criminal if ever captured.

Charleston presidential ballot
Ballot 1st 2nd 3rd 4th 5th 6th 7th 8th 9th 10th 11th 12th 13th 14th 15th 16th 17th 18th 19th 20th 21st 22nd 23rd 24th 25th
Douglas 145.5 147 148.5 149 149.5 149.5 150.5 150.5 150.5 150.5 150.5 150.5 149.5 150 150 150 150 150 150 150 150.5 150.5 152.5 151.5 151.5
Guthrie 35.5 36.5 42 37.5 37.5 39.5 38.5 38.5 41 39.5 39.5 39.5 39.5 41 41.5 42 42 41.5 41.5 42 41.5 41.5 41.5 41.5 41.5
Hunter 42 41.5 36 41.5 41 41 41 40.5 39.5 39 38 38 28.5 27 26.5 26 26 26 26 26 26 26 25 25 35
Lane 6 6 6 6 6 7 6 6 6 5.5 6.5 6.5 20 20.5 20.5 20.5 20.5 20.5 20.5 20.5 20.5 20.5 19.5 19.5 9.5
Dickinson 7 6.5 6.5 5 5 3 4 4.5 1 4 4 4 1 0.5 0.5 0.5 0.5 1 1 0.5 0.5 0.5 0.5 1.5 1.5
Johnson 12 12 12 12 12 12 11 11 12 12 12 12 12 12 12 12 12 12 12 12 12 12 12 12 12
Toucey 2.5 2.5 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Davis 1.5 1 1 1 1 0 1 1 1 1.5 1.5 1.5 1.5 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
Pearce 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Charleston presidential ballot
Ballot 26th 27th 28th 29th 30th 31st 32nd 33rd 34th 35th 36th 37th 38th 39th 40th 41st 42nd 43rd 44th 45th 46th 47th 48th 49th 50th
Douglas 151.5 151.5 151.5 151.5 151.5 151.5 152.5 152.5 152.5 152 151.5 151.5 151.5 151.5 151.5 151.5 151.5 151.5 151.5 151.5 151.5 151.5 151.5 151.5 151.5
Guthrie 41.5 42.5 42 42 45 47.5 47.5 47.5 47.5 47.5 48 64.5 66 66.5 66.5 66.5 66.5 65.5 65.5 65.5 65.5 65.5 65.5 65.5 65.5
Hunter 25 25 25 25 25 32.5 22.5 22.5 22.5 22 22 16 16 16 16 16 16 16 16 16 16 16 16 16 16
Lane 9 8 8 7.5 5.5 5.5 14.5 14.5 12.5 13 13 12.5 13 12.5 12.5 13 13 13 13 13 13 13 13 14 14
Dickinson 12 12 12.5 13 13 3 3 3 5 4.5 4.5 5.5 5.5 5.5 5.5 5 5 5 5 5 5 5 5 4 4
Johnson 12 12 12 12 11 11 11 11 11 12 12 0.5 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Davis 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1.5 0 0 0 0 0 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
Charleston presidential ballot
Ballot 51st 52nd 53rd 54th 55th 56th 57th
Douglas 151.5 151.5 151.5 151.5 151.5 151.5 151.5
Guthrie 65.5 65.5 65.5 61 65.5 65.5 65.5
Hunter 16 16 16 20.5 16 16 16
Lane 14 14 14 16 14 14 14
Dickinson 4 4 4 2 4 4 4
Davis 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
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Baltimore convention

The Democrats convened again at the Front Street Theater (destroyed in the Great Baltimore Fire of 1904) in Baltimore, Maryland on 18 June. The resumed convention's first business was to decide whether to re-admit the delegates who had bolted the Charleston session, or to seat replacement delegates who had been named by pro-Douglas Democrats in some states. The credentials committee's majority report recommended re-admitting all delegates except those from Louisiana and Alabama. The minority report recommended re-admitting some of the Louisiana and Alabama delegates as well. The committee's majority report was adopted 150-100½, and the new Louisiana and Alabama delegates were seated. Many additional delegates now withdrew, including most of the remaining Southern delegates, and also a scattering of delegates from northern and far western states.[3]

The presidential balloting

The following received votes at this convention:

BradyHandy-StephenADouglas restored

Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois


James Guthrie of Kentucky


Former Senator Daniel S. Dickinson of New York

The convention resumed voting on a nominee. On the first ballot, Douglas received 173½ of 190½ votes cast. On the second ballot he received 181½ votes of 194½ cast. It suddenly dawned on the delegates that, with only 194½ delegates present, it was somewhat unlikely that anyone was going to get 203 votes. At this flash of insight, the delegates overrode Cushing’s earlier ruling. They declared by unanimous voice vote that Douglas, having received 2/3 of the votes cast, was nominated.

Baltimore presidential ballot
Ballot 1st 2nd
Douglas 173.5 181.5
Guthrie 9 5.5
Breckinridge 5 7.5
Horatio Seymour 1 0
Thomas S. Bocock 1 0
Dickinson 0.5 0
Henry A. Wise 0.5 0

The vice presidential balloting

Senator Benjamin Fitzpatrick of Alabama was nominated for Vice President, receiving 198½ votes. However, Fitzpatrick later refused the nomination, something that would only happen again once (1924) in the history of the republic. William C. Alexander of New Jersey was authoritatively withdrawn when it was mentioned he would not allow his name to be presented as a candidate.


Senator Benjamin Fitzpatrick of Alabama

Vice presidential ballot
Fitzpatrick 198.5
Blank 1

Vice presidential nomination

With the Conventions over and no vice presidential candidate, former Senator Herschel V. Johnson of Georgia[3] was offered the nomination by Douglas.

Herschel V. Johnson cph.3a02862

Former Governor Herschel V. Johnson of Georgia

“Breckinridge Democrats” convention

The Southern Democrats who bolted and their allies reconvened at the Maryland Institute in Baltimore. This rival convention adopted a radical pro-slavery platform, and nominated Breckinridge for President, and Lane for Vice President.

John C Breckinridge-04775-restored

John C. Breckinridge for President


Joseph Lane for vice president

"Breckinridge Democrats" presidential ballot
Ballot 1st
Breckinridge 81
Dickinson 24


After the break-up of the Charleston convention, many of those present stated that the Republicans were now certain to win the 1860 Presidential election.[1]

In the general election, the actual division in Democratic popular votes did not directly affect any state outcomes except California, Oregon, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia. Of these states, only California and Oregon were free states, and although both were carried by Republican nominee Abraham Lincoln they combined for only seven of Lincoln’s 180 electoral votes. The latter three states were slave states that were carried by neither Douglas, Breckinridge nor Lincoln but by John Bell, nominee of the Constitutional Union Party. Composed mainly of former Whigs and Know-Nothings, the Constitutional Union Party attempted to ignore the slavery issue in favor of preserving the Union.

Even if California, Oregon and every state carried by Douglas, Breckinridge or Bell had been carried by a single Presidential nominee, Lincoln would still have had a large majority of electoral votes.[3] However, the split in the Democratic Party organization was a serious handicap in many states, especially Pennsylvania, and almost certainly reduced the aggregate Democratic popular vote. Pennsylvania’s 27 electoral votes were especially decisive in ensuring a Republican victory – had Lincoln failed to carry that state combined with any other free state, he could not have obtained a majority of electoral votes.

James M. McPherson suggested in Battle Cry of Freedom that the “Fire-eater” program of breaking up the convention and running a rival ticket was deliberately intended to bring about the election of a Republican as President, and thus trigger secession declarations by the slave-owning states. Whatever the “intent” of the fire-eaters may have been, doubtless many of them favored secession, and the logical, probable, and actual consequence of their actions was to fragment the Democratic party and thereby virtually ensure a Republican victory.[4]

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e Catton, Bruce (1961). The Coming Fury. Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Co., Inc. pp. 37–40.
  2. ^ Heidler, David S. Pulling the Temple Down: The Fire-Eaters and the Destruction of the Union ISBN 0-8117-0634-6, p. 149. Jefferson Davis, a relative moderate, saw this coalition of the Deep South with Douglas's enemies in the Buchanan administration as potentially dangerous, and called for abandoning a platform as the Whigs had in 1840, just settling on an agreed-to candidate. The moderates, principally found in Alabama and Georgia, were outvoted in caucus.
  3. ^ a b c Congressional Quarterly's Guide to U.S. Elections. Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly, Inc. 1985. pp. 45–46, 169. ISBN 0-87187-339-7.
  4. ^ Davis, Jefferson. The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government pp. 43-46

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Cincinnati, Ohio
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Returning to his practice of law, Seward also served as a delegate to the Democratic State conventions in 1858, 1859, and 1860. He was elected to the Georgia Senate from 1859 through 1865 and was a delegate to the 1860 Democratic National Conventions in Baltimore, Maryland and Charleston, South Carolina.

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