1860: DRIFTING TO DISUNION
The year 1860 opened in a country filled with sharp edges.
The patchwork quilt of compromises and court decisions stitched together over decades to resolve the slavery question was not only fraying at the edges but now was coming apart at the seams.
Deadly violence in Kansas, and more recently at Harpers Ferry, seemed to indicate that the anger building between free and slave America was growing beyond the control of judges and politicians.
But politicians were going to get one last, great chance. It was a presidential election year and maybe... just maybe... an idea or a man might emerge to bring the country back from the brink — to again bandage a sore festering since the Constitutional Convention — and keep the country from flying apart.
The Democratic Party seemed to have the best shot at unifying the increasingly polarized citizenry. The Democrats' nominating convention was set in Charleston SC — a city not exactly the poster child for “Union.”
In hindsight it seems an odd collection of people playing roles that April on what historian William W. Freehling called “Charleston’s eerie stage.” Mississippi Senator Jefferson Davis, who in less than a year would become president of the Confederates States of America, was one of the leaders of the moderate Southerners. One of Davis’s most earnest supporters — at least at the beginning of the process — was none other than Benjamin Butler from Massachusetts, who soon would become a Union general and known throughout the South as “The Beast.”
Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas was the frontrunner for the nomination at Charleston. His supporters, headquartered at the Hibernian Hall just across Meeting Street from the convention site at Institute Hall, believed they could muster the two-thirds of the delegate votes required for nomination.
The Douglas candidacy, though, faced a number of problems, not the least of which was hostility from the Southern delegations. Most hated his “Popular Sovereignty” doctrine, holding that settlers in the territories could decide whether or not to allow slavery. The Southern delegates believed that slave owners — backed by the Constitution and affirmed under Dred Scott Supreme Court decision — were entitled to protection of their property — slave or otherwise — anywhere.
It was that federal protection for slavery in the territories that was the rub at the convention. The issue was submitted to the platform committee, which split on the issue. “Cotton state” delegates supported absolute government protection for slavery in the territories and the Douglas contingent stuck with the right of the citizens there to decide the question. The convention, by majority vote, supported the Douglas position. And that did it. Fifty Southern delegates left the room and did not return.
Their departure made it impossible for Douglas to reach the two-thirds of the original set of delegates required. The Democratic Party left Charleston without a nominee and in shambles.
Slavery, as historian Bruce Catton described it, had finally proven to be the American political system’s one “undigestable lump.”
It was the Republicans’ turn a few weeks later in Chicago. The long list of nomination contenders — led by New Yorker William Seward — all professed opposition to slavery in the territories and exhibited various degrees of hostility to the “peculiar institution” itself. Only five slave states, and none from the Deep South, sent delegates.
So it wasn’t a matter so much of policy as of politics for the Republicans as they decided their nominee. In a masterful convention campaign, dark horse Abraham Lincoln was nominated.
The Democrats tried again, this time in Baltimore. With most of the Charleston dissenters missing, the convention nominated Douglas, who held to his long-standing middle ground position. Shortly after, the “Southern” Democrats advanced Kentuckian John C. Breckinridge who ran on a platform supporting slavery — in the territories and otherwise.
Earlier, a group of veteran politicians calling themselves the Constitutional Union Party, nominated Tennessean John Bell who ran under the motto “the Union as it is, and the Constitution as it was.”
So the race was set and the edges were sharper still. The man in the middle, Douglas, was taking shots from both sides but was the only candidate to mount a serious campaign nationwide. Lincoln stood on his record and said little, leaving some Southern politicians to believe he was capable of almost any atrocity aimed at them — including abolishing what they believed was a Constitutionally sanctioned way of life.
By the Nov. 6 election day some Southerners were bracing for a Lincoln presidency. Others welcomed it, hoping it would be the “last straw,” pushing Southern states out of the Union.
Lincoln did not win a majority of the votes cast that day. He was not even on the ballot in Tennessee, Texas, Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, Arkansas, Florida or Georgia. But he won a plurality of the popular vote (1,865,908 of 4,685,561 votes cast) and walloped everyone in the Electoral College (180 votes to second-place Breckinridge with 72). Douglas collected only 12 electoral votes but finished second in the popular vote.
It didn’t take long for the Southern states to react to Lincoln's election. It was as if a great weight of uncertainty, building for decades, was suddenly lifted. The final insult had been delivered, some Southern leaders now pronounced, and it was time to act.
No state acted more quickly and decisively than South Carolina. Within days, the state’s two U.S. senators resigned and the legislature called a convention for Dec. 17 in the state’s capital, Columbia. Local communities in South Carolina held rallies and elected delegates to what now was apparently a “secession” convention.
The 170-member delegation assembled at the First Baptist Church in Columbia on the appointed date and got to work. But before much could be done, the fear of a smallpox outbreak in the city forced an adjournment to Charleston.
The delegates were called to order again at St. Andrew’s Hall on Broad Street and prepared for a vote. There was no debate or division in Charleston this time. On Dec. 20, 1860, the convention voted 169–0 to repeal the state’s 1788 ratification of the U.S. Constitution and secede from the Union.
Finding that St. Andrew's Hall was too small for an official signing ceremony, the delegates adjourned once again and met that evening a few blocks away at Institute Hall, the place where the Democratic Convention had come apart nine months earlier.
Following the two-hour ceremony, church bells rang, fireworks exploded, special newspaper editions came off presses, and the streets filled with celebrants.
The noise certainly carried across Charleston Harbor to the small garrison of U.S. soldiers stationed at Fort Moultrie. The new independent state (nation?) of South Carolina now felt it had a legal claim to the fort.
The commander at Moultrie, Maj. Robert Anderson, had grown increasingly uneasy as he watched events in Charleston unfold. He felt the fort’s position on a spit of land jutting into the harbor was vulnerable to attack.
So, on the day after Christmas, six days after the grand signing ceremony downtown, Anderson prepared to move. That night, after spiking the fort’s guns, Anderson ordered his men to row out to an unfinished stronghold at the mouth of the harbor… Fort Sumter.