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.
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.
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.
The “Fire-eater” majority on the convention's platform committee 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, 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.
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:
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.
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.
The following received votes at this convention:
The convention resumed voting on a nominee. On the first ballot, Douglas received 173½ of 190½ votes cast. On the second ballot he received 190½ votes of 203½ cast. At this point, 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.
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.
With the Conventions over and no vice presidential candidate, former Senator Herschel V. Johnson of Georgia was offered the nomination by Douglas.
The bolted Southern delegates and their allies reconvened at the Maryland Institute in Baltimore. The rump convention nominated Breckinridge for President, and Lane for Vice President.
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.
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. 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.