This week, Charleston hosts the Democratic presidential debate at the Gaillard Center, two CNN town halls, the much anticipated presidential primary on Saturday as well as numerous rallies for Democratic candidates. And, of course, President Donald Trump arrives in Charleston on Friday at the North Charleston Coliseum.
Charleston has not seen such political fervor since April 1860 when the city hosted the most divisive National Democratic Party convention in American history. Abraham Lincoln called it “the Charleston fandango.” It was also the only convention in American history to fail to nominate a president.
Charleston was chosen to soothe Southern feelings over slavery and unite the party. Talk about a monumental political mistake. The historian Allan Nevins describes Charleston as “heedlessly selected” and “ill-chosen.”
The convention was held in Institute Hall (the site is now 134 Meeting St.). Charlestonians called it Agricultural Hall. The Douglas delegates stayed at the Mills House, which was “as lively as a molasses barrel with flies,” and spilled over to Hibernian Hall. The New York, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania delegations stayed on steamships they had traveled in moored on the Cooper River and filled with hundreds of barrels of liquor.
Stephen Douglas, the Joe Biden of 1860, was supposed to be the moderate nominee to hold the party together but, although he won a majority of delegates, he failed to win the required two-thirds vote after 57 ballots. Douglas had defeated the Republican Lincoln for an Illinois Senate seat running on the platform of popular sovereignty, that is, allowing the voters in the new territories like Kansas and Nebraska to decide about slavery themselves. Southerners opposed any limitation on slavery and hated Douglas with a passion as a traitor to their cause.
When the convention was going to adopt Douglas’ platform, the Southern delegates walked out. One reporter wrote, “the thing is in a hopeless jumble.”
According to the historian Emerson D. Fite, the nation was “awestruck.” When the convention adjourned on the seventh day, everyone knew that it had failed and that “the party of Andrew Jackson had been reduced to a shambles and the fate of the nation had been sealed.” The party reconvened the convention in Baltimore, where Douglas was duly given the useless nomination. “Something more than the convention had come to an end when the delegates of the cotton kingdom walked out of that hall,” Nevins concluded in “The War for the Union”; “the Democratic Party had been riven asunder, and the stage set for secession and disunion.”
The night after the walkout by Southern delegates, Cincinnati Commercial Tribune reporter Murat Halstead described the city as follows:
“There was a Fourth of July feeling in Charleston last night — a jubilee. There was no mistaking the public sentiment of the city. It was overwhelmingly and enthusiastically in favor of the seceders. In all her history Charleston had never enjoyed herself so hugely.”
Fortunately, 2020 is not 1860. Charlestonians do, however, get a historic opportunity to influence another Democratic Party nomination.
Hopefully, this time, things turn out better.
Robert N. Rosen is the author of “Confederate Charleston” and “A Short History of Charleston.”