Convention History: From 1860 to 2008

Jeff Alworth

In 1860, a man from Illinois ran for president with the promise to deliver the nation from the great national shame of slavery.  As a legacy of that 1860 race, this year we have a black man running for president.  By some strange coincidence, he is also a man from Illinois.  But he doesn't run on the ticket of the Great Emancipator.  Instead, the Grand Old Party is targeting him as "exotic," a continuation of the same coded language Southern Democrats used to use.  He is a Democrat, a member of the party who in 1860 distinguished itself as the party of slavery.

1860 - Democrats Split Over Slavery
The schism in the Democratic Party had been building for at least 16 years, but the Dred Scott case pushed it over the edge.  The element of the ruling that excited Southern Democrats held that the Missouri Compromise, which limited slavery to certain states, was unconstitutional.  Following the ruling, Southern Dems felt vindicated on the issue of slavery, arguing that it should be legal everywhere. As a result, the Republicans, in their first convention, were united in opposition to slavery (though to what degree was a bone of some contention).


Democrats were wholly divided. Meeting in Charleston, SC, Northern and Southern Dems split almost immediately. Southern Dems called for a platform affirming and extending the right to hold slaves. Northern Dems, led by Stephen Douglas, refused the pro-slavery platform, and the delegations of eight slave-holding states walked out of the convention. After 54 ballots, they concluded they couldn’t muster a two-thirds majority vote, they adjourned without a nominee. 

When they met again two months later in Baltimore, they met without the Southern states. Although they still couldn’t get the 2/3s majority of all Democratic delegates, they decided to nominate Douglas when they got 2/3s of those present. 

The Southern Democrats met after the Northern Dems and nominated Kentucky’s John Breckinridge on a pro-slavery platform. They also nominated Joseph Lane, a Senator from newly-minted Oregon for Vice President. Lane had been appointed to govern the Oregon Territory in 1848. He had only been a senator one year when he got the nomination. Lane’s political career was damaged by his pro-slavery position, and he retired to the Umpqua Valley and stayed out of politics. Lane County is named for him; one of his sons served as a US Congressman, and another as a US Senator.

The legacy of that election was profound: Democrats lost nine of the next eleven presidential races (Grover Cleveland was the exception).  Of the many lessons we could take away from 1860 is that history does swing like a pendulum, and there are moments when a change happens that sends the swing of history in the other direction.  I think it's never clear when the moment of reversal comes, but there would certainly be appropriate if historians look back and identify 2008.

connect with blueoregon