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The Crisis of the 1850s
In the settlement of the war between Mexico and the United States (1846-1848), America acquired the territories of California, New Mexico, and Utah. It was a situation that brought the return of slavery as a major national issue. Intense debate was temporarily resolved by the Compromise of 1850 in which Congress recognized California as a free state, allowed territorial voters to decide (popular sovereignty) whether to ban or allow slavery in Utah and New Mexico, banned the slave trade (but not slavery) in the District of Columbia, and strengthened the fugitive slave law requiring the return of escaped slaves to their owners. During the rest of the 1850s, the slavery question continued to agitate American politics.

In 1854, in an attempt to spur population growth in the western territories in advance of a transcontinental railroad, Senator Stephen Douglas, Democrat of Illinois, introduced a bill to establish the territories of Kansas and Nebraska. In order to gain Southern support, the bill stipulated that slavery in the new territories would be decided by popular sovereignty. Therefore, the Kansas-Nebraska Act repealed the 1820 Missouri Compromise ban on slavery north of 36 30' in the lands of the Louisiana Purchase. As Kansas tried to organize a territorial government, conflict between pro- and anti-slavery factions became violent and erupted into a miniature civil war called “Bleeding Kansas.”

The issue of slavery in the territories divided the Whig Party along a North-South line and soon led to its demise. In its place arose the Republican Party, which was composed of former Whig, Democratic, and nativist American (“Know Nothing”) Party members who opposed the Kansas-Nebraska Act and favored “free soil”—a ban on slavery—in the Western territories. In the 1856 presidential election, Democrat James Buchanan defeated Republican John C. Fremont and American Party nominee Millard Fillmore, 45%-33%-22%. A few days after Buchanan’s inauguration in March 1857, the U.S. Supreme Court announced its decision in the Dred Scott case, declaring that neither the territorial nor federal government had the constitutional authority to ban slavery in the territories. Senator Douglas, the leading proponent of popular sovereignty, responded by claiming that slavery would still not gain a foothold in the west if territorial governments refused to pass laws supporting the institution (i.e., a slave code).

In 1858, Republican Abraham Lincoln, a prominent lawyer and former one-term congressman (1847-1849), challenged Douglas for his senate seat. In accepting the Republican nomination, Lincoln delivered his “House Divided” speech in which he warned that the nation could not endure permanently half-slave and half-free. Douglas agreed to an unprecedented series of debates held in towns across the state and which focused on the issue of slavery. The Democrats won control of the state legislature and reelected Douglas to the U.S. Senate, but Lincoln gained national attention and became a possible contender for the Republican presidential nomination two years later.

In the closing months of 1859, the nation’s attention was riveted by the failed attempt of abolitionist John Brown to capture a federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, and use the weapons to arm a slave rebellion. Brown and his men were captured and executed. Many white Southerners erroneously assumed that most Northerners were abolitionists like Brown.

The Democratic Party Splits
The issue of slavery in the western territories had ended the Whig Party and given rise to the free-soil Republican Party, but it also created a bitter internal division within the Democratic Party. On April 23, 1860, the Democratic National Convention convened in Charleston, South Carolina. The Southern Democratic delegates had arrived determined to have their party endorse in its platform a federal slave code for the territories. They believed that if Congress did not pass a federal slave code, then most territories would enter the Union as free states; in turn, the new free-state majorities in Congress would enact and the free-state legislatures would ratify a constitutional amendment abolishing slavery in the entire country. Northern Democrats, led by Senator Douglas, opposed endorsing a federal slave code. They wanted the territories themselves to decide the fate of slavery without federal interference.

Douglas was the leading candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, but he faced competition from Senator Robert M. T. Hunter of Virginia, former Treasury Secretary James Guthrie of Kentucky, and Senator Andrew Johnson of Tennessee. Douglas had been weakened politically by his bitter and public struggle with Democratic President James Buchanan over the issue of slavery in the Kansas Territory, particularly concerning the pro-slavery Lecompton Constitution which the president had endorsed and which Douglas helped defeat in Congress. Buchanan’s deputies had worked behind the scenes against Douglas during his 1858 senatorial re-election campaign and did the same at the 1860 national convention.

Douglas’s stance on slavery in the territories—advocacy of popular sovereignty, support of territories (in the wake of Dred Scott) refusing to pass slave codes, and opposition to a federal slave code—had undermined much of his support in the South. Well-organized opposition to Douglas among the Southern delegates was led by William Yancey, a former congressman from Alabama, Robert Barnwell Rhett, a former senator from South Carolina, and Robert Toombs, a senator from Georgia. They dominated the Committee on Resolutions, whose majority report endorsed a federal slave code for the territories. However, the Douglas-backed minority report, which endorsed congressional non-interference, rather than a federal slave code, was adopted by the full delegation, 165 to 138. That result provoked the entire delegations from Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, and Texas, most of the delegations from Georgia, South Carolina, and Virginia, and part of the delegations from Arkansas and Delaware, to leave the convention. The remaining delegates attempted to nominate a presidential candidate. Although Douglas held a clear majority over Hunter and Guthrie, he was not able to reach the two-thirds requirement. On May 3, after 57 ballots, delegates decided to adjourn and reconvene in Baltimore, Maryland, on June 18.

The bolting Democrats (mainly Southerners) had agreed to meet in Richmond on June 11, but then descended on Baltimore a week later as the regular Democrats (mostly Northern) began their convention. There was confusion and jostling over which delegations would be seated, but the Douglas forces prevailed and on June 23 the “Little Giant” was nominated for president with 181 votes on the second ballot to 7 for Vice President John C. Breckinridge. The delegates then nominated Senator Benjamin Fitzpatrick of Alabama for vice president, but he declined, so the convention turned to Herschel Johnson of Georgia, who accepted. Disgruntled delegates joined those who had withdrawn from the Charleston convention to meet at Maryland Institute Hall in Baltimore, where they nominated Breckinridge, a Kentuckian, for president and Senator Joseph Lane, an Oregonian, for vice president. Both sides claimed they were the true representatives of the national party.

The Constitutional Union Convention
Previously, on May 9, a group consisting mainly of old-line Whigs and a few former American Party members (“Know Nothings”) and calling themselves the Constitutional Union Party had met at a national convention in Baltimore. On the second ballot, delegates chose former Senator John Bell of Tennessee as their presidential nominee, over Governor Sam Houston of Texas, Senator John Crittenden of Kentucky, and former Representative John Botts of Virginia, all Southern moderates. The famed orator Edward Everett of Massachusetts was selected as Bell’s vice-presidential running mate. The Constitutional Unionists believed that the slavery issue was needlessly tearing the nation apart. They tried to appeal to moderates in all parties and in all sections. Ignoring specific policy proposals, the new party’s brief platform emphasized the generalities of peace, union, and compromise: “the Constitution of the country, the union of the states, and the enforcement of the laws.”

 
 
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