MICHAEL BURLINGAME (AUTHOR, ABRAHAM LINCOLN: A LIFE): If a particularly powerful issue grabs the public imagination, and you try to sweep it under the rug, thats not going to work. Eventually push was going to come to shove.
CONVENTIONAL WISDOMTHE SPLIT: 1860
STEVE HAHN (AUTHOR, THE POLITICAL WORLDS OF SLAVERY AND FREEDOM): From the time of the founding of the Republic, slavery was the most divisive issue in American politics.
MICHAEL BURLINGAME: When you talk about slavery in the abstract was one thing. But when you actually saw runaway slaves being rendered back under the Fugitive Slave Act, when you read accounts of slaves beaten, punished, mutilated, husbands sold away from wives and children sold away from parents, it appealed to peoples emotions.
STEVEN HAHN: In certain parts of the country a process of emancipation began, but slavery deepened and intensified in the deep South which not only made Southern slave holders the richest people and most politically powerful people in the United States, but also drove American economic growth.
DOUGLAS EGERTON (AUTHOR, YEAR OF METEORS: STEPHEN DOUGLAS, ABRAHAM LINCOLN, AND THE ELECTION THAT BROUGHT ON THE CIVIL WAR): The Democrats were the main party and theyd been the main party for decades. For the Democrats, far and away the frontrunner was Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois, the so-called little giant. Hed been in politics for 30 years.
MICHAEL BURLINGAME: But the Democrats were divided over the slavery issue. And Douglas had tried to paper over the differences. The technical question was: should slavery be allowed to expand into the Western territories? The Southern Democrats said, yes, and Douglas, trying to keep the North and South wings of the party united said, Well, lets let the people who move out to the territories decide whether they want slavery or not.
STEVE HAHN: So when the Democrats got together at the convention in Charleston, there was no clear plan.
DOUGLAS EGERTON: Southerners decided to write a hardcore, pro-slavery platform they knew Stephen Douglas would never accept.
STEVE HAHN: But the Douglas forces won on the platform, at which point, delegates from the deep South got up and left. And when they did, there werent enough delegates at the convention for Douglas to get two thirds of the vote in order to get the nomination.
MICHAEL BURLINGAME: Once the Democrats split up in Charleston, they decide to reconvene in another Southern city, Baltimore.
DOUGLAS EGERTON: Baltimore essentially was a repeat of their first one. The same men who walked out in Charleston came back still determined to deny Douglas the nomination, and walked out yet again. The Democrats who were left simply announced that whoever was there was going to vote. The two-thirds rule meant two-thirds of those in the building at any given moment. And they went ahead and nominated Stephen Douglas.
STEVE HAHN: Then, Southern Democrats decide to hold their own rump convention. They support a federal slave code, and they nominate John Breckinridge, the sitting Vice President from Kentucky. So the result was, you had two candidates from the Democratic party, running for president.
DOUGLAS EGERTON: The Democratic dysfunction of 1860 three conventions, two nominees in the field thats dysfunction on a major scale. And really by the early fall it was pretty clear the Republicans were going to win.
STEVE HAHN: The Republican Party is a new party, committed to ending slavery in some way.
DOUGLAS EGERTON: They existed only in the North. Abraham Lincoln was so little known even in 1860 that the newspapers often reported his first name as Abram and not Abraham.
MICHAEL BURLINGAME: Prior to 1860, the Democrats had won time and again. The Democratic Party was the one major institution that kept the Union together, that had Northern and Southern support. And when it broke up the Civil War seemed almost inevitable.
DOUGLAS EGERTON: The big question of course is what have happened had the Democrats been unified had they met in Charleston, and tried to find some kind of consensus candidate. Had the Democrats won, the United States would be a very different country for years to come.
MICHAEL BURLINGAME: In American history, when a party breaks up, for the next generation that party is on the outs. The Republican party then dominates American politics from 1860 up until 1912. Today, it could well be that a split in a party akin to that would have the same effect. Whichever party breaks up might be in the wilderness for the next generation.