Five Conventions, Four Candidates, and Three Parties: Chaos before the Election of 1860

By Hannah Christensen ’17

This alone might sound like a good indication of the turbulent politics of 1860, but there is more to the story. Three of the 1860 nominating conventions were Democratic, one was Republican, and one was Constitutional Unionist. They ultimately produced four candidates for president, two of them Democrats.

It all started with the Democratic nominating convention in Charleston, South Carolina. As the delegates gathered, several things became evident: Charleston was a poor choice for hosting, party unity was the key to victory, having any kind of slave code plank in the platform would guarantee defeat, and agreeing on a single candidate would be difficult. The northwestern delegates supported Stephen Douglas, but the others were divided between Senator R. M. T. Hunter of Virginia, Vice-president John Breckinridge, former Secretary of the Treasury James Guthrie, and Senator Jefferson Davis of Mississippi. Perhaps more concerning than this was the rumor that Alabama delegate W. L. Yancy had convinced his delegation to threaten to withdraw from the convention if they could not get a slave-code plank—Congressional protection of slavery in the Territories—into the platform.

Eventually, that happened. From April 23rd to May 3rd, the convention struggled to agree on much of anything. Despite their belief in the importance of party unity, the delegates spent three days arguing about basic organizational matters before turning their attention to the platform and nominations on April 26th. On the 27th, the platform committee presented one majority and two minority reports. The majority report reaffirmed the 1856 platform, with several additions: no abolition of slavery in the Territories, some state legislatures’ attempts to avoid the fugitive slave law were hostile to the Constitution. It also stated that the government had a duty to protect property wherever it had authority and naturalized citizens in foreign countries, as well as to acquire Cuba as soon as possible. The principle minority platform affirmed the 1856 platform. It proclaimed that the Democratic Party would hold to court decisions on property rights, promised protection to all citizens at home and abroad, pledged government aid for a Pacific railroad, pushed for the acquisition of Cuba, and proclaimed resistance to the fugitive slave law unconstitutional. The other minority report merely repeated the 1856 platform.

There was no agreement on the platform that day or the next. On April 30th, the convention decided to go back and vote on the individual resolutions from the minority report instead of using the majority report. After multiple states declined to vote, the Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, South Carolina, Florida, and Texas delegations withdrew from the convention. The next day, the Arkansas and Georgia delegations withdrew. After having adjourned for a few hours, the convention started balloting for a presidential candidate. Two days and over forty inconclusive ballots later, the convention voted to adjourn on May 3rd and reconvene June 18th in Baltimore.

In between the Democratic convention’s adjourning and its reconvening on June 18th, the Constitutional Union and Republican parties had their respective conventions. The Constitutional Unionist convention met on May 9th, hoping that difficulties in the two major parties would give them a chance in the election. The party itself consisted of individuals from all over the country, many of them former Whigs. While the Constitutional Unionists ran into some initial difficulty over their presidential nominee, they decided on former Tennessee Senator John Bell on the second ballot; former Massachusetts Senator Edward Everett—who would later give the speech preceding Lincoln’s at the dedication of Gettysburg’s National Cemetery—was then selected as vice-president. The platform, meanwhile, consisted solely of a declaration for the preservation of the Constitution, the nation, and the laws, totally ignoring the major issues of the day.

A little more than a week later, the Republican nominating convention met in Chicago, Illinois. Unlike Charleston, Chicago was regarded as an excellent choice to host the Republican Convention: easily accessible and located in a solidly Republican area. Much like the Democrats, the Republicans entered their convention with multiple candidates for president, including William Seward, Simon Cameron, and Abraham Lincoln. However, given both the convention chaos in Charleston and the strength of many of their possible candidates, the Republicans could easily afford to be uncertain about their nominee. They also had the advantage of improvements in organization, a good convention location, and an influential press with powerful editors and increasing circulation.

A political cartoon from the 1860 election depictins all four (eventual) candidates, plus the president at the time, James Buchanan. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.
A political cartoon from the 1860 election depictins all four (eventual) candidates, plus the president at the time, James Buchanan. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

When the Republican convention opened on May 16th, everything was in place. By the morning of May 18th, the convention had adopted a platform consisting of planks promoting Union, denouncing the Democrats, proclaiming that the Territories were naturally free of slavery and legislation keeping them that way would only be passed when necessary, and promoting free homesteads, tariff revision, internal improvements, a Pacific railroad, daily overland mail, and immediate statehood for Kansas. The convention then turned its attention to balloting for president and vice president. After a total of three ballots, the convention nominated Abraham Lincoln of Illinois for president. Later the same day, they nominated Hannibal Hamlin of Maine for vice president. The convention concluded amidst loud cheers and applause.

In the midst of all of this, another Democratic “convention” took place in Richmond, accomplishing next to nothing. Many Democratic delegates attended the reconvened convention when it opened on June 18th, but nothing had changed since Charleston. The committee on credentials spent three days fighting over whether or not to allow delegates who had bolted the Democratic convention in Charleston to be readmitted. On day five, the convention voted to exclude the Louisiana and Alabama delegates and admit the Georgia delegates. The next day, chaos erupted again when a majority of the Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Kentucky delegations; parts of the Maryland, Missouri, Massachusetts and Delaware delegations; and the full Oregon and California delegations withdrew from the convention. In the aftermath, Stephen Douglas and Herschel V. Johnson were finally nominated president and vice-president, respectively, and the convention adjourned.

Meanwhile, the delegates who had withdrawn from the Democratic convention held their own convention the same day. Consisting of over two hundred delegates from nineteen states and chaired by Caleb Cushing, the chair of the original convention in Charleston and Baltimore, it got right down to business. It unanimously adopted a slave code platform and nominated John Breckinridge and Joseph Lane for president and vice-president on the first ballot. At last the chaos of five nominating conventions had concluded, producing an electoral situation the country had never seen before. The end of the conventions was not the end of the chaos, however. The chaos of a four-way, three party campaign was about to begin.


Adams Sentinel. “The Chicago Convention—The Platform.” May 28, 1860.

Adams Sentinel. “The Chicago Convention-Temporary Organization Hon. David Wilmot Called to the Chair—Letter From Col. Fremont Declining a Nomination.” May 21, 1860.

Nevins, Allan. The Emergence of Lincoln: Prologue to Civil War 1859-1861. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1950.

Republican Compiler. “Democratic National Convention.” June 25, 1860.

Republican Compiler. “Proceeding of the National Democratic Convention.” April 30, 1860.

Republican Compiler. “Proceedings of the National Democratic Convention.” May 7, 1860.

Republican Compiler. “An Adjournment to Baltimore on the 18th of June.” May 7, 1860.

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