No American political convention has ever held so much meaning for party and union as that . . . which gathered in Charleston . . . Upon the decision at Charleston rested not only the future of the Democratic Party but also the continued existence of the Union.
The choice of Charleston as the site of the convention was truly inept. The Democratic Party that met in 1860 was deeply divided by one issue - slavery. Stephen Dougl
as was the clear favorite of Northern Democrats, while the Southerners demanded that the Party come out with a platform in clear defense of slavery. The decision to hold the convention in Charleston, the largest slave port in the United States and the most ardent defender of the "peculiar institution," has to rank at one of the worst decisions in American political history. It may have sounded like a good idea to hold the convention in a Southern state. The hope was that this symbolic act of "healing" would help win the region in the election and solidify the Union behind the Democratic Party. They were wrong. The 1968 Chicago Convention was a love fest in comparison.
The convention convened on April 23 and the Southern Democratic delegations began to press their long-rumored plan to walk out unless a plank that called for passage of a federal slave code was included in the party platform. Then, there were the "fire-eaters”, a group of Southern Democrats who actually wanted the Republican candidate to win the election, thus hastening the secession of the slave states.
The weather during that last week of April 1860 was not unusual for the low country - hot and muggy with daytime temperatures hovering in the mid-90s and nighttime temperatures remaining in the 80s. The heat inflamed an already edgy population, and was an irritant to the visitors already in a bad mood.
Charleston was not a large city and had never hosted a national party convention before. The city was not centrally located and physically could not support such a large gathering. Hotel accommodations were limited and hotel owners had colluded to fix higher prices during the convention. Transportation problems were monumental. A passenger had to change trains six times between Washington and Charleston. Franklin Pierce, former U.S. President and delegate to the convention wrote, “I have never been taught to believe in eternal damnation, but if it exists, the journey to Charleston has given me the only sample I shall ever need.”
Fifteen hundred Douglas delegates took over the Mills House Hotel, at five to six people per room. They also rented Hibernian Hall and set up 132 cots in the main room. The Charleston Hotel housed the more radical secessionist delegates.
What followed was the longest and most divisive political convention in Untied States history.The two factions of delegates were so badly divided that fistfights broke out on the Hall. The violence spilled out into the streets and local taverns. Gunshots were fired into the ceiling and knives were pulled by passionate delegates during heated debates on the Convention floor.
The delegates from New York, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts arrived in Charleston on luxury steamship liners and stayed on board in their staterooms. The New York delegation, knowing the reputation of Charleston, arrived with thirty barrels of whiskey and "forty women of questionable character." The Pennsylvania delegation arrive with 200 cases of ale and "thirty-two amiable females." The Massachusetts delegations - the Puritans! - arrived with no alcohol and no women. Some things never change.