But events turned sharply. William Lowndes Yancey, a staunch secessionist from Alabama, addressed the convention and invoked the specter of John Brown in a passionate rejection of "Northern violence." Yancey, along with Edmund Ruffin of Virginia and Robert Barnwell Rhett of South Carolina, forcefully argued that John Brown's Raid in October 1859 had revealed the North's true intention to dominate the South and forcibly emancipate enslaved African Americans. Southern radicals called for a federal slave code that would guarantee slaveholders' rights, and for protections for slavery in western territories. The Douglas wing of the party realized that such provocative tactics would alienate moderate Northern voters and drive them to the Republicans. Douglas's supporters rejected the proposal. Fifty Southern delegates left the convention in protest.
"Perhaps even now, the pen of the historian is nibbed to write the story of a new revolution," Yancey told a crowd of his supporters during a nighttime rally in Charleston's courthouse square.
The Democrats reconvened in Baltimore, Maryland, on June 18, 1860, and again the fire-eaters—this time numbering 110 delegates—walked out, allowing the convention eventually to nominate Douglas. The radicals, bolstered by a cohort of Upper South delegates, formed their own convention, also in Baltimore. This so-called Seceder's Convention nominated the U.S. vice president, John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky. The Virginia delegation, like the party itself, split between the Northern and Southern factions.
In Virginia, Republicans enjoyed only miniscule support, largely in the western portion of the state; indeed, Virginia's "Black Republicans" found themselves ostracized and relentlessly attacked. The lonely but outspoken cadre held its convention at Wheeling, Virginia (now West Virginia), in the far northwestern corner of the state, early in May. Delegates railed against the political domination by the "slave capitalists" of the Tidewater region. They also pointed to the disparity wrought by tax laws that favored wealthy, slave-owning planters over middling farmers, artisans, and urban laborers, but nonetheless stopped short of advocating abolition. The party's devotion to unionism, however, was resolute.
Constitutional Union Party
Campaign and Election
In Virginia, a majority of voters supported solidly Unionist candidates, despite the best efforts of Edmund Ruffin and Henry Wise. These two men lobbied hard for the stridently proslavery Breckinridge, and severely attacked each of the other candidates. Democratic governor John Letcher, meanwhile, remained a Douglas supporter. Letcher, who took office in January 1860, believed both that the senator was the legitimate Democratic candidate and that he held the party's only chance for success. The secessionists realized that the Democrats' split doomed them to failure. In fact, many in their ranks hoped that the subsequent Republican victory would force the slave states to move toward secession. Especially in the Border States of Maryland, Virginia, and Kentucky, where geography and large populations made them critical players in the politics of disunion, the 1860 election heightened tensions. As fears continued to rise that a Lincoln victory would indeed bring about a civil war, even Letcher followed the example of his predecessor, Henry Wise, in stockpiling weapons and matériel for the Virginia militia.
October 16–18, 1859 - John Brown and twenty-one raiders attack Harpers Ferry and capture the U.S. Arsenal there in an attempt to start a slave rebellion. Five men are killed (four white and one black). Ninety United States Marines, under the command of Colonel Robert E. Lee, capture Brown, who is
December 2, 1859 - After a gripping trial held in Charles Town in which John Brown is found guilty of conspiracy, of inciting servile insurrection, and of treason against the state, he is hanged.
April 23, 1860 - The Democratic Party's national convention meets in Charleston, South Carolina. When moderates supporting U.S. senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois clash with the party's radical Deep South wing, the latter group walks out.
May 3, 1860 - At the Democratic Party's national convention in Charleston, South Carolina, moderate supporters of U.S. senator Stephen A. Douglas are unable to muster the necessary two-thirds majority for his nomination, even after fifty Deep South delegates walk out. The convention adjourns.
May 9, 1860 - The Constitutional Union Party, composed largely of former Whigs and Unionist Democrats, convenes its national convention in Baltimore, Maryland. The new party nominates John Bell of Tennessee to run for U.S. president.
May 16, 1860 - The Republican Party's national convention meets in Chicago, Illinois. Though U.S. senator William H. Seward of New York is the front-runner going into the convention, the delegates select the moderate Abraham Lincoln of Illinois.
June 18, 1860 - After Deep South delegates walk out of the Democratic Party's national convention in Charleston, South Carolina, the party reconvenes in Baltimore, Maryland. The so-called fire-eaters walk out again, splitting the party in two.
November 6, 1860 - Abraham Lincoln, a Republican from Illinois, is elected U.S. president. He wins 1 percent of the vote in Virginia. While John Bell of the Constitutional Union Party wins the state overall, the Southern Democrat John C. Breckenridge wins the trans-Allegheny counties of western Virginia.
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First published: May 28, 2009 | Last modified: April 5, 2011