The vehemently pro-slavery masters of propaganda known as the Fire-Eaters came early in April to Charleston, South Carolina. The Democratic National Convention there would choose not only the party’s candidates, but also what planks would be included in the platform beneath those candidates. Fire-Eaters such as Alabaman William Yancey, however, had a different plan: create a pro-slavery platform through their committee that would hamstring their own party, sweep Republican candidate William Seward into office, and create a public outcry and backlash they could ride to secede from the Union into a new confederation where state’s rights (especially those concerning slavery) would be clearly defended.
The idea of secession was nothing new. New Englanders had tinkered with it in 1815, and South Carolina had threatened to leave the Union because of tariffs in the 1830s. In 1850, just after the United States had won a great deal more territory through the Mexican War, the question of whether those new lands would be open to slavery caused a new wave of secessionist thought. At the Nashville Convention in 1850, early Fire-Eaters argued that the South should leave the increasingly federalized country to defend its interests, but moderates eased their worries with suggestions that would later become the Compromise of 1850. The issue of slavery ground on, and a new generation of Fire-Eaters saw this as an opportunity to “stop Douglas,” as Yancey proposed.
Stephen Douglas was a senator from Illinois who had become a national leader through years of service as a representative as well as making a name through a series of published debates with his Republican counterpart, Abraham Lincoln. Douglas’s populist ideals, supporting Popular Sovereignty for issues like slavery, with his democratic catchphrase, “Let the people choose!” In matters beyond the local, he held the Constitution as utmost law. He was a strong believer in tying the Pacific states to the East through a transcontinental railroad and encouraged railroad construction to boost economic ties between the North and South as well. Unity was America’s strength, and even the thought of secession seemed criminal.
In Charleston, the Fire-Eaters presented a pro-slavery platform that representatives from the North found as useful as a coffin. A modified platform was offered with milder planks discouraging “subversive” state actions against the Fugitive Slave Law that made the Fire-Eaters begin to pack up their things. Douglas stood up to speak of the importance of unity, saying that the matters at hand were an unresolved fight, and only “a coward walks away from a fight once it’s begun.”
The Fire-Eaters were livid at the suggestion of cowardice against their honors and angrily remained at the convention. Douglas’s speech won approval of anti-secessionist Kentuckian James Guthrie, who had been Secretary of the Treasury and now gave his support to Douglas for the sake of the Union. Douglas won the nomination despite grumblings from the South.
The election of 1860 was a brutal one. It was traditional for candidates to stay home rather than parade themselves out seeking votes, but Douglas actively traveled from town to town speaking. When it was obvious that Ohio and Pennsylvania were going to his old adversary Lincoln (surprisingly not Seward), he focused all of his resources on New York, which narrowly went his way that fall. With it, New Jersey, and a sweep of the South, Douglas came into office in 1861.
Within a year, crisis began with a French-led invasion of Mexico, which had sworn off its pre-revolutionary debts from France, Britain, and Spain. While the United States had long been divided by slavery and expansionism, the issue of Mexico proved unifying. Neither side wanted European intervention in the Western Hemisphere. Southern secession-mindedness disappeared overnight at the opportunity to secure Cuba from Spain.
While Mexican bonds were sold throughout the United States to raise funds for a coming war, keen diplomatic actions secured a peaceful agreement. The United States paid off much of the debt, and the newly emboldened Mexican government worked alongside Douglas’s administration to develop its mineral-rich northwest with new rail lines. The dream of a transcontinental railroad was made a reality in 1862 through Chicago and again through New Orleans and Texas in 1864.
As part of the agreement, Spain sold Cuba, which had its own long history with slavery and even continued the transatlantic slave trade. Douglas’s ideal of Popular Sovereignty in the new territory was put to the test, continued slavery there, and caused a new wave of outcry in the North as word of conditions in the sugar plantations spread. Treatment of slaves there was so deplorable that even those in the South changed their minds. Marches to end slavery took place as far south as Richmond and Nashville, prompting yet another generation of Fire-Eaters to rebel against federal actions to regulate slavery, leading to the Civil War of 1869-71 in which the Deep South attempted to secede with Cuba.
In reality, Stephen Douglas made no such speech and instead relied on compromise and reason to maintain unity. The Fire-Eaters walked out of the convention and held their own later in Baltimore, nominating Vice-President John C. Breckenridge of Kentucky. The split ballots enabled Lincoln to win the electoral college even though he did not win a majority of the popular vote. At the inauguration, the story goes that Lincoln prepared to give his address but had nowhere to set his trademark stovepipe hat. Douglas took it for him, saying, “If I can’t be president, at least I can hold his hat.” Lincoln requested that Douglas campaign through the Border States and Midwest for unity during the secession crisis, which he did, exhausting himself and succumbing to typhoid fever in Chicago on June 3, 1861.