You are here

Slavery, the Southern Democratic Platform and the Confederate Constitution

Prior to the Civil War, the idea to allow slavery to expand unfettered into the territories had been around for decades. Similarly, the fugitive slave law was as old as the original Constitution. Yet, these demands for slavery’s protection did not coalesce into a neatly ordered list of grievances until the Southern Democrats split their party at the 1860 Convention.


The slave states of the Deep South wished not just for a Democratic president to win the 1860 election, but for their candidate to be nominated at the convention. They promised to split the party if they did not twice get their way. This faction was led by fire-eater William Lowndes Yancey of Alabama. Northern Democrats figured their Southern political brothers were bluffing when they threatened to secede from the party. 

If the party split, they figured, the Republicans would be assured of victory. And a Republican victory would likely bring about a Southern secession. At least, this was the threat. Reworded and reshuffled, it had been the threat for decades. But this election season seemed to hold something different.

Popular Sovereignty as Abolitionism

Northern Democrats were almost unanimously in favor of putting Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas forward as their nomination. Popular Sovereignty – allowing the territories themselves to decide whether or not slavery should be allowed within their borders – was a sticking point with Southern Democrats, who were opposed to the states’ rights to choose.

Print of Stephen Douglas, Currier & Ives, 1860.
Print of Stephen Douglas, Currier & Ives, 1860.

Also, Douglas was a pure Unionist. When he toured the South in 1860, the talk of secession was just getting restarted. Despite its infancy, Douglas railed against disunionists, even threatening to hang them for treason. This did not sit well with many, and due to his stance, he faced a number of protests along the route.

Deep Southern thinkers saw little difference between Douglas’ Popular Sovereignty and the Republicans’ attempts to bar all slavery from the territories. In the end, they questioned, wouldn’t the same result be achieved? Northern pioneers and farmers could more easily move west than could Southern enslavers with their coffle lines of slaves. All the Republicans needed to kill slavery out west was a majority in the territories. Unable then to offer  protections for slavery, the Republicans’ “cordon of freedom” was guaranteed. Victory by Stephen Douglas, they believed, would be nearly as deadly to slavery’s existence as the election of a Republican abolitionist. Douglas was, according to Louis Wigfall of Texas, “a Democrat in name…” but “a Red Republican in practice.” 1Ashworth, 116-118. Douglas in the post-Dred Scott decision days, argued his Freeport Doctrince, described above.

Insure Adequate Protection

Southern Democrats supported the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision in celebration. Even the Northern Democrats nodded along in agreement. Many in the South, however, doubted the Northern Democrats commitment to it. 2See John Breckinridge’s speech against Douglas here.

Slave quarters of Jefferson Davis plantation.
Slave quarters of Jefferson Davis plantation.

Douglas’ Freeport Doctrine made slavery a free market, allowing that if the citizens of a territory refused to pass laws protecting slavery, the slave owners would migrate elsewhere. Even though the Dred Scott decision allowed slavery in the territories, it was the people living in those territories who had to pass the laws actually protecting it, and thus ensuring its de facto legality. 3William W. Freehling The Road to Disunion, Vol. 2 (Oxford, 2007) 272-275.

Jefferson Davis submitted to Congress on February 2, 1860, a series of resolutions demanding Federal protections for slavery. Davis insisted that slaves were just like furniture or livestock. Ownership in slaves should be given the same protection as any other property. Any attempt to bar slaves from the territories was discrimination. It was the Constitutional right of a slave owner “to take his slave property into the common Territories.”

Further, he argued that if the courts and the president could not “insure adequate protection to constitutional rights [to own slaves] in a Territory… it will be the duty of Congress to supply such deficiency.”

Davis begrudgingly allowed that once a territory became a state, with their own constitution, they could then decide the fate of slavery within their borders. Once slavery was well established in a territory, however, it was nearly impossible to root it out as a state. Davis did not need to state this reminder. 4Jefferson Davis, “Resolutions, February 2, 1860” as printed in Miscellaneous Documents of the Senate, First Session of the Thirty-Sixth Congress (Washington: George W. Bowman, 1860) 100-101. Here.

The Democratic convention at Charleston, South Carolina - Interior of the hall of the South Carolina Institute. Harper's Weekly.
The Democratic convention at Charleston, South Carolina – Interior of the hall of the South Carolina Institute. Harper’s Weekly.

The Charleston Convention

It was in this mood, with these issues at hand, that the Democratic Party met for their convention in Charleston, South Carolina. Beginning on April 23, 1860, the Southern Democrats knew they had an uphill battle.

The National Democratic Convention was just that – national. Delegates from every state in the Union were present. The more-populous North, siding mostly with Douglas, represented the majority. The Southern delegates understood that barring a miracle, they could not score a nomination. What they could do, however, was help craft the party platform.

It was William Yancey who made a play with his Alabama Platform. Through another series of resolutions, many in accord with Davis’ own, Alabama submitted that the Federal government had no right to restrict slavery in any of the territories. Additionally, it held that the territories had “no power to abolish slavery” or even restrict it within their own borders. They could not even pass “unfriendly legislation” concerning slavery. 5As printed in Proceedings of the Democratic National Convention (Washington: Thomas McGill, 1860) 32-33. Here.

To Protect, When Necessary

To a large extent, the resolutions submitted by the Democratic Party’s Majority Report sided with the William Yancey’s Alabama Platform. Due to a last minute shift in loyalties, the Southern slave states held a majority on the platform committee. It was because of this that the Majority Report nearly echoed Yancey’s sentiments. It stated that it was the duty of the Federal government “to protect, when necessary, the rights of persons and property [slave owners and slaves] in the Territories.”

William L. Yancey in Harper's Weekly, 1860.
William L. Yancey in Harper’s Weekly, 1860.

Northern Democrats found themselves a slight minority on the platform committee. Short only two delegates, they stuck to the basic Popular Sovereignty line, though thinly disguised by word jugglery. 6Ibid., 19-21.

Despite this minority on the committee, the Northern Democrats still controlled the convention itself. This control meant the majority support for Stephen Douglas. It did not mean, however, that the Northern Democrats could simply get what they wanted.

If the Northern Democrats caved to the Deep South’s wishes, it could split the party. Northern Democrats might leave to join the Republicans (or start their own party), weary of capitulating to the Southern slave owners yet again.

On the other hand, if they flat out rejected the pro-slavery Majority Report, Yancey and the rest of the Alabama delegates had vowed to leave the convention. Mississippi, it was widely believed, would scurry away with Alabama. South Carolina, already looking for a reason to leave the Party, if not the Union, was likely already waiting in the carriage.

The Egress

They had talked for days, but had come to no solid conclusion. Finally, on April 30 a vote was taken. The Southern-supported Majority Report lost by a vote of 165-138. With that, the Alabama delegates “retired” from the Convention. As the commotion died down, Mississippi announced that they were “seceding” from the Convention as well. Louisiana followed on their heels. Then South Carolina left. And then Florida. Texas next resolved, and lastly went Arkansas.

Southern Democrats meet in Charleston.
Southern Democrats meet in Charleston.

In all, seven Southern slave states made their egress. All of the Deep South, save Georgia, effectively left the Democratic Party. Acting as spokesperson for Georgia’s delegates, W. B. Gaulden, argued that re-opening the Atlantic Slave Trade would solve all of the “evils the South complained of.” Others in Georgia believed that Stephen Douglas, loyal to the Party, would eventually step down and allow a Southerner like Alexander Stephens to take his place. Nevertheless, the following day, the majority of Georgia’s delegates left the floor, effectively pulling the state out of the Democratic Party. 7Freehling, 300-306.

With many of the Southern delegates gone, many Northern Democrats hoped to shove through Stephen Douglas’ nomination. But it was not to be. The Convention insisted that a candidate still needed two-thirds of all votes, including those who had already left. Unable to do anything more, the Democratic Convention decided to meet again six weeks later on June 18th in Baltimore.

The day after leaving the main Convention, the Deep South delegates met in a smaller hall nearby. There, they resolved to meet again on June 11th in Richmond – purposely slating it a week prior to the main Re-Convention.

Richmond – and Baltimore Railroaded

The Deep South Democrats met first in Richmond and decided that they should effectively crash the Baltimore Convention happening the following week. They nominated no candidate just yet.

John C. Breckinridge literally labeled a traitor. From Illustrated Civil War "Union Envelopes."
John C. Breckinridge literally labeled a traitor. From Illustrated Civil War “Union Envelopes.”

A week later in Baltimore, the rest of the Democratic Party gathered. Their first order of business was to decide who would and would not be admitted into the Convention. After a few days, they decided to admit some of the Deep South’s delegates, but also to replace Alabama’s and Louisiana’s with Douglas supporters.

This ruling caused another secession from the Party. Virginia’s delegates, infuriated over the decision, were the first to leave. They were soon followed by nearly all of the Middle South and about half of the Border States.

For Douglas, this was a temporary boon. With most of the slave states gone away, he won the nomination, receiving over 90% of the remaining vote.

Meanwhile, the Deep South Democrats, accompanied now by most of the rest of the South, met in a hall nearby. There, they nominated John C. Breckinridge. 8Ibid., Chapter 20.

The Majority Be Damned

With that, the Democratic Party was split. The Southern slave states did this in order to save themselves. There’s no real evidence to suggest that it was some great conspiracy to tear the Party and then the Union apart. At this point, they were still playing national politics.

They feared that the Democratic Party with Douglas at the helm would eventually cave in to the abolitionists of the North. They believed that Popular Sovereignty would destroy slavery, since the majority of the citizens did not own slaves.

This does much to explain why it was so important to Deep South politicians to convince their constituents that even if they did not own slaves, they still greatly benefited from slavery. 9See James D.B. De Bow’s “The Interest in Slavery of the Southern Non-Slaveholder”, December 1860. Here.

Circle the Wagons

In the more immediate, the Deep South decried Douglas’ Popular Sovereignty. They insisted that it would kill even the possibility of the creation of new slave states. This would, as previously explained, cordon off the existing slave states, disallowing the growth of the institution. Without this growth, they understood that the slavery would whither on the vine.

If the entire South had stood behind Stephen Douglas he likely would have defeated Abraham Lincoln in the autumn. However, they were less concerned about the party and presidency than they were about saving slavery.

For years there had been talk of secession from the United States as the ultimate way of ensuring that slavery could continue. With the anti-slavery North out of the picture, they could look elsewhere to expand their own territories. Mexico, Cuba, even Central America were not beyond reason. Some even considered California – at least the southern counties – and maybe even Oregon, as possible allies in this move. 10Ashworth, 115-124.

But that move was still a last resort. For now, they understood that the anti-slavery sentiment in the North was spreading, and there was little they could do about it. In a sense, they were circling their wagons.

In Baltimore, after leaving the main Convention, the Southern Democrats not only nominated Breckinridge, but passed the new Party’s platform.

Comparing the Platforms

Both the mostly-Northern Douglas Democrats and the Southern Democrats had platforms with a few things in common.

Clipped from the Charleston Mercury a month before the Democratic Convention.
Clipped from the Charleston Mercury a month before the Democratic Convention.

For instance, both platforms called for “the acquisition of the Island of Cuba.” This idea wasn’t exactly new for Democrats. In 1856, their platform, expected “that every proper effort be made to insure our ascendancy in the Gulf of Mexico.” This time around, they were specifying Cuba. The Democrats wouldn’t mention Latin America again for another two and a half decades. 11For a detailed accounting of the Democratic Party’s history (to 1916) concerning Central and South America see The Independent October 30, 1916. Here.

Both also called for a railroad stretching form the Atlantic to the Pacific (though the Southern Democrats specifically mentioned the Mississippi River).

Likewise, both agreed that “the enactments of states legislatures to defeat the faithful execution of the fugitive slave law are hostile in character, subversive of the Constitution, and revolutionary in their effects.” The states did not have the right to opt out of executing this law, they concluded. States rights be damned.

This was where the similarities ended. While the Douglas Democrats vowed to “abide by the decisions of the Supreme Court of the questions of constitutional law, the Southern Democrats made no such claim.

Constrasting the Platforms

The Douglas Democrats called for the federal government “to afford ample and complete protection to all its citizens.” The Southern Democrats’ view on this differed in a subtle but important way. They held that it was the federal government’s duty “to protect, when necessary, the rights of persons and property in the territories” and elsewhere. The rub was in the phrase “when necessary,” as opposed to “ample and complete” per the Douglas Democrats. The Southern Democrats, according to Yancey, were calling for protection “only in the event that there exists… obstacles to the full enjoyment” of property rights (slavery). To the Southern Democrats, the federal government would only step in to ensure that slavery was legal in all of the territories. 12As quoted in Freehling, 297.

In addition to these differences, the Southern Democratic platform called for a bit more. They demanded that the federal government  allow any citizen the right to move to a territory with their slaves. This right, they continued, should not be “destroyed or impaired by Congressional legislation.” If this sounds like a first call for a Constitutional amendment, that is probably for a good reason.

Continuing with the territories and slavery, they demanded that no territory be made to wait after the Constitutional criteria was met for it to become a state. While they said it did not depend upon “whether its constitution prohibits or recognizes the institution of slavery,” they fully understood that once slavery was introduced into a territory, it was almost impossible to root it out. This would be especially true if the territory was rushed into statehood as their platform demanded. 13Both platforms can be read in Oliver Joseph Thatcher, ed. The Library of Original Sources: 1833-1865 (Milwaukee: University Research Extension Co., 1901) 201-203. Here.

Cutting a Constitution from a Plank

And with that, both platforms for the 1860 Presidential election were established. While the Northern/Douglas Democrats would continue as they were, the Southern Democrats would bring their demands with them into the Confederacy.

The Confederate States Territory of Arizona.
The Confederate States Territory of Arizona.

Acquiring new territories, such as Cuba, were largely dreams to follow the victorious war. Despite the conflict, some inroads were made toward Mexico during 1861, when Confederates invaded New Mexican Territory. The Confederates also used Havana, Cuba as a friendly port.

Other items, largely involving slavery, were dealt with immediately by the Confederate Constitution.

The Confederacy claimed, for a short time, the Territory of Arizona, consisting of what today is the southern half of Arizona and New Mexico. Hoping to acquire other territories of their own, the Confederate constitution made a specific provision for slavery. Article IV, Section 3 (3) stated that “the institution of negro slavery, as it now exists in the Confederate States, shall be recognized and protected be Congress and by the Territorial government.”

That same section echoed the Southern Democratic plank, allowing Confederate slave owners to move into the territories with “any slaves lawfully held by them.”

Additionally, when a Confederate territory became a state, it could not decide for itself to prohibit slavery. Again, according to this section, slavery was national. No Confederate territory or state had the right to outlaw slavery. States rights again be damned.

The fugitive slave law was covered in Article IV, Section 2 (3). This largely echoed the United States Constitution, though it specified “slave,” while the original was more vague on the idea. 14Confederate Constitution. Here.


The Southern Democrats’ demands upon their own party, as well as the United States, were made real in the Confederate Constitution. This only makes sense, really – why establish a nation if it isn’t the kind of nation you want?

The Southern Democrats wished to make slavery not just their sectional institution, but a national institution. They packed their bags and left when they saw that they could not get their way in their own party. Similarly, when they saw that they could not get their way in the national election, they left the United States. All compromises were rejected, all attempts to coax them back into the Union were denied. This Southern Democratic platform, with its insistence upon slavery, formed the major differences between the Confederate and United States Constitutions.

The Southern Democrats-turned Confederates wished to establish a nation whose cornerstone rested upon white supremacy and racial slavery. If it had not been for the war, if Lincoln had not responded, the Southern Democratic platform, complete with its constitutional enshrinement of perpetual slavery, would have succeeded.

Lincoln's Last Warning
Lincoln’s Last Warning

References   [ + ]

Has always had a love for history and the Civil War. During the 150th anniversary of the war, writing the Civil War Daily Gazette blog, which published daily for nearly five years. Wishing to continue the exploration, following the Charleston murders in 2015, and the activism around removing the Confederate Battle Flag, decided to dig a little deeper into the causes and repercussions of the War.