Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Democratic Convention, Charleston 1861

In a recent comment, James referred to the motivations of southern radicals who broke up the Democratic convention in Charleston in April 1860. Did they divide the party to improve the chances of Abraham Lincoln's election and secession, and if so why?

In response I punted. I did so because I'm not even sure that the radicals intended to achieve the result they did.

The conclusion that radicals intentionally conspired to split the Democratic convention is not open-and-shut. J. Mills Thornton, in his magnificent Politics and Power in a Slave Society: Alabama, 1800-1860, denied that William Lowndes Yancy, at least, was a participant:
Yancy, in short, did not go to Charleston with the purpose of disrupting the American Democracy. He went with the purpose of nudging the party a bit further along the road to an open acceptance of southern equality.
I am, frankly, not convinced that Prof. Thornton is correct. But the conclusion of a man as knowledgeable as Prof. Thornton is not to be taken lightly. In my mind, at least, the jury is still out.

About the illustration, entitled Dancing for Eels in the Charleston Market:
The artistic inspiration for this Vanity Fair cartoon is a well-known lithograph first produced in 1848 by James and Eliphalet Brown to advertise Frank Chan Frau’s popular play "New York As It Is." There are slightly different versions of the lithograph, which is entitled "Jack, A Negro and Dancer for Eels" or simply "Dancing for Eels." The lithograph is based on an earlier folk drawing called "Dancing for Eels, 1820 Catharine Market."

Catharine’s Fish Market was located at the Catharine Street boardwalk by New York Harbor in a working-class area of New York City. The original drawing is based on a time when slaves from New Jersey were sent to Manhattan to sell their masters’ produce at the "Bear Market." (Because New Jersey’s emancipation law was implemented gradually, the state still had some slaves circa 1820.) The slaves were then joined at Catharine Market by free blacks from the city. If they were unable to win money at gambling, the black men would literally dance for the eels or fish sold at Catharine Market. Such a sight was typical of the theatrical nature of street culture in 19th-century New York City.

In this Vanity Fair cartoon Stephen Douglas, the leading candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, assumes the role of the dancing black man. The artist moves the market from Catharine Street to Charleston, South Carolina, the site of the first 1860 Democratic National Convention. As Douglas performs, he is surrounded by major Democratic politicians dressed in various working-class attire. They are (clockwise) President James Buchanan (1), former president Franklin Pierce (2), former Virginia Governor Henry Wise (5), Senator Robert M. T. Hunter (4), and Senator Jefferson Davis (3). Hunter, a challenger to Douglas for the nomination, is depicted as a slave woman with a basket of eels on her head.

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