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Charlotte and Charleston: Political tale of two cities
by Gene Owens



The Democratic Party has chosen Charlotte, N.C., as the site of its 2012 national convention, which means that this Labor Day, Democrats will be meeting in the Carolinas for the first time since 1860.

The Dems are hoping the only connection between the 1860 and the 2012 conventions will be the first four letters of the host city's name. In 1860, when Charlotte was a piddling little backwoods town, the party met in Charleston, S.C. one of the South's leading cities.

Both cities were named after royalty: Charlotte after Charlotte of Mecklenburg, wife of England's King George III, and Charleston after Charles II, whose latinized moniker (Carolus) also gave the Carolina colony its name.

Charleston has never sent a native son to the White House. Charlotte lies a stone's throw from the birthplace of Andrew Jackson, and they're still arguing over which Carolina can claim him. President James K. Polk was born in Mecklenburg County and President Andrew Johnson was born near Raleigh, though all three achieved political prominence in Tennessee. John Edwards, a native of South Carolina, who represented North Carolina in the Senate, was derailed in his quest for the White House. His name is unlikely to receive favorable mention at the Charlotte convention.

In 1860, the Democratic Party stood triumphant in American politics. Basking in the legacies of Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson, it had vanquished its major rival, the Whig Party, and stood ready to offer its hero, Stephen Douglas, the "Little Giant" of Illinois, as the man who could sew together a divided country.

They reckoned without the ingenuity of another Illinois politician: Abe Lincoln, a former rail-splitter and Whig politician who had hooked up with the nascent Republican Party, whose abolitionist sentiments made it anathema down South.

Lincoln and Douglas argued the issue of slavery in a series of epic debates in their race for the U.S. Senate from Illinois. The Rail Splitter thought slavery was wrong and should be confined to the states where it already existed. The Little Giant said it wasn't his cup of tea, but if the people of a new state wanted it, they should be able to have it.

Then Abe sprang his trap: Suppose a state entered the union and passed no law regarding slavery, neither outlawing it nor authorizing it. Was slavery still legal?

Douglas answered: No. In effect, freedom was the default status, and unless a state specifically authorized slavery, it would be illegal to own slaves in it.

That may have established the Little Giant as a man of moderation and reasonableness in the minds of his Illinois constituents, but down South it set off a firestorm.

At the Democratic National Convention in Charleston, the South refused to go along with the national favorite, and the convention broke up. It reconvened in Baltimore and the two sides again split, with Northern Democrats nominating Douglas and Southern Democrats nominating Vice President John Breckinridge of Kentucky. With the opposition split, Lincoln won the election, and 11 Southern states bolted the Union.

In 2012, the nation is not likely to be so split. Charlotte is a city that thrives on commerce, not on rebellion. It's a city with a different personality from Charleston's, even though television commercials for the Queen City have begun to feature Charleston-like carriage rides.

Charlotte grew up on textiles and banking while Charleston grew up on rice and indigo. Charlotte is a barbecue-and-bun city while Charleston is more into shrimp and grits (although I've had some very decent shrimp and grits in Charlotte).

The Democratic Party is expected to be united behind President Barack Obama, who carried North Carolina by 14,000 votes and Mecklenburg County by 100,000 in the 2008 election. The city will be less concerned over the president's politics and more concerned with the economic impact that comes from 30,000 delegates, politicians and journalists – many on expense accounts – flooding into the area. The politicos and pundits are expected to spend around $150 million in the Queen City.

The convention should also help Charlotte in its rivalry with Atlanta, which has been host to not only to a national convention (Democratic, 1988), but also to the Olympics. The Queen City has long chafed over the fact that the Associated Press allows references to Atlanta without specifying the state. It still requires the initials "N.C." in references to Charlotte, whose corporate population is larger than Atlanta's, though its metropolitan population is much smaller.

Charlotte beat out three finalists for the convention nod: Cleveland, Minneapolis and St. Louis. The AP doesn't require "Ohio" after Cleveland, "Minn." after Minneapolis or "Mo." after St. Louis. Maybe the Democratic National Convention will enable Charlotte to ditch those pesky initials and stand up with the big guys.

Politically, the choice makes good sense for Obama's party, according to Larry Sabato, Virginia's political sage, who heads the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. Noted Sabato:

"All you can do with a convention is send a message," he said, "and the message of choosing North Carolina is that Obama is going to fight for every state he won in 2008."

Regardless of who carries the state, I hope the delegates, politicos and pundits go home with a deep appreciation of Southern barbecue. They'll find worthy examples of it at Bat's Barbecue, across the state line in Rock Hill, S.C., and in any number of emporiums in Lexington, an hour or so up I-85.

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Gene Owens has been around the Southern journalistic scene for 48 years. He has been senior associate editor of The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va., and editorial-page editor of the Roanoke Times in Roanoke, Va.

As senior editor for Creative Services, a management consulting firm in High Point, N. C., he ghosted more than a dozen published books for professional clients. For the past nine years he has been assistant managing editor, political editor and columnist for the Mobile Register. Register readers named him their favorite local columnist, and readers of the independent regional magazine, Bay Weekly, agreed. He was runner-up in the regional Green Eyeshades competition among writers of humor columns.

He has been on the board of directors of the National Conference of Editorial Writers and was editor of The Masthead, the NCEW’s national quarterly. He is in semi-retirement in Anderson, S. C.


Read more of Gene's entertaining columns:
Polaroid fades into history
A Tribute to Johnny Cash
Roy Moore at the Courthouse Door
All about Gene and Greasepit Grammar
Greasepit Grammar: Misplaced modifiers
Greasepit Grammar: Inertia can get you
Greasepit Grammar: Drinking and dranking
Greasepit Grammar: A Pronominal grand slam
The Wal-Mart Paradox
Taking a week off from retirement to do nothing
Raspberry ants are coming
Flocking South with the snowbirds
Juicy Fruit will gum up the mole works
Dan Rather and the Texas truth
Putting on the dog!
The scars turned to flowers
If only our forefathers had used attack ads
Decent 'dogs
Thoughts from the Southern road
Sic the goats on your kudzu
Speaking Southern in the kitchen

Write Gene Owens at 315 Lakeforest Circle, Anderson SC 29625, or e-mail him at WadesDixieCo@aol.com

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