Political parties and ideals evolve throughout time. While so many follow the ideals of or align themselves with a particular party today, many of us don’t think about what the party used to be, or where its principles originated. The Republican Party rose out of a time of great turmoil and conflict in this country. From there, it grew and evolved into the Grand Old Party we know today. While many know and are proud of the historical figures that were Republicans and the landmark movements that the party has stood behind, it is important that Americans know what caused and who stood behind the birth of the Republican Party.
Supporters From Many Parties
The Republican Party grew out of former members of the Whig Party. The new party was formed by these members in order to oppose the spread of slavery into the western territories. The Whig Party was formed in 1834 to oppose the “tyranny” of President Andrew Jackson. However, the party had shown itself incapable of combating the national crisis over slavery in the mid 1800’s, causing its anti-slavery leaders to seek further measures to support their cause. While former Whigs were the primary organizers of this new party, they were not the only members of it. A good number of Free Soilers, members of the American Party (also known as the Know-Nothing Movement), and Northern Democrats also believed in ending slavery, and were supporters of the new party and its goals.
Other than anti-slavery, the party put its support towards the idea of liberal capitalism, and stood in opposition to the monopoly capitalism of the National Republican wing of the Whig party. The originators of the Republican Party considered Thomas Jefferson to be one of their guiding lights, largely due to his influence in keeping slavery out of the territories that were covered by the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. In addition, they drew on the ideas of Alexander Hamilton for their political principles. Republicans also supported the central route for the construction of the transcontinental railroad, supported a homestead act, which would ease the process of western settlement, and supported the raising of protective tariffs and liberalizing immigration laws.
Renewed Conflict Regarding Slavery
In 1854, the Kansas-Nebraska Act shattered the frail and uneasy peace that the Missouri Compromise had created in 1820 regarding state’s rights and the issue of slavery. Northern political leaders such as Horace Greeley, Salmon Chase and Charles Sumner determined that such a decision could not be allowed to go unchallenged, and that a new party needed to rise out of the conflict of the times. By February 1854, anti-slavery Whigs had begun holding meetings in the upper midwestern states to discuss the creation of a new party. One such meeting, in Wisconsin on March 20, 1854, is generally recognized as the founding meeting of the Republican Party.
Salmon Chase, Charles Sumner, Joshua Giddings, Edward Wade, Gerrit Smith and Alexander De Witt signed the Appeal of the Independent Democrats in Congress to the People of the United States, which stated, “We arraign this bill as a gross violation of a sacred pledge; as a criminal betrayal of precious rights; as part and parcel of an atrocious plot to exclude from a vast unoccupied region immigrants from the Old World and free laborers from our own States, and convert it into a dreary region of despotism, inhabited by masters and slaves.” The Appeal was first published in the Cincinnati Gazette, and quickly gained momentum nationwide. It saw the rise of what was initially called the “anti-Nebraska movement.” As the Appeal swept national news publications, a meeting was organized in Ripon, Wisconsin, which was the first proto-Republican Party meeting.
Then, on July 6, 1854 on the outskirts of Jackson, Michigan, over 10,000 people turned out for a mass meeting. In the 1854 election, the Republicans took Michigan and make advances in many states, and by 1855, the Republican Party controlled a majority in the House of Representatives. The new party held an organizing convention in Pittsburgh in early 1856, leading up to the Party’s first nominating convention was then held in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on June 17, 1856. This convention was the announcement of the birth of the Republican Party as a unified political force. Austin Blair, a Free Soiler lawyer who was prosecuting attorney of Jackson County, helped to draft the new party’s platform. Blair would continue to be a prominent member of the Republican Party, being elected to the state senate in Republican colors that year and becoming governor of Michigan in 1860.
As the convention approached, Senate debates regarding the issue of slavery got more heated, and more violent. On the floor of the Senate, Democratic representatives Preston Brooks and Lawrence Keitt of South Carolina attacked Charles Sumner with a cane after Sumner gave a passionate anti-slavery speech to which Brooks took offense. Brooks was related to the main subject of Sumner’s speech, South Carolina Senator Andrew Butler. Both representatives resigned from Congress after the attack, but were reelected by South Carolina voters the following year. Sumner was not able to return to the Congressional halls for four years after the attack.
The same day that Sumner was attacked in the Senate, an armed band of men from Missouri and Nebraska attacked the town of Lawrence and arrested the leaders of the free state. This marked some of the first rumblings of the Civil War, and set the stage was set for the 1856 and 1860 elections, which would monumentally impact the future of the country.
The First Republican Presidential Candidates
The 1856 election brought the first ever Republican presidential candidate, by the name of John C. Fremont. The party had been rapidly gaining supporters in the northern states, and Fremont won 11 of the 16 Northern states. Between this election and the 1860 election, southern states began threatening secession if a Republican won the presidency. The 1860 election saw the second Republican candidate, by the name of Abraham Lincoln. In November 1860, Lincoln was elected president over a divided Democratic Party. The northern and southern Democrats had rival candidates for the presidency, leaving neither candidate with enough voters to carry the presidency. Six weeks after Lincoln’s election, South Carolina formally seceded from the Union, and five other southern states followed suit within the next six weeks. April 1861 saw the beginning of the Civil War when Confederate shore batteries opened fire on Fort Sumter in South Carolina’s Charleston Bay.
The Post-Civil War Republican Party
After the Civil War ended, a Republican-dominated Congress forced a Reconstruction policy on the South. Out of this policy grew the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the Constitution and the granting of equal rights to all Southern citizens. The Republican Party lost control of the South by 1876, but it continued to dominate the presidency until the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933. In this time, of seventeen presidential elections the Republicans lost only four, two each to Grover Cleveland and Woodrow Wilson. The election of Lincoln was the last time that a new political party won an American presidential election.
The Naming of the Republican Party
During the February meeting in Ripon, Wisconsin, a local lawyer named Alvan E. Bovay suggested the name Republican for the new party due to its echoes of Thomas Jefferson. The name the Republican Party was first officially seen in an editorial written by New York newspaper magnate Horace Greeley. In June of 1854, Greeley printed “We should not care much whether those thus united (against slavery) were designated ‘Whig,’ ‘Free Democrat’ or something else; though we think some simple name like ‘Republican’ would more fitly designate those who had united to restore the Union to its true mission of champion and promulgator of Liberty rather than propagandist of slavery.”
“The GOP,” as the Republican Party is often called, stands for “The Grand Old Party.” This nickname was not created until a few decades into the party’s existence in 1888. The nickname was originally used by Southern Democrats, but after the Republicans won back the Presidency and Congress for the first time since the Grant administration, the Chicago Tribune stated, “Let us be thankful that under the rule of the Grand Old Party…these United States will resume the onward and upward march which the election of Grover Cleveland in 1884 partially arrested.” This was the first time the nickname was used to refer to Republicans, but it has since stuck, and is regularly used even today.
- The Origins of the Republican Party – USHistory.org
- Republican Party founded – HISTORY.com
- The Republican Party Founded – History Today
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- The Republican Party Platform
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