how the republican party was founded -- 3/29/16

Today's selection -- from Franklin Pierce by Michael F. Holt. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 -- an act which compelled states to return escaped slaves from another state -- had infuriated citizens in the northern states like few legislative acts in American history. Then came the Democratic Party's Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which allowed those two territories to determine the question of slavery by popular vote, in apparent abrogation of the Missouri Compromise of 1820. This caused all political hell to break loose, with many Whigs and Northern Democrats departing from their respective parties over the issue, and new parties like the Free Soilers formed specifically to protest this expansion of slavery. These coalesced in 1854 into a new party, which called itself the Republican Party, but some Whig stalwarts like Abraham Lincoln rebuffed overtures to join:

"A diverse conglomeration of new political coalitions emerged to compete with the Whigs for the anti-Democratic [party] vote [caused by the Kansas-Nebraska Act]. Within two years these newcom­ers would send the venerable Whig Party to its grave. A crucial facet of nineteenth-century political life can help the modern reader understand how this could happen. After all, today's major parties, the Democrats and Republicans, appear almost invulnerable to challenges from new parties. But that invulnerability is largely attributable to the fact that state governments print the ballots voters cast, punch, or mark, and the same governments control the access that parties have to those publicly printed ballots. Thus challengers to the major parties must jump through hoops, usually by collecting signa­tures on petitions, to get on the ballot so that people might have a chance to vote for them. In the nineteenth century, however, governments did not print and distribute ballots. That was the job of the political parties themselves. In effect, this system meant that all that was needed to launch a new party was access to printing presses and enough volunteer manpower to distribute its ballots at the polls. That was the scenario in the extraordinarily tumultuous elections of 1854-55 in which the northern electorate repudiated [the Democratic Party].

"In the midwestern states where Whigs were least competi­tive by the end of 1853 and where many angry Whig politicos vowed never again to cooperate with southern Whigs because of their betrayal on Nebraska -- Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Wis­consin, and the northern third of Illinois -- Whig leaders in effect posted 'Gone Out of Business' signs on the doors of party headquarters. These Whigs joined anti-Nebraska Demo­crats and Free Soilers in fusion anti-Nebraska coalitions. In Michigan, Wisconsin, and northern counties in Illinois, these coalitions called themselves the Republican Party, and the platform adopted by the Michigan Republican state convention in the summer of 1854 ringingly declared the mission of this new party. After denouncing slavery as 'a relic of barbarism,' calling for renewed defiance of the Fugitive Slave Act, and insisting that Congress prohibit slavery extension to check the 'unequal representation' of the South in Washington, D.C., it declared that the purpose of the Kansas-Nebraska Act was to 'give the Slave States such a decided and practical preponder­ance in all measures of government as shall reduce the North ... to the mere province of a few slaveholding oligarchs of the South -- to a condition too shameful to be contemplated.'

"The party's platform concluded: 'That in view of the necessity of battling for the first principles of republican government, and against the schemes of aristocracy the most revolting and oppres­sive with which the earth was ever cursed, or man debased, we will co-operate and be known as Republicans until the contest be terminated.' In short, the mission of the Republican Party was less opposition to slavery than opposition to southern slaveholders, and this would be the primary theme of Republi­can campaigners until the Civil War. In other midwestern states, however, the anti-Nebraska coalitions that emerged in 1854 sirmply called themselves the Opposition or sometimes the Peo­ple's Party. The nomenclature is important, for no one knew in 1854 and 1855 that the Republican Party might emerge as the permanent opponent of the Democrats in American political life. Instead, Democrats' foes had joined in ad hoc coalitions determined to reimpose the Missouri Compromise ban on Kansas and Nebraska.

"Elsewhere, northern Whigs refused to give up the fight by declaring their party moribund. After all, every northern Whig in the House and Senate had voted against the Nebraska bill, and many northern Whigs and Democrats alike believed that stance would produce northern Whig victories in 1854, 1855, and the presidential election of 1856. These Whigs welcomed support from Free Soilers and anti-Nebraska Democrats, but they insisted on running as Whigs, not as candidates of some new cobbled-together coalition. Abraham Lincoln, to take one example, spurned overtures from residents of northern Illinois to join the new Republican Party, and he ran for the state legis­lature in 1854 as a straight-out Whig."


Michael F. Holt


Franklin Pierce: The American Presidents Series: The 14th President, 1853-1857


Times Books


Copyright 2010 by Michael F. Holt


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