This day in 1854, what became the Republican Party was founded in Ripon, Wisconsin. The process that led from the collapse of the Whig Party between 1850-54 and the rise of the Republicans as their replacement between 1854-60 was a complicated one, and there were times when it appeared that the anti-immigrant American Party (aka the “Know-Nothings”) might become the chief rival to the Democrats instead. The 1854 midterms led to the election of a House majority opposed to the Democrats and their agenda, but nowhere close to a single, unified party caucus. Indeed, as is often true of the beginnings of large things, the meeting in Ripon is only clear in retrospect as the birth of a new, national political party.
The chief driving force uniting the early Republicans was opposition to the Kansas-Nebraska Act, introduced in January 1854 by Democratic senator Stephen Douglas and supported by Democratic president Franklin Pierce, who signed it into law in May of that year. Kansas-Nebraska was universally understood to be a plan to open territories north of the Missouri Compromise line to slavery. Coming as it did on the heels of the Fugitive Slave Act controversies of 1850-51, which showed federal power at work for slavery in the North, the prospect of slavery’s territorial expansion, and of the breaking of the fragile peace on the issue of the Compromise of 1850, proved a radicalizing event for a lot of northerners who had always disliked slavery but were not previously motivated to do much about it.
To this day, there are those who seek to deny the extent to which opposition to the expansion of slavery was central to early Republican ideology – what historian Eric Foner summarized as a party of “Free Soil, Free Labor, and Free Men.” During the 2020 presidential campaign, USAToday actually printed a “fact check” describing as “PARTLY FALSE” the claim that “The Republican Party started in Ripon, Wisconsin, ‘to counter the Democrats’ plans to expand slavery.’” The theory, given a veneer of academic credibility by left-leaning historians:
The divide at the time was not as much Democrats and what would soon be called Republicans, but simple geography — the North-South split that ultimately fueled the Civil War. “(The Republican Party) was a party founded by ex-Democrats and ex-Whigs who were opposed to slavery,” said Joshua Zeitz, an author who has taught history and politics at Cambridge, Harvard and Princeton universities. “A whole bunch of northern Democrats opposed (the Kansas-Nebraska Act), and that’s why they left the party.” James Thurber, a government professor at American University, agreed. “It is not accurate nor fair to describe that as the ‘Democrats’ plan,’” he said in an email. [Professor Charles] Cohen said the majority of the Democratic Party at the time did support expanding slavery, but they “were not united in support of slavery, as the (post’s) wording suggests.”…
The majority of Democrats did indeed support an expansion of slavery, but not all. Northern Democrats opposed that expansion, some of whom abandoned the party to help create the Republican Party. In other words, the split was more geographic than partisan.
What blinkered, partisan hogwash. Yes, the country’s divide was deeply regional – that’s why the Whigs were breaking apart, as southern Whigs found their pro-slavery sympathies to be more important than the things they shared in common with their own party. Yes, the Democrats had internal divisions of their own. But it is nonsense to ignore the partisan realities that were plain to everyone in 1854. “Northern Democrats opposed that expansion?” The bill was supported and actively dragged into passage by the presidential administration of Franklin Pierce, a New Hampshire Democrat. It was authored by Douglas, an Illinois Democrat. Its policies were advanced by the next president, James Buchanan, a Pennsylvania Democrat.
Yes, Southern Whigs such as Alexander Stephens were crucial to managing the passage of Kansas-Nebraska…but the partisan result was that Northern Whigs abandoned the party in disgust (Abe Lincoln was one of those) and joined the Republicans, while Stephens and his fellow pro-Kansas-Nebraska southern Whigs soon joined the Democrats. Everybody saw the partisan writing on the wall: henceforth, the Democrats would be the party of expanding slavery, and if you were against that, you needed a new organization dedicated to opposing it.
Let’s quote here the second volume of Peter Wallner’s masterful and unwarrantedly sympathetic biography of Pierce on the final vote by which the Kansas-Nebraska bill passed the House, 113-100:
It took a southern Whig [Stephens] to break the impasse…But the victory was the result of intense effort by Douglas, [John] Breckenridge [the Democrats’ 1856 nominee for vice president], [Pierce’s secretary of war Jefferson] Davis, and Pierce to use all the power of incumbency to keep the Democratic Party together. In the end, all but two of fifty-nine southern Democrats voted for the bill, while forty-four of eighty-six northern Democrats voted with the administration and against their constituents, in support of the bill. In light of the agitation the bill created in the North, it was a remarkable display of party discipline. It was the Whig party that had failed to hold together. Not one northern Whig had voted for the bill, while twelve of nineteen southern Whigs endorsed it.
The voters noticed, and knew which party to blame. Only seven of the forty-four northern Democrats to vote for the bill were re-elected in 1854. Democrats lost sixty-six of their ninety-one northern congressional seats. Kansas-Nebraska killed the party in large sections of the North.
Only a fool would claim that Republicans have stayed united and unchanged on every issue since 1854, but as I have detailed previously, the fundamental free-labor ideology at the core of the early Republican party has remained remarkably durable as the backbone of the party ever since, and that is still true in 2022. So, for everyone across this land who wants the chance to work, respects the dignity of labor, and wishes to keep what they earn and have the opportunity to better themselves by their own efforts: happy birthday to the Republican party.