The First Republicans

Who created the Republican Party?

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All the way from the 1770s to the 1850s, Americans had plenty of political disagreements, but nothing ever seriously disrupted the machinery of state until abolitionists and planters began forcing the slavery issue. Prior to the election of 1856, some much-needed rearrangement occurred in politics. In 1856, the newly-minted Republican Party lost on the back of John C. Frémont, but they gained crucial insight out of the election. The Republicans realized that they could take over the White House without a single vote from the Southern states. In 1860, along came an ambitious Republican from Illinois, Abraham Lincoln, who used the trail blazed by early libertarians.

How did the Republican Party arise? What happened to the Free Soilers and Whigs in response to the birth of the Republican party? Who was the New American Party? Who were the “Know-Nothings”? Was there a Loco-Foco Party?

Further Reading:

James Buchanan: Campaigns and Elections, written by William Cooper

United States presidential election of 1856, written by Richard Pallardy

Gienapp, William. The Origins of the Republican Party, 1852-1856. New York: Oxford University Press. 1987.

Eric Foner, Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1995.

Music by Kai Engel

Related Content:

There’s No Excuse for Slavery (Updated), Liberty Chronicles Episode

Whiggery’s Last Gasp, Liberty Chronicles Episode

Free Soil After Van Buren, Liberty Chronicles Episode

00:07 Anthony Comegna: Two small American towns have been at war for nearly 165 years. Well, not at war, exactly, but they’ve certainly been at odds. Both claim to be the birthplace of the Republican Party. First, there is Ripon, Wisconsin, host to an anti-Kansas-Nebraska meeting on February 28th, 1854. That evening, a few dozen political renegades crammed into the town’s little white school house, and proposed a new party specifically built to oppose any further extensions of the slave power. A little more than three months later and after Senator Stephen Douglas successfully repealed the Missouri Compromise, the first Republicans finally arrived.

00:54 Anthony Comegna: In Jackson, Michigan on July 6th, under the shade of local oak trees on a property called Morgans Forty, this small town’s popular convention declared themselves Republicans with a capital R. Before long people across the North followed these examples. In fact, the process of rebranding Free Soil and the Whiggery was already well under way. And the only things particularly special about Ripon and Jackson are their timeliness and their choice of the word that actually stuck. But let’s have no doubts, the Republican Party came from below.

01:36 Anthony Comegna: Welcome to Liberty Chronicles, a project of libertarianism.org. I’m Anthony Comegna.

01:48 Anthony Comegna: The earliest organizations were called Republican Clubs and a true party took some time to really build. Fortunately, though, there was plenty of existing infrastructure to go on. This grand new party gained its most rapid and energetic support in Locofoco Free Soil strongholds like Connecticut, Ohio, Wisconsin and Michigan, as well as Vermont and even Indiana. Radical Democrats like Van Buren hatchet man Preston King in New York were the party’s vanguard and the steady waves of moderates who kept joining had to take great pains to differentiate their new party from the old Whigs. In their excitement about the shifting winds of politics and one month before the Jackson meeting, one paper reported a recent great Whig victory in Philadelphia.

02:36 Speaker 1: Trenton, New Jersey State Gazette, June 8th 1854. The Sun of Austerlitz! Great Whig victory in Philadelphia. Locofocoism annihilated, the Nebrascals routed. The municipal election that took place in Philadelphia on Tuesday last resulted in an overwhelming defeat of Locofocoism. There is scarcely a vestige of it remaining. The result is a most righteous and deserved rebuke to the Locofoco traders at Washington who, in defiance of the known wishes of their constituents, voted for the infamous Nebraska bill.

03:11 Speaker 1: In order to fully understand the magnitude of the triumph and the severity of the condemnation with which this treachery has been visited, it should be remembered that at the last election, the Locofocos had a majority of over 5,000. Now, they are in a minority of over 8,000, making a difference of 13,000 votes out of a pool of about 50,000. This is certainly a cheering prospect for the traders elsewhere, on whose conduct the people have yet to pass sentence. Glory enough for one day, there is a better time coming. It’s an ill wind, however, that blows nobody good. And as our Locofoco friends in this city have only been prevented from firing a salute in honor of the passage of the Nebraska bill. In consequence of the high price of powder, we would respectfully suggest that the thing can now be did at comparatively trifling expense, powder being at a heavy discount with their brethren in the Quaker city.

04:07 Anthony Comegna: Every day between the Ripon meeting and the election of 1856, barnburner Locofoco Democrats fled their traditional party, horrified by the thought that it was now fully and openly owned by Southern planters. And despite the even larger waves of Whigs, the new party was a genuine coalition. It was not, like Van Buren’s creature, a united block pursuing the common interests of its supporters. Their only common interest was the slavery question, and at this point in political history, that was all that mattered. Former Democrats like William Cullen Bryant forced the William Sewards and Abraham Lincolns away from the old Whiggish economic and financial policy, while their long established antislavery credentials made these Locofocos the soul of the Republicans. Between the 34th and 35th congresses, that’s 1853 to ‘55 and ‘55 to ‘57, Democrats lost 76 seats and Whigs lost 18. The New American Party, more on them later, gained 52 seats. Anti-Nebraskans and Republicans, People’s Candidates, Free Soilers, independent Whigs, all of these groups gained 56 seats.

05:25 Anthony Comegna: Whatever their political power, though, almost all civically engaged Americans worked somewhere within the broad scope of their common revolutionary heritage. Moderate or conservative Democrats supported popular sovereignty, in part at least, because they genuinely believed it was the best way to handle a tricky political situation. It was federalism, democracy, republicanism all in action, and that’s better than leaving it to Congress’s dictation. These newly minted Republicans unpacked the exact same bundle of concepts, principles and preferences, but with the critical addition of Locofocoism.

06:05 Anthony Comegna: In the pro-slavery South, too, Whigs and Democrats both defended their institutions as part of the very same Republican birthright. To them black slavery was part of the natural order, but white Southerners enslaved to Northerners? That was far too much. To Democratic Senator Albert G Brown of Mississippi, popular sovereignty or free soil would be “the Dorr rule or the Brigham Young rule, an appeal to masses without law.” These factions all had wildly different ideas by the late 1850s, but those divergent paths linked back to the same founding events and their own favored mythological versions of that history. All the way from the 1770s to the 1850s, Americans had plenty of political disagreements, but nothing ever seriously disrupted the machinery of state until abolitionists and planters began forcing the slavery issue.

07:04 Anthony Comegna: They each kept at it over time, they would not let up, and events kept showing why not. Give the other side an inch, and they would take a mile. Those were the stakes. And in that environment, a new major party totally committed to anti-slavery was the big shock that could very well kill the system. Northern Whigs were, of course, horrified by Douglas’ characteristically reckless Young Americanism, his rush to organize the territories and march across the continent. He cast away the time-honored Missouri Compromise and tossed in its place a bill that was wholly unnecessary, impolitic and iniquitous. One paper demanded: “Who actually wanted this law, whose purposes did it serve? Who would benefit from such rushed policy?”

08:02 Speaker 1: Washington Pennsylvania Reporter, July 12th, 1854, fusing of parties. The good work goes bravely on; the note of preparation reaches out ears from all sections of the North and West. Vermont, Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, New York and some others of the free states have held or called conventions to unite all the elements of opposition to the pro-slavery aggressive party, whose disregard of all compacts and compromises has spread alarm abroad over the country. The time for splitting hairs and dividing upon infinitesimal differences and shades of opinion has gone by, while the the liberty-loving, tyranny-hating freemen of the North have been wasting their energies upon their frivolities and courting defeat after defeat. With divided ranks and ineffectiveness and aimless efforts, the cohorts of slavery and their servile Locofoco sympathizers, the lucre-loving, office-seeking coveters of power and place have been carrying it with a high hand, disregarding the most solemn pledges and trampling underfoot the most sacred rights of the free states.

09:10 Speaker 1: The Locofoco party have arrived at a point when their career of wrongdoing and shameless aggression must be arrested by a united effort of the true men of the land. Longer delay would be most perilous to the safety of our institutions. The Constitution has become a rope of sand in the hands of these mad slavery propagandists. Every act, however monstrous, finds a warrant in the Constitution, provided the interests of slavery are to be subserved. So says the South and so chime in the truckling, dough-faced Locofocos of the north. The North no longer have any rights to be regarded, no interests to be subserved by national legislation. The North has no voice, no influence, no power in the national councils. Slavery has entrenched itself in the Senate; here, that evil, grasping aggrandizing power has erected its throne of tyranny and until the North, the men of the free states, arouse and hurl from power the tools of slavery who so basely and traitorously misrepresent the North, we can hope for no immunity from wrong, no exemption from insult and no security from imposture.

10:17 Speaker 1: It is such men as Franklin Pierce, who has been faithless to the teachings of a lifetime, one reared almost in the light of the cradle of liberty, the temple of freedom, whose associations, instructions and every interest might be supposed to have impressed him with the love of liberty, a preference for a free soil, and freemen, it is the unpardonable, inexcusable treachery of such men that the free men of the North are now called upon to rebuke and teach a lesson which shall be a warning to the time-serving men of all after ages.

10:52 Anthony Comegna: The new Republican fusionists turned Van Buren’s party system inside out. Instead of setting slavery aside to focus on economic disagreements, they put economics aside to focus on antislavery. Others like the Trenton State Gazette saw the new party as a sort of equal rights coalition, making war on all the lords of monopoly equally. The editor believed that no one should receive nomination to office who is not at once an anti-Nebraska and an anti-monopoly man.

11:26 Anthony Comegna: In another article, he provides us with an overview of the current state of party politics, including our mysterious new players, the American Party, or the Know-Nothing party. You’ll often hear them just simply called the Americans, but the Know-Nothings had been around for a few years already, as a secret society. They really came out as a political party round about 1854, after the Kansas debacle. And I don’t want to go into great detail about the Americans here, partly because they’re an all around distasteful lot of xenophobes, but also because I consider them and their political party a bit of a sideshow to the larger story I’m telling about libertarianism before the war.

12:07 Anthony Comegna: The most important things to know about them for our purposes, is that they were mainly made up of Southern Whigs, who now had no other party. They were people who wanted compromise about slavery over everything else, because they could see no other way to promote healthy unionism. Fillmore led the American Party into the election of 1856. And it’s important to note that for a while, at least, it was not totally clear whether the new Republican Party or the new American Party would rise to major party status.

12:41 Speaker 1: Trenton, New Jersey State Gazette, August 1854. The state of parties. The action of the majority in Congress in repealing the Missouri Compromise has caused a new development of parties throughout the country. In the South, such Whigs as Badger, Jones and Dixon have separated themselves from their party friends of the North, then will hereafter be found, if not in the ranks of the Locofocos, acting in concert with the wretched band of factionists, secessionists and nullifiers led by Toombs and company. In the North, the course pursued by the administration and the vast majority of the Locofocos in Congress in their efforts to betray the North into the hands of the slave power and in their shameless repudiation of the most sacred obligations has driven large numbers of the best men of the Democratic Party to withdraw their support from the present leaders of that party and to determine, in good faith, to labor for the restoration of the Missouri Compromise and for the restriction of slavery to its present limits.

13:43 Speaker 1: In some states, this portion of the Democratic Party has united with the Whigs, either by adopting the Whig nominations, or by a joint or a union ticket nominated by conventions composed of both Whigs and Democrats and avowing as their platform hostility to the extension of slavery. In the states where the latter course has been adopted, the new organization is styled the Republican Party. With that party, of course, the Free Soilers unite. In some states again, Democrats, Whigs and Republicans act as separate and distinct parties. Since the last election another new element has sprung up which still more complicates the politics of the day. We allude, of course, to the secret organization known by the euphonious cognomen of Know-Nothings. This organization is believed to have for its end the exclusion of all but native-born citizens from office, and as a consequence, the diminution of foreign influence in elections.

14:39 Speaker 1: The defenders of this new party allege that the foreign vote is invariably sought for by both parties, and that bids are made for it, and that sacrifice of principles is by unscrupulous politicians regarded as a small price to be paid for the foreign vote. This, they say they intend to put a stop to. Whatever may be their objects, it is plain that the organization is a powerful one, extending throughout the country and in many localities controlling the elections. The best calculations of the result of the next elections are liable to be overset by this new and secret element. As it is impossible to know its strength, numbers or action, no calculation can be made as to its effect at the polls.

15:23 Anthony Comegna: Free Soil democrats from coast to coast fled their old party for these new Republican clubs. In Illinois’ first congressional district, the Democratic Party literally broke up into two distinct conventions, one declared for Nebraska and the secessionists passing anti-Nebraska resolutions. When a brash Abraham Lincoln challenged Stephen Douglas to host simultaneous events in Bloomington, Illinois in the fall of 1854, a reporter said, “Lincoln had a large and enthusiastic crowd and Douglas so barely in attendance that his organs have seen fit to ignore the matter entirely.” In Maine, one observer wrote that, “The excitement against the Nebraska outrage swept over like an invincible tornado.” In Ohio, Locofoco Democrats abandoned their party thanks to Kansas and Nebraska. But they also cited inconsistency on basic matters of personal and economic freedom, that the party neglected, so it could prioritize their defense of slavery.

16:27 Anthony Comegna: Don’t get me wrong. The Republican party was a far cry from New York’s old Equal Rights Party. Whigs were the largest group here, but our Locofocos commanded both respect and station. The fusionist sentiment was so strong that the Chicago Journal asked: “Is there a Locofoco party?” And you know, it was a good question. It really struck at the heart of these antebellum democratic political debates. Martin Van Buren’s party system was built to spread and reinforce Jeffersonian republicanism across the country, but this project absolutely depended on ignoring contentious sectional issues like slavery as much as possible, and Van Buren understood that.

17:17 Anthony Comegna: Throughout the South, though, reformers like Calhoun, Robert Barnwell Rhett, James Henry Hammond, George Fitzhugh and many others, they gradually but sharply rebuked Jefferson himself. We will come back to this in later episodes, but for now, take my word for it. There was almost nothing left of Jefferson in the South by 1860. Every time a southerner denounced the Declaration of Independence, which was happening more and more, it helped isolate them further from the mainline American culture and politics in the North. Gearing up for the presidential election of 1856, Democrats tried to stop the bleeding, they nominated James Buchanan, a dutiful Pennsylvania dough-face who could be counted on to support slavery all the way, but one who also had significant ties to important Locofocos, barnburners and especially those old Dorrites from Rhode Island’s civil war. It was an obvious grab for votes, without any intentions of giving Free Soil men serious ground.

18:26 Speaker 1: Trenton New Jersey State Gazette, June 19th, 1856. A correspondent of the New York Express gets off the following commentary on the latest piece of Locofoco claptrap. It seems to us rather expressive. We poked them, we pierced them and now we’ll buck them. A truthful exposure of the destructive anti-American principles of sham democracy by its degraded leaders. With their acts of demagogism have they poked the American people, with the dagger of slavery they have pierced them and if we permit ourselves to be deluded much longer by the false name of a sham Democratic Party, the border ruffians will continue to buck against America ‘til they succeed in destroying the influence of the American people. The last attempt made by your decayed party sham Democrats in order to create political capital proves a buck of the weakest description. Better keep your bucking to yourselves. So much for Buckingham.

19:24 Anthony Comegna: Whigs insisted that Buchanan could not and should not be able to win popular support. For one thing, he was the most abject lap dog to the planters of any recent national figure; for another, as the Boston Journal wrote, “He is a woman hater, a dried-up old bachelor and the ladies can have no sympathy for him. Without their sympathy, he cannot be elected.” Republicans nominated Colonel John C. Frémont to be “the gallant young leader of the great Republican host.” Frémont was known as a military man, the conqueror of California, and a path-breaking explorer of the Great West, an adventurer and statesman quite unlike all others. Henry Wilson commented that if only the elder Van Buren remained faithful to his Free Soil principles he would certainly have been a top figure in the Republican Party, if not its accepted leader. So much for that opportunity, though. Too bad, Van Buren. You had your chance, and you blew it.

20:27 Anthony Comegna: John Bigelow gives us the opposite example. He was a long-time Locofoco Free Soiler and William Leggett’s successor at the Evening Post. In 1856, Bigelow joined the Republican Party and worked as a campaign director for Frémont. He even wrote the official campaign biography. Then, as now, there were at least two rules you could always count on to navigate you through American politics. Number one, even your best friends are not reliable friends; and number two, Iowa always comes first.

21:02 Speaker 1: Boston Daily Atlas, August 12th, 1856. Iowa leads the van for Frémont and freedom. Two years ago, it was the good fortune of the youthful state of Iowa to lead off in the signal anti-Nebraska victories of that year. Before 1854, this state had been one of the most unalterably Locofoco strongholds in the union, as well as the most steadfastly pro-slavery. It was the only free state which had not at some time or another endorsed the Wilmot Proviso, and its senators and representatives have uniformly been among the most offensively dough-faced members of Congress.

21:40 Speaker 1: The Kansas-Nebraska wrong at last awoke the people of Iowa to a proper sense of their duties under the Constitution, and of the terrible necessity of a redemption of their state from the hands of the corrupt demagogues who had so long abused their influence and power. The campaign of 1856 again opens with Iowa and again, we hear from our western sister, the nearest free neighbor of poor, wronged and outraged Kansas, the clear clarion notes proclaiming a glorious victory of the right. The news from Iowa is glorious, beyond our most sanguine anticipations.

22:15 Anthony Comegna: But now, let’s not get too gushy here. We should remember that many of these Republican types were also in it for the wrong reasons, you might say. Just like David Wilmot of Proviso fame, many of them wanted western soil free of black people. Take this attack on Buchanan from a Whig paper in his home state.

22:37 Speaker 1: Washington Pennsylvania Reporter, September 10th, 1856. White men, do you want Negro slavery by your sides? The anti-Buchanan party is in favor of keeping Negroes where they are. The Buchanan party is in favor of extending them all over the country and if there are not enough in the country for the purpose they favor the importation of some from Africa. This position has already been taken by Southern Buchanan papers. The plain question is, shall Negroes be kept within their present bounds, as advocated by the anti-Buchanan party, or shall they be spread all over free territory, as advocated by Buchanan?

23:15 Anthony Comegna: Frémont and this new Republican free soil coalition dramatically improved upon Van Buren’s 1848 results, not to mention John P Hale’s numbers in 1852. Frémont wrapped up the electoral votes in Locofoco Free Soil states like Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio, and he swept everything from New York eastward. Buchanan did win both the popular vote, with 45%, and the electoral vote with 59%, but Frémont’s campaign demonstrated that Republicans could take the White House without a single vote from the South. If Pennsylvania and just one other state flipped columns, the game was up, and all this work, 30 years straight for some of these people, all of it would finally end in victory. Four years later, Lincoln delivered Pennsylvania, Illinois, Indiana, California and Oregon. His road to Washington followed the trail blazed by early libertarians.

24:34 Anthony Comegna: Liberty Chronicles is a project of libertarianism.org. It is produced by Tess Terrible. If you’ve enjoyed this episode of Liberty Chronicles, please rate, review and subscribe to us on iTunes. For more information on Liberty Chronicles, visit libertarianism.org.