On March 20, 1854 a double handful of political malcontents—Whigs despairing of their failing party, Free Soilers, even an anti-slavery Democrat or two—met in a school house in Ripon, Wisconsin at the request of lawyer Alvan E. Bovay. They were upset by the Kansas-Nebraska Act then being debated in Congress which would junk the old Missouri Compromise and left the door open to the extension of slavery in all of the western Territories by election, or Popular Sovereignty. The meeting resolved that stronger measures must be taken to oppose the pet project of Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas and suggested the formation of a new political party.
By convention the Ripon meeting is considered the founding meeting of the Republican Party. But it was just one of several such meetings held across the Midwest and in New York State contemplating or urging similar action.
The extension of slavery was not the only part of the Kansas-Nebraska Act that stirred passions and brought recruits. A now little remembered provision in the act forbad non-citizen aliens from voting or holding office in the Territories. That sound benign today, but Wisconsin was being rapidly settled by waves of immigrants—Germans, Norwegians, Swedes, Danes, Finns, and Welsh—who usually established settlements with their own countrymen. These people could not organize their communities if they did not vote and hold office. Wisconsinites naturally feared that such measures might then be extended even to established states. Anti-slavery people also recognized that this would diminish the ability of anti-slavery residents including most immigrants from opposing slavery in Popular Sovereignty.
A state wide convention was held in Madison that July to formally establish the Republican Party and nominate candidates in the fall election. The members resolved, “That we accept this issue [freedom or slavery], forced upon us by the slave power, and in the defense of freedom will cooperate and be known as Republicans.”
Influential editor Horace Greely had supported the name for a new party that June in his New York Tribune. “[Republicans] 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.” and no one had any better ideas.
The infant Wisconsin party had immediate success. In the elections of 1854 Republicans won two of the three U.S. House of Representatives seats, a majority of the State Assembly seats, and a large number of local offices. And with control of the state Senate they were able to elect a U.S Senator. A year later they took the Governorship.
Such impressive results obviously made Wisconsin a leader in the movement to create a national party. But others had been busy as well. In New York state wily political boss Thrulow Weed and ambitious Senator William Steward brought not only Whigs and Free Soilers but the locally powerful former American Party—Know Nothings—members together with the backing of Greeley’s Tribune. The name Republican was previously associated with slave holder Thomas Jefferson, ancestral founder of the Democrats. The irony was lost on no one.
As in Wisconsin local parties in New York, Michigan, Ohio, and elsewhere in the North had success while the old Whig and shaky Free Soil parties continued to crumble.
In July 1856 these local organizations met for the first time in a national convention in Philadelphia. By this time the Kansas-Nebraska Act was in full effect and the virtual civil war between pro and anti-slavery faction in Bleeding Kansas was stirring passions. 600 delegates attended, mainly from the northern states but also including the border states of Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky, plus the District of Columbia. The territory of Kansas was treated as a full state.
The party nominated the dashing, arrogant, but somewhat dim soldier and explorer John C. Frémont. To hear him tell the tale, he had personally lassoed California for the Union by unilateral action during the Mexican War. His Army superiors and the naval officer in charge of California were not amused and the Pathfinder had been court marshalled for mutiny. Despite this dust up, Frémont was a popular hero and he had the advantage of a determined and much smarter wife, Jessie and her powerful father, Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri, still a Democrat by opposed to violation of the old Missouri Compromise. Young up and coming Illinois lawyer narrowly lost the nomination for Vice President to New Jersey’s William L. Dayton.
The Whigs failed to nominate a candidate in 1856 and overnight the Republicans went from third party to major party status—the only minor party in American history to make the leap. The Democrats nominated colorless but capable James Buchanan, the Secretary of State and former Senator from Pennsylvania and like other Democratic Presidential candidates, a “Northern man of Southern Principles.” The Know Nothing American Party put up former President Millard Fillmore who promptly denounced the party’s nativist platform and ran as a savior of the union. Fillmore went nowhere. Buchanan swept the south and was able to hold onto some northern states. Frémont surprised almost everyone and won a third of the popular vote and 11 electoral votes including New York, Ohio, and Massachusetts.
After the 1858 mid-term elections, Republicans had won a majority in the U.S. House, a strong minority in the Senate, and a majority of northern Governorships. Southerners quickly became convinced that a Republican victor in 1860 would be a fatal blow at their “way of life”, the popular euphemism for slavery.
When the Republican’s next met several powerful politicians expected to me the nominee—especially Seward and Ohio Governor Salmon P. Chase. Both had strong bases and credentials as ardent opponents of slavery. But by shrew maneuvering, particularly by appealing to border states by painting himself as a moderate who would “not disturb slavery where it existed” and as a champion for maintaining the Union, Lincoln walked away with the nomination.
The Democrats shattered sectionaly three ways and their strongest candidate, Lincoln’s old debating opponent Douglas, could not win enough electoral votes. The Republicans were in and in short order the Confederacy seceded. You know the rest of that story.
After the Civil War the Republicans were the ruling party with only three interruptions for the next 65 years. But they quickly developed factions. The Radical Republicans—whose reputations have been tarnished by generations of diligent pro-Southern historians—remained committed to racial equality in the old Confederacy. Many Republicans, including their large, loyal base of Germans in the Midwest, tended to support the rising labor movement. New England and New York elected official tended to be far more liberal on most issues than Northern Democrats, support of the union movement aside.
On the other hand the Party quickly became the darling of the vigorous robber baron class of capitalists and monopolists of all stripes. That lead to corruption in high places in government but the steady stream of money proved a siren song hard to resist. Factions of the party fought hammer and tong over issues like anti-trust and labor reforms for decades. In the late 19th Century Marc Hanna formalized the dominance of Big Business capitalists through his Civic Federation and a “grand bargain” that gave labor a symbolic but powerless “seat at the table.”
In the meantime, in the Midwestern heartland of the party a kind of reflexive small town/successful farmer conservatism took root that was mostly entrenched stodgyism—reflective resistance to most change, anti-labor, Protestant, and more than slightly tinged with nativism.
In the early 20th Century Robert La Follette and others in the upper Midwest would infuse the party with a new brand of Progressivism. The accidental President and “That damned cowboy!” to party conservatives, brought his own brand of progressivism to the White House and in 1912 split the Republicans to form his personal Progressive Party, helping hand the Presidency to Democrat Woodrow Wilson. Many of his progressive followers never returned to the Republicans.
As for those Democrats, they had their own divisions. In the South they returned to power after the end of Reconstruction, erased its reforms, instituted Jim Crow, and ruled the Solid South unopposed. Because they returned their Senators and Representatives time after time, virtually for life, the Southerners by seniority became enormous powers in Congress.
On the other hand agrarian radicalism on the plains and out west led by William Jennings Bryan re-infused the Democrats with a brand of Jeffersonian suspicion of banks, hard money, and monopolies. And the big cities of the East and Midwest large immigrant populations, rebelling at the increasing nativism—and eventually prohibitionism—of the Republican dominance became overwhelmingly Democrat. That in turn brought the party to closer identification with the labor movement.
After World War I the various factions of the Republican Party, each for its own reasons, ranging from pacifist revulsion at the carnage of the Great War, to xenophobia, to high tariff protectionism, to fervent belief in American exceptionalism, tended to unify around what became known as isolationism.
The Great Depression seemingly permanently upset the Republican apple cart. They were ousted as the ruling power by re-invigorated Democrats, the New Deal, and a seemingly irresistible rise of liberalism. The Republicans reacted in two ways. First with sputtering outrage at “That Man!” Then party liberals got the upper hand with candidates like Wendell Willke and Thomas E. Dewey who simply promised a slightly more moderate continuation of the New Deal. “We can do it better,” was their argument.
Japanese bombs ended isolationism as a viable political position, although forms of it via conservative voice like Senator Robert Taft of Ohio, would linger into the post war years.
What really began to change the Republican Party was its decision to paint itself as the champion of Anti-communism. That began the long assault on party liberals, particularly the scorned Eastern Establishment as being either “pink” themselves or soft. The huge personal popularity of Dwight Eisenhower was able to hold that rising faction at bay, but the John Birch Society, the godfather organization of modern movement conservatism, reviled him.
When Eisenhower began intervening on behalf of court ordered desegregation in the South, archconservatives began aping of Southern Democrats calls for States Rights and the sacred right of private property as a sufficient reason for businesses to deny Blacks public accommodations.
The Federal Government, including its ensnarement with the world community via the United Nations and other organizations, became increasingly the enemy for this still minority tendency.
There were still plenty of pro-Civil Rights Republicans who gloried in being the Party of Lincoln as well as liberal internationalists.
In 1964, however, conservatives led by Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, gave the back of their hand to party liberals and the Eastern Establishment represented by Nelson Rockefeller. Liberal, or even self-described moderate Republicans, would never again seriously vie for party leadership, even when Goldwater went down in spectacular flames against Lyndon Johnson. The long, slow withering of liberal Republicanism was under way.
Taking advantage of Southern outrage at Democrats for the Civil Rights acts of the 1960’s and the example of George Wallace’s electoral successes, Richard Nixon inaugurated the successful Southern Strategy to usurp Democratic power in the South. Soon the South was solid again—solidly Republican.
Despite his conservative rhetoric and political game plan, in retrospect Nixon’s presidency was not only moderate, but fairly liberal. Had he not personally surrendered to his demons and gone down in disgrace, he might have left behind a fairly moderate party. Instead his embittered hard core supporters blamed liberals—Democrats and Republicans alike.
But you can’t win National elections base only on the South. Republicans began exploiting cultural resentments over hippies, anti-war protestors, and eventually bra burning feminists and abortion and in the process peeled away segments of traditional working class support.
Becoming the perpetual party of against and demonizing liberalism was becoming intoxicatingly successful.
And with the folksy charm of Ronald Regan conservatives were triumphant in the party. When his one-term successor George Bush, was ousted by charismatic Democrat Bill Clinton, Republican strategists decided that Bush had not been a true conservative after all and that a real right winger would have won the day. Resentful conservatives did two things. First they began to contest party moderates and liberals in primaries and even non-partisan local elections. And they turned to the so-called moral majority of the burgeoning Evangelical movement for reliable foot soldiers and highly motivated voters.
An infrastructure of think tanks, radio talk shows, and eventually a cable TV network, was financed by the deep pockets of supposedly libertarian billionaires, was set up to amplify orchestrated messages.
Primaries became places where Republican candidates could only win by constantly trying to outflank each other on the right. By the early 21st Century old fashion New England liberal Republicans were extinct and socially moderate conservatives, derided as country club Republicans in the vast white suburbs were equally endangered.
The creation of the Astroturf Tea Party Movement along with its anti-immigrant xenophobia, resentment of the poor as shiftless takers, and simple diffused rage, was welcomed by the Republican establishment, and then made its prisoner.
For the results, pick up any news paper.
The party started in that Wisconsin school house persists only in its name. The ghosts of those founders must luck down aghast at what the not-so-grand old party has become.