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Formation of the Republican Party

The founding event of the Republican Party is a matter of some dispute. Some point to a mass meeting in Ripon, Wisconsin in March 1854; others cite a later gathering in Jackson, Michigan. In any event, there appeared to be a spontaneous outpouring of anger following passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Large public meetings were held in numerous Northern communities, some of which used the term “Republican.�

The ranks of the emerging Republican Party were filled by the following:

  • Northern Whigs united in their opposition to the Kansas-Nebraska Act, but leaderless following the deaths of Henry Clay and Daniel Webster, both in 1852
  • The Free-Soil Party, which had played a spoiler role in several presidential elections, but now was bereft of effective leadership
  • The Know-Nothing movement, whose roots lay in the fear of immigrants in general and Roman Catholics in particular
  • Northern Democrats who deserted their Southern cousins over the slavery issue.

The party was strongly influenced in its early years towards the idea of liberal capitalism, in opposition to the monopoly capitalism of the National Republican wing of the Whig party. Among the supporters of this position were Whigs like William Seward and Horace Greeley and Democrats like William Cullen Bryant and Preston King.

Despite the claim of the modern Democratic Party to be the inheritors of the philosophy of Thomas Jefferson, the originators of the Republican Party considered Jefferson also to be one of their guiding lights, partly because he had been influential 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.

The new party experienced almost overnight success, winning control of the House of Representatives in the fall of 1854. Issues that brought the Republicans together included:

  1. Repeal of the Kansas-Nebraska Actâ€"the Republican opposition to the extension of slavery was based more on economic concerns than moral ones
  2. Support of the central route for the construction of the transcontinental railroad
  3. Support of a Homestead Acts, which would ease the process for settlers to own western lands
  4. Support of high protective tariffs and liberal immigration lawsâ€"both were attractive to Northern manufacturers.

Importantly, the Republicans were the party of free working white men; they were opposed to the spread of slavery because they did not want to compete against unpaid labor in the lands opening in the West. They were no particular friends of the blacks, slave or free. Further, the Republicans were purely a sectional party; they did not attempt to run candidates in the slave states. Their plan was to gain complete political control in the North; if they did, they would have sufficient electoral strength to elect a president.

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Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War by Eric Foner.
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The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery by Eric Foner.
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