The Republican Party/Chapter I

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The Republican party was organized in 1854. That was the time of the third great crisis in the domestic history of the nation. The first had occurred in the very establishment of our constitutional system. The second had its culmination in the Missouri Compromise of 1820, when, by giving formal recognition and assent to sectional lines, it was hoped to allay the rising menace of sectionalism against nationality. For a generation that compromise endured, though the inexorable logic of events was steadily working against its perpetuity. Its principle had been to divide the United States west of the Mississippi River on the geographical line of 36° 30′ north latitude, with free territory at the north and slave territory at the south, and to admit a state from one side concurrently with a state from the other, so as to keep the balance even between the two at Washington. That seemed like an extension of the provision of the Ordinance of 1787 which made the Northwest Territory—afterward Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin—free soil, while leaving the Southwest—Kentucky, Tennessee, and the Gulf States—to slavery.

Before a dozen years had passed, however, it became apparent that there was more territory for free states north of the Missouri Compromise line than for slave states south of it. So Texas was annexed and a vast region was taken from Mexico to provide material for more slave states. But this operation proved disappointing. Texas remained one single state instead of being divided into the five that had been expected; California came in as a single free state instead of being divided into two, one free and one slave; and New Mexico and Arizona would obviously not be ready for statehood for many years. With Kansas, Nebraska, Oregon and other northern territories rapidly preparing for entrance into the Union, each having claims based upon fitness that could not be denied, it was evident that the Missouri Compromise could not prevent the free states from soon outnumbering the slave.

Therefore in 1854 the Pro-Slavery party, with its last control of Congress, enacted the Kansas-Nebraska bill. That measure was a virtual repeal of the Missouri Compromise in that it permitted slavery and slave states north of the line which the latter act had established. It did not, it is true, command the existence of slavery nor declare the power of Congress to require its extension in the northern territories. But it established the principle of "Squatter Sovereignty," under which the residents, even temporary, of any territory might determine whether it should be free or slave. This was in the face of the constitutional provision that Congress should make all laws for the government of territories before their admission to the Union as states as well as in violation of the compromise of 1820.

The result was the precipitation of the final conflict over sectionalism, with a complete breaking up of the old parties and a general political realignment. The Democratic party was rent asunder, a large proportion of its members in the North refusing to sanction the Kansas-Nebraska bill. The Whig party practically went out of existence. The radical Free Soil party arose in considerable strength. Obviously the time was ripe for a new national organization which should grapple with the great issues rising dominant above all others which had been matters of contention between Whigs and Democrats. These latter issues had, indeed, existed from the beginning of the nation and were in themselves of great moment. The included questions of the tariff, banking, internal improvements such as roads and canals, the power of the President's veto and strict or liberal construction of the constitution. Some of them dated from the days of Hamilton and Jefferson; some of them have persisted until the present time. But at the middle of the last century far-seeing and thoughtful men perceived that all these were subordinate, for the time, to the two supreme issues of liberty and union. There was little use in debating what should be the policy of the nation until it was positively and permanently determined whether there was to be one nation or two. And if it was to remain one nation, all questions of economics must be held in abeyance to that of whether it was to be a nation of free or of slave labor. So, during the protracted debate in Congress over the Kansas-Nebraska bill, there arose an immeasurably wider and more significant discussion throughout the free states of the North as to what should be done to meet the menace of that measure.

The logic of events drew together men of three parties: Democrats, Whigs, and Free Soilers; together with many humanitarians who had not been closely affiliated with any party. Among the Democrats were Nathaniel P. Banks and George S. Boutwell of Massachusetts, Oliver P. Morton of Indiana, Lyman Trumbull and John M. Palmer of Illinois, Hannibal Hamlin of Maine, Francis P. Blair of Missouri, Montgomery Blair of Maryland, and Preston King and William Cullen Bryant of New York. The Whigs contributed Abraham Lincoln of Illinois, Zachariah Chandler and Jacob M. Howard of Michigan, Henry S. Lane and Schuyler Colfax of Indiana, Jacob W. Grimes of Iowa, Thomas Corwin, Benjamin F. Wade and John Sherman of Ohio, George Ashmun of Massachusetts, Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania and William H. Seward, E. D. Morgan and Horace Greeley of New York. From the ranks of the Free Soil party came Charles Sumner, Henry Wilson, Horace Mann, John G. Palfrey and Charles Francis Adams of Massachusetts, Owen Lovejoy of Illinois, Joshua R. Giddings, Edward Wade and Salmon P. Chase of Ohio, George W. Julian of Indian and David Wilmot of Pennsylvania. Cordially associated with these and lending to them their incomparable intellectual and spiritual influence were the writers and thinkers of the age: Ralph Waldo Emerson, James Russell Lowell, George William Curtis, John Greenleaf Whittier, Henry Ward Beecher, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Julia Ward Howe. No other party was ever organized by so distinguished and authoritative an array of men and women as its leaders and directors.

Many of these men had been strong partisan opponents of each other. Abraham Lincoln as a Whig and Lyman Trumbull as a Democrat were rivals in a contest for the senatorship from Illinois. But all were now agreed that in the presence of issues that overshadowed all their former party differences they must agree to hold these latter in abeyance and to unite for the settlement of the former. Yet to some extent they brought into the composition of the new party the best characteristics of the old ones. The Whigs, who formed not only a plurality but probably a considerable majority of the combination, impressed upon it their broad and liberal views of constitutional construction. The Democrats contributed a passionate loyalty to the Union, devotion to the legitimate rights of the states and a fine conception of the equal rights of all men under the law. The Free Soilers who, more than either of the others, had been a party of one idea infused the whole with their passionate determination that there should be no further extension of slavery.

This last named principle was indeed the foremost and strongest in the minds of all. There was no purpose to interfere with slavery where it lawfully existed or where it might be lawfully extended under the terms of the Missouri Compromise. Though all believed with Lincoln that the Union could not permanently exist half slave and half free, they had sufficient faith in the superior virtues of free labor to believe that in time the problem would be solved by the irresistible force of economic laws, and that the institution of slavery would perish through its own unsoundness. They were, however, inflexibly determined that slavery should not be extended into the territories which had been dedicated to freedom. All through the spring and early summer of 1854 meetings were held and correspondence was conducted, culminating in a mass meeting at Ripon, Wisconsin, at which it was formally resolved that if the Kansas-Nebraska bill was enacted they would "throw old party organizations to the winds and organize a new party on the sole issue of the non-extension of slavery." The chief organizer of that meeting was A. E. Bovay, who had been in correspondence upon the subject with Horace Greeley and who at that meeting proposed that the new organization be known as the Republican party.

It was of course necessary to adopt a new name. The Whigs were the most numerous members of the new body, but they could not expect the Democrats to call themselves Whigs. Neither, of course, would the Whigs consent to be called Democrats, even if that name had not belonged to the party which they were about to fight. Neither Whigs nor Democrats would be known as Free Soilers. In those circumstances the suggestion of "Republican" was most felicitous. Democrats remembered that it had been adopted by Jefferson. Whigs recalled the use of it by the founders of their own party in opposition to Jackson. Free Soilers were reminded that Jefferson, in the Ordinance of 1787 which he drafted, was the pioneer Free Soiler who made the Northwest Territory free and would have made the Southwest similarly free if his will could have prevailed.

The formal adoption of the name and organization of the party were reserved to a little later date. It was on July 6, 1854. The place was a grove of giant oaks at Jackson, Michigan. There a state convention was held of Whigs, Democrats and Free Soilers opposed to the Kansas-Nebraska bill. Jacob M. Howard was chairman. A platform was adopted denouncing slavery as a "relic of barbarism," demanding that Congress restore and maintain the restrictions imposed upon it by the Missouri Compromise, holding in abeyance all other political issues and party differences until that paramount question should be settled, and pledging co-operation under the name of the Republican party. Similar action was taken at conventions in other western states a week later. It was suggested by some that a national convention be called, but Seward and others opposed such action as premature and it was not done. But throughout the free states of the North there were nominated for Congress either avowedly Republican candidates or Whigs and Free Soilers who were ready to coalesce with the Republicans.

The result was that at the elections in the fall of 1854 the new party, not yet six months old, polled a majority of the votes in about half of the states, secured the election of a number of United States senators and elected a large delegation to the House of Representatives. When the House thus elected met for organization in the fall of 1855 it was divided among a number of factions, not one of which had a majority. But so numerous were the Republicans that with the help of some allies they were able, after a struggle which lasted from December 3, 1855 to February 2, 1856, on the 133rd ballot to elect Nathaniel. P. Banks of Massachusetts as Speaker. Banks, who had begun work as a bobbin boy in a cotton mill, had been a Democrat but as already noted, had been among,the foremost organizers of the Republican party and thus became the first Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives. He filled that difficult place in those supremely trying times with such ability and fairness that during his entire term not one of his parliamentary rulings was disputed. After this notable victory at the polls in 1854 there was some reaction in 1855, yet there was really much growth of party strength and confident preparations were made for a national campaign in 1856.