The Republican Party/Chapter II

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Chapter II

The First Campaign

The Republican party was conspicuously a party of the people in both its origin and formation. Instead of being organized and promulgated from a national centre, it began in local and community meetings. During the first two years of its existence these local bodies extended themselves to state conventions. Finally, in its third year, it essayed a national convention and a national organization. In this movement Michigan, which had been the scene of the party's birth and of its first state convention, fittingly took the lead. On the recommendation of the Michigan state committee the state committees of all the states in which the party had been organized issued on January 17, 1856 a call for a national convention to be held at Pittsburg on February 22nd following. This was not to be a nominating convention nor one with a stated proportionate representation, like the conventions of the present time, but rather a national mass meeting for conference and counsel. It was largely attended by representative men from every state from Maine to California. There were Whigs, Democrats, Free-Soilers, "Know Nothings" and others, all now fully merged into the Republican party and called by no other name. The permanent chairman was Francis P. Blair of Missouri, a former Democrat who had been one of the close friends of Andrew Jackson. An address to the nation was drafted by Henry J. Raymond and adopted by the convention, and a committee of which George W. Julian was chairman prepared and issued a call for a national nominating convention to be held at Philadelphia on June 17, 1856, the anniversary of the Battle of Bunker Hill.

This first national nominating convention of the Republican party was singularly spontaneous and informal. No fixed rule for the representation of the various states was followed, but each state sent as many delegates as it considered its fair quota. Delegates were present from every northern state, and also from the three border states of Delaware, Maryland and Kentucky. The gathering was called to order by Edwin D. Morgan of New York, afterward Governor of the state and United States Senator. Robert Emmet, a nephew of the famous Irish patriot of that name, was made temporary chairman. Later in the day Henry S. Lane of Indiana was made permanent chairman. An informal ballot was taken for a candidate for President of the United States with the very decisive result that General John C. Fremont, the "Pathfinder of the Rocky Mountains" and the first United States Senator from California, received 359 votes, John McLean of Ohio, 196; Charles Sumner, United States Senator from Massachusetts, 2; and William H. Seward, Senator from New York, 1. A formal ballot resulted still more strongly in Fremont's favor and his nomination was then made unanimous amid great enthusiasm. An informal ballot for Vice-President gave 259 votes for William L. Dayton, who had been a senator from New Jersey; 110 for Abraham Lincoln, formerly Representative in Congress from Illinois; 46 for Nathaniel P. Banks of Massachusetts; and a few for each of a dozen other men. Dayton was then formally and unanimously nominated, completing the ticket.

Before the balloting for President there was received a message from the managers of a faction of the American or "Know Nothing" party asking for a conference with a view to co-operation and union. The American party had held a convention, had nominated Millard Fillmore for President and had refused to commit itself against the extension of slavery. Thereupon a considerable faction, including most of the delegates from the New England States and some of those from Pennsylvania and the West, withdrew, organized a bolting convention and nominated Fremont for President on a platform opposed to the extension of slavery. It was this faction which sought co-operation with the Republicans. Its message was carefully considered by the Republican convention, but it finally decided not to accept the overture for co-operation. The Republicans would have welcomed "Know Nothing" support for their candidates but they were absolutely unwilling to identify or associate themselves in any way with that party in its intolerant and prescriptive attitude toward citizens of foreign birth.

The platform which was adopted by this-first Republican national convention, and on which the ensuing campaign was fought, made no mention of the Republican party by name but spoke of the "convention of delegates" and issued its call "addressed to the people of the United States, without regard to past political differences or divisions, who are opposed to the repeal of the Missouri Compromise, to the policy of the present administration, to extension of slavery into free territory; in favor of admitting Kansas as a free state, of restoring the action of the Federal government to the principles of Washington and Jefferson." It demanded the maintenance of the principles of the Declaration of Independence and the Federal Constitution and the preservation of the rights of the states and of the Union of the states. It took strong ground against the extension of slavery into the free territories against the terrorism and oppression which had been applied to Kansas in an effort to impose slavery upon that would-be state and demanded the admission of Kansas to the Union as a free state. It denounced the notorious "Ostend manifesto" as a "highwayman's plea." Its only references to other political or economic issues were a demand for federal aid for the building of the Pacific Railroad and for the river and harbor improvements needed by commerce.

The campaign which followed was marked with tremendous enthusiasm and excitement throughout the North and with general apathy in the South. The Democrats had nominated James Buchanan and the remnant of the Whigs had accepted the "Know Nothing" nomination of Fillmore. In the South the contest was confined to these two candidates with a practical certainty that Buchanan would run far in the lead. All through the North, from east to west, however, the tripartite contest was waged with a vigor and intensity which had never been seen before, not even in the "Hard Cider" campaign for Harrison in 1840. Mass meetings and marching clubs were everywhere, while the press and pulpit were as impassioned as the stump-speakers. The Republicans were at first confident of success. But the October elections disappointed them and in November they met with defeat. Too many of the old Whigs voted for Fillmore. True, they carried for him only the one state of Maryland. But in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Illinois and California they kept enough votes away from Fremont to leave the latter in a minority and give Buchanan a plurality though not a majority. Had Fremont carried those four states he would have been elected. As it was he had only 114 electoral votes to Buchanan's 174. The popular vote stood: Buchanan, 1,838,169; Fremont, 1,341,264; Fillmore, 874,534. In eleven slave states no votes were cast for the Republican ticket. The party had no organization there, nor would it have been safe for it to attempt to make one.

The result was discouraging to some of the most sanguine members of the Republican party, but to the great majority it was an incentive to renewed and increased efforts for the next campaign. It also indicated the need of more expert leadership and a more comprehensive platform of principles. The party must not be so much a party of one idea. While it still recognized the two paramount issues, it must pay some attention to others and present a programme of constructive statesmanship. The battle-cry of 1856 had been "free soil, free speech, free press, free men, Fremont!" That aroused enthusiasm. But something more than mere enthusiasm was needed to win over the rest of the Whigs and to still further rend the Democratic party asunder. This was made the more evident when, in March, 1857 the Dred Scott decision was rendered by the Supreme Court declaring that Congress had no power to prohibit the extension of slavery to the territories, despite the constitutional provision that "the Congress shall have power to make all needful rules and regulations respecting the territory belonging to the United States." Obviously this decision practically outlawed the paramount issue upon which the Republican party had been founded and destroyed the party's reason for existence. It was folly to demand that Congress should prevent the extension of slavery into the territories, when the Supreme Court had decided that it had no power to do so. Republicans generally denounced the decision as unsound and an unwarrantable meddling by the judiciary in a purely political matter and made it plain that they would seek its reversal. Nevertheless the decision had to be respected for the time and it made it necessary for the party to put other planks in its platform.

Fortunately for the Republicans the Democrats persisted in the course which had provoked the revolt against them. In the congressional elections of 1856 the Democrats secured a majority so that the Thirty-fifth Congress which met in December, 1857 contained a strong Democratic majority in each house over Republicans and "Know Nothings" combined. It thereupon proceeded with offensive proslavry legislation. Early in May, 1858 the spurious "Lecompton Constitution" was adopted by Congress as the basis for admitting Kansas as a state, and of course as a slave state. But in August following the people of Kansas overwhelmingly rejected it preferring to remain out of the Union rather than to be admitted with slavery fixed upon them. In that year occurred too the abortive insurrection of John Brown at Harper's Ferry, the tragic outcome of which immensely intensified political passions on both sides and caused thousands of former waverers to ally themselves definitely and aggressively with the Republican party.

Highly important, too, was the schism in the Democratic party. Despite the defection from its ranks in the North that organization was still the most numerous and formidable of all. But when the Buchanan administration, not content with the Dred Scott decision under which it could admit slavery into the territories and protect it there, endeavored to impose the Lecompton Constitution upon Kansas there was a numerous revolt led by Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois, one of the ablest Democratic statesmen of that day. He professed to be indifferent to the question of slavery in and of itself. He stood squarely for the old Democratic doctrine of the right of selfgovernment and he resented and denounced the attempt to force upon the people of Kansas a government which they did not want. When he openly defied the administration and made himself the leader of the "Anti-Lecompton Democrats" Buchanan warned him to remember how Andrew Jackson had crushed Democratic leaders who had dared to resist his policy. To this Douglas tartly replied that Jackson was dead. "I care not whether slavery be voted down or voted up," he said again and again, "but I do care about the right of Kansas to selfgovernment. If she wants a slave-state constitution she should have it, and if she wants a free-state constitution she should have it—and shall have it."

In this Douglas did not by any means adopt the Republican doctrine. He did, however, rend the Democratic party afresh all through the North, aligning many of its best men against the Democratic administration and leading them into a position from which their next logical and practically inevitable step was into the Republican ranks. As for the Republican leaders they held their ground resolutely against extension of slavery into the territories even in the face of the Dred Scott decision, but at the same time they enlarged their platform, interested themselves in other issues and gradually transformed what appeared at first to be a transient coalition for a single and temporary purpose into a coherent and permanent organization, intended not alone to cope with the great issues of that day but to render enduring service in all respects and directions to the Commonwealth, to the Res Publica from which it had taken its name.