Historical Moment – The Formation of the Republican Party

I’ve missed two days—this past Friday and yesterday—due to back-to-school insanity, coupled with returning to my flood-prone abode (and celebrating my niece’s third birthday).  School starts back Wednesday, and some online courses I teach at a local technical college launched yesterday, so I may be adopting a new posting schedule soon—probably one or two pieces a week, or some shorter posts.  Stay tuned.

In the meantime, here is a transcript of remarks I gave to the Florence County Republican Party last night.  Our guest speaker for our monthly program was South Carolina Republican Party Chairman Drew McKissick, a man with a genius for grassroots organizing.  As such, I decided to talk about the formation of the Republican Party back in 1854.  Enjoy!  –TPP

There is some disagreement about exactly when and where the Republican Party first originated.  The national GOP website says the Party came into being in Jackson, Michigan, on 6 July 1854.  The anti-slavery convention, also called the “Under the Oaks” convention because the conventioneers met in an oak grove, nominated statewide candidates, and their Convention Platform read, “we will cooperate and be known as REPUBLICANS.”

The South Carolina GOP website, on the other hand, points to a meeting in Ripon, Wisconsin, earlier in 1854, where a group of abolitionists met to fight the expansion of slavery, although it also mentions the Jackson, Michigan convention was when the Party was “formally organized.”  Two years later, Philadelphia hosted the first Republican National Convention, which nominated John C. Fremont as the first Republican candidate for President.

Regardless of where the GOP formally began, the climate for its formation was eerily similar to our own political situation.  The “peculiar institution” of slavery bitterly divided the country.  The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, the brainchild of Democratic Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois, proposed applying “popular sovereignty” to western territories; essentially, territories would decide whether to allow slavery, or remain “free soil.”

That Act embroiled Kansas in a bloody guerrilla war between pro-slavery “Fire-Eaters” and radical abolitionists, the latter of whom sent “Beecher’s Bibles”—rifles—to free soilers attempting to keep the territory free.  In 1856, John Brown, the deranged abolitionist, and his sons massacred pro-slavery advocates with swords in the Pottawatomie Massacre, a retaliation for an earlier attack on the abolitionists.

The old Whig Party, originally organized in protest over the policies Democratic President Andrew Jackson, collapsed over the issue of slavery and “popular sovereignty.”  The conditions were ripe for a new party to emerge, one dedicated to “Free Soil, Free Labor, and Free Men” (not quite as catchy as “Make America Great Again,” but it explained the Republican Party’s platform succinctly).

Over the course of the 1850s, the young Republican Party spread rapidly throughout Northern States, bringing together abolitionists, anti-slavery Democrats, and other constituencies disillusioned with the Democratic Party’s policies on slavery and the economy.  The Republican Party from its inception opposed the expansion, if not always the outright abolition, of slavery, and hoped to keep it out of any new territories.  Southern Democrats so feared a Republican victory, they threatened to secede from the Union should a Republican President be elected.

Of course, Abraham Lincoln became the first Republican elected in a four-way race in 1860—the Democratic Party split into Northern and Southern wings, while the Constitutional Union Party gained votes in the Upper South and Appalachia—and South Carolina seceded in December 1860.

Our first President was a good one, though, and the Republican Party has endured ever since, continuing to fight for the unborn, the working man and woman, and the values that make our country great.

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