This week is the 164th anniversary of the founding of the Republican Party, one of the oldest functioning political parties in the world. The moment of the creation of what would later be nicknamed the Grand Old Party can be traced back to March 20, 1854 in Ripon, Wisc., where a group of men came together to establish an anti-slavery coalition to meet the growing danger that slavery posed to the country. (Some say that Michigan is actually the birthplace of the Republican Party, and it was there that the first statewide Republican convention took place, but that wasn’t until July 6 of the same year.)
For decades, the precarious political balance between free and slave states was held together by the Missouri Compromise. Slavery would not be allowed to expand above a certain latitude, which was just fine with politicians in the North. Southerners, however, believed that they were being unfairly hemmed in, and they wanted change.
On Jan. 4, 1854, Democratic Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois gave the South what it wanted and upset the established order by introducing the Kansas-Nebraska Act. This bill essentially nullified the Missouri Compromise and would allow for states entering the union the power to decide on whether to allow slavery by popular sovereignty.
The bill set off a political firestorm, but opponents of slavery found they had little recourse against the Democrats. The once powerful Whig Party had long been a champion of the anti-slavery cause, but by 1854 it was a shadow of its former self. Its lackluster performance in recent elections signified that the Whigs did not hold a strong enough national coalition to beat back the pro-slavery forces. A new coalition would be needed to turn the tide.
A motley group of anti-slavery Democrats, northern Whigs, Free-Soilers, and Know-Nothings gathered in Wisconsin in March to assemble a new party. They called themselves Republicans, hoping the term would remind voters of Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans. “In the broader context,” writes Lewis L. Gould, author of Grand Old Party: A History of the Republicans, "'Republicanism’ tapped into a rich historical tradition dating back to the Italian renaissance and the English revolution that saw republics as embodying public-spirited citizens acting in the political sphere to preserve civic virtue and welfare for all.”
The new Republican party was certainly capable of establishing a new party organization as an institution. Many of its members were already politicians schooled in the mechanics of running a political party. The problem was putting together a coalition that could face the Democrats on a national scale.
The major hurdle for Republicans to overcome in achieving national prominence was the nativist sentiments of the Know-Nothings. This secretive organization believed that Catholics and immigrants would be the death of the republic. The Know-Nothings were so skillful at translating these fears into votes, that their anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic platform trumped anti-slavery, and in 1855, they won more local races than the Republicans.
Republicans were able to persevere, however, by partnering with the Know-Nothings to get Nathaniel Banks elected Speaker of the House in February 1856. For the first time, the Republicans had a seat on the national political stage. Other events worked in Republicans’ favor to convince voters that slavery was indeed the issue of gravest concern. Kansas erupted in violence as pro-slavery mobs rioted in Lawrence on May 21, and the next day Republican Senator Charles Sumner was savagely beaten by South Carolina Congressman Preston Brooks in the Senate chamber.
Later that year, the Republicans would field their first presidential candidate, John C. Frémont of California. Frémont lost the election to Democrat James Buchanan. Former president Millard Fillmore’s Know-Nothing/Whig campaign syphoned off votes that may have cost Frémont the election. But Republicans were emboldened by their strong showing. The final disintegration of the Know-Nothings and the Whigs after the election led many of their supporters into the Republican camp.
Even in 1856, the Democrats were saying that a Republican presidency would lead to the end of slavery and civil war. And, of course that is what happened with the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860. But Lincoln’s election also led to an extended period of Republican dominance. For the next 72 years, only three Democrats would go on to win the White House.