The Rise of the Republican Party

By Krist Novoselić (December 30, 2011)

The Republican Party was founded in 1854 at a time when the issue of slavery was becoming ever more contentious. The party shared many policy goals with the Whigs. As Whigs were falling into disarray over slavery, Republicans, who clearly opposed it, spoke to Northern abolitionists. This led to the South’s secession and Civil War. Republican policy regarding a strong federal government dovetailed into the war effort.

Before 1854, the two dominant parties in national government were Whigs and Democrats – national entities holding seats in the North and South. However, when the issue of slavery arose in context of territorial expansion, these groups split along north / south lines. Democrats wanted to expand across the continent but Whigs opposed it. Whigs instead wanted an expansion of the federal government to guide growth and development within existing boundaries. They were also afraid the issue of extending slavery would cause political controversy. But Manifest Destiny had captured the imagination of most Americans. When congress needed to organize new territories, Whigs worked towards compromises with slavery. The Missouri Compromise of 1820, along with the Compromise of 1850 are examples of how Whigs like Henry Clay crafted legislation with the intention of preserving the Union. However, Democrat Stephan Douglas blew the lid off previous compromises with his Kansas-Nebraska Act – in effect, repealing the Missouri Compromise by punting the slavery issue to the notion of popular sovereignty. The bill passed, but after splitting both Whigs and Democrats along sectional lines. The intra-party split was so bad among Whigs, they couldn’t nominate a candidate in 1856.

The new Republican party was clearly opposed to slavery and attracted anti-slavery Northerners, social reformers and the old Whig business interests that wanted a strong national government “to promote economic growth by supporting a protective tariff, transportation improvements and cheap land for western farmers”.

Although they didn’t win, Republicans did well in the 1856 election with their candidate John C. Frémont coming in second and the American (Know-Nothing) Party placing third. The new party accepted the result with optimism and an eye towards the election of 1860.

In the meantime, the US Supreme Court passed the notorious Dred Scott decision. This mortified Northerners because, as Illinois Republican Abraham Lincoln stated, “the decision could legalize slavery in states that abhorred it”. Another event that aggravated sectional tensions was abolitionist John Brown’s wild attempt to start a slave insurrection. These developments played into the election of 1860.

Republicans nominated Abraham Lincoln, while a contentious Democratic nomination process produced Stephan Douglas. Douglas and Lincoln both wanted to preserve the Union. Douglas thought he could do so with popular sovereignty regarding slavery with the territories, while Lincoln clearly opposed it. The Republicans also condemned John Brown’s raid to dispel notions of the party being radical abolitionists. Another candidate, Southern Democrat John C. Breckinridge, also ran for president and defended slavery. John Bell of the Constitutional Union party, favored compromise on slavery. In the end, Lincoln won a plurality of the popular vote and a majority of electors. Notably, he won no votes in the South.

Mortified at a Republican Lincoln presidency, by the end of the year seven southern states seceded from the Union. In February these states created the Confederacy. Four more states of the upper South joined in April. The first shots between North and South rang in July at Bull Run Creek, Virginia. The war was on but the grim situation actually accommodated Republican Party policies.

The Republican Lincoln administration commanded the war. A focused Union war effort bred the conditions for a strong national government. 1862 brought the creation of a federal War Department with, “the unprecedented challenge of feeding, clothing, and arming 700,000 Union soldiers”. There were federal sale taxes and the first federal income tax on upper income earners to finance the war. The government started to print and distribute Treasury Notes while prohibiting state banks to create their own. Tariffs doubled, railroads were chartered, western land grants were offered and a Department of Agriculture was created. Less than sweeping, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on New Years Day 1863.

These powerful nationalizing of policies were rooted in the original Republican Party platform of 1856.

The war was over in April of 1865 with a devastated and totally defeated South. The Republican Congress with elements of the Party known as The Radicals had already established a Freedmen’s Bureau that assisted destitute slaves economically. This governmental agency also provided legal and educational help. The Radicals wanted to increase the scope of the bureau, but President Johnson, a Democrat who rose to the office upon Lincoln’s assassination, vetoed the bill. The 1866 election pitted a Republican Congress against a Democratic administration. Johnson came across as cantankerous in his denunciations of his rival’s policies that “stride towards centralization, and the concentration of all legislative powers in the national government.” Republicans, in turn reminded voters of Union sacrifices to win the war. This “waving the bloody shirt” strategy worked and Republicans increased their majority on both houses.

Radical Republicans also wanted to reconstruct the South with an ideal of Free Labor. This idea of individuals equally competing in the labor market while also enjoying political rights, was to be implemented by the power of a strong national government.

Republican war hero Ulysses S. Grant beat Democrat Horatio Seymour by 306,000 votes in the 1868 election. Even though they suffered from violent intimidation in the South, African American Republicans gave Grant over 500,000 votes. Republicans also retained their large majorities in Congress.

Republicans were cobbling an electoral coalition together in the South. It consisted mostly of African Americans. There were also Northern “carpetbaggers”, who adhered to the notion of free labor and other Republican policies. Others in the coalition were Southerners “Scalawags” who shared many pro-business sentiments with the Northern transplants. These Southern Republicans managed to dominate the ten constitutional conventions between 1867 and 1869. Old Confederate leaders were barred from political participation and Union Troops occupied the defeated states. As a result, Republicans lacked legitimacy with Democrats. Republican focus on railroad building drained resources from education and other programs. The tendency for rail programs to foster corruption also eroded confidence in the Republicans. By the mid 1870s, Democrats dominated southern legislatures. The Compromise of 1877 between southern Democrats and allies of Republican Rutherford Hayes to settle the result of the 1876 presidential election marked the end of the Reconstruction era.

From the party’s inception, Republicans clearly opposed slavery and full scale war ensued. The latent function of the Civil War was an accumulation of strength by the federal government that has never been reversed.

(This information was taken from Out of Many - A History of the American People Vol I, 6th Edition Faragher J.M., Buhle M.J. , Czitrom D., Armitage S.H)

Deep River Dispatch Home

Essay Home

(Krist Novoselić 2020 All Rights Reserved)