- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 21, 2001

The Republican Party was born as a protest movement against a very specific outrage perpetrated by the Democrats. The elections of 1852 had given the Democratic Party a two-thirds majority in the House of Representatives and nearly so in the Senate. Virtually the first order of business of the new Congress was to repeal the Missouri Compromise of 1820, specifically, the prohibition of slavery in territories north of Arkansas. The Kansas-Nebraska Act, drafted by Stephen Douglas, the Democrat senator from Illinois and owner of a slave plantation in Mississippi, provided that voters in each territory could decide whether or not to allow slavery. Nearly all Democrats in Congress voted for the Act, and Democrat President Franklin Pierce signed it into law in May 1854. The Kansas-Nebraska Act forced Americans to choose sides. One was either for the act or against it, for the slave society or for the free market society there was no middle ground.
The Nebraska Territory included the Dakotas and Montana too, so the slave system could now spread to most of the United States. Implicitly, once a territory voted for slavery, it would be federal law that enforced it. And if the federal government could legislate in favor of slavery in the territories, why not in the free states as well? Everyone could feel which way the wind was blowing. After straddling the slavery issue for decades, the majority Democratic Party had chosen to side with slavery. What could be done to oppose the extension of slavery?
The Whig Party fell apart that year as Southern Whigs joined the Democratic Party, resulting in the "Solid South" that was to last more than a century. In the North, the Whig Party tried for a while to stay true to the middle-of-the-road policies of Henry Clay, the Great Compromiser, but the days of compromise were over. What was once regarded as statesmanship most Northern Whigs now saw as appeasement. Millions of Whigs left the party, but unlike the Southern Whigs they had no ready place to go. The only other national party, the adamantly anti-slavery Free Soil Party, they believed, was too-abolitionist, too-Northeastern, and too-Democrat in its economic policies.
Anti-slavery Whigs in the North were unsure of their political future. One of those northern Whigs was Abraham Lincoln, who had begun his political career in the Illinois legislature at the age of 25. At 27, his Whig colleagues elected him party leader. His wifes father was a close friend of Whig Party founder Henry Clay. After eight years in state government and one term in the U.S. House of Representatives, Lincoln returned to his legal practice full time, until the Kansas-Nebraska Act jolted him back into politics.
Shocked by the Kansas-Nebraska Act, most Northerners were outraged at slavery, the South and the Democratic Party. They realized that soon territories as far north as Minnesota could enter the Union as slave states, transforming the nations dominant economic and social system from free market to slavery. Amid the intense reaction, so-called "anti-Nebraska" groups sprang up all across the North in early 1854 to oppose the extension of slavery into the northern territories. In hundreds of town meetings and demonstrations, Whigs, Free Soil members and dissident Democrats united with a single purpose: "Enough concessions to the 'Slavocrats! We draw the line right here. No slavery in the territories." Over the next few months these groups would coalesce into the Republican Party.
Several sites share the credit as the birthplace of the Republican Party. At one "anti-Nebraska" town meeting in a Ripon, Wis., schoolhouse on Feb. 28, 1854, the leader, Alvan Bovay called for another meeting the following month to organize a new political party, to be called the "Republican Party." Though only 53 persons were present at that second small town meeting on March 20, 1854, this was the first time the name "Republican" was used for the new political party. The first state Republican Party convention, attended by 10,000 people, took place in Jackson, Mich., on July 6, 1854. Dozens of members of Congress pledged themselves to the new party. The Republican Association, forerunner of the Republican National Committee, met for the first time in June 1855. The first national organizational meeting of newly minted Republicans was in Pittsburgh in February 1856, followed four months later by the first Republican National Convention.
Several factors explain why the Republican Party was so phenomenally successful from the very start, growing swiftly into one of the countrys two major parties. Whigs looking for a new home and Democrats unwilling to join their Whig or Free Soil rivals had no problem uniting in a new party. The Republican Party grew rapidly as Northerners who saw the futility of placating the South recognized the potential of not having to straddle the slavery issue as the Whigs had done, or actually abetting the spread of slavery like the Democrats. Careful to avoid the overly narrow focus of the Free Soil Party, the Republicans achieved a synthesis of the best of Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, combining that first Republicans defense of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" with the Whigs Hamiltonian agenda for economic growth.
This essay is adapted from Michael Zaks history of the Grand Old Party, "Back to Basics for the Republican Party."

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