Birth of the Republican Party Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

This new American political party welded together fragments of Whigs, Know-Nothings, and free-soil interests and presaged the sectionalization that eventually brought the U.S. Civil War.

Summary of Event

The development of the American political parties went through several stages during the period leading up to the U.S. Civil War (1861-1865). During the Washington administration, domestic and foreign issues combined to produce the Federalists, led by Alexander Hamilton, and the Democratic-Republicans, under the leadership of Thomas Jefferson Jefferson, Thomas [p]Jefferson, Thomas;and political parties[Political parties] . Federalism had its day during the 1790’s but lost control of the government in 1800. By the 1820’s, the Federalist Party Federalist Party;demise of had disintegrated, leaving the field to the Jeffersonians. Republican Party;formation of Whig Party (American);and Republican Party[Republican Party] [kw]Birth of the Republican Party (July 6, 1854) [kw]Republican Party, Birth of the (July 6, 1854) [kw]Party, Birth of the Republican (July 6, 1854) Republican Party;formation of Whig Party (American);and Republican Party[Republican Party] [g]United States;July 6, 1854: Birth of the Republican Party[3000] [c]Government and politics;July 6, 1854: Birth of the Republican Party[3000] [c]Organizations and institutions;July 6, 1854: Birth of the Republican Party[3000] Bovay, Alvan E. Frémont, John C. Greeley, Horace [p]Greeley, Horace;and Republican Party[Republican Party] Seward, William H. [p]Seward, William H.;and Republican Party[Republican Party] Weed, Thurlow

Over the next two decades, almost every politician claimed to be a Republican, that is, the heir of Jefferson, and political organizations revolved around powerful personalities such as John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay, and Andrew Jackson. After Jackson Jackson, Andrew narrowly lost his bid for the presidency in 1824, the Republican Party Republican Party (old);split split into two rival camps. President John Quincy Adams and Secretary of State Henry Clay provided the leadership of the National Republicans, while Andrew Jackson, taking the name of the old Jeffersonians, began organization of the Democratic-Republicans, later called the Democratic Party.

Jackson’s Jackson, Andrew [p]Jackson, Andrew;election of 1828 Presidency, U.S.;election of 1828 election in 1828 signaled another development in the evolution of political parties, as opposition to Jackson congealed into the Whig Party. The Democratic-Republican and Whig Parties dominated the political stage until the 1850’s. During this period of a growing electorate, issues arising out of reformist impulses, expansion, and slavery stimulated the rise of various third parties, such as the Anti-Masons, Anti-Masonic Party[AntiMasonic Party] the Liberty Party Liberty Party , the Free-Soil Party, Free-Soil Party[Free Soil Party] and the Know-Nothings. The tensions engendered by the sectional controversy ensured the dominance, among the third parties, of the antislavery groups. The Whig Party (American);and slavery[Slavery] Whig Party suffered the most from the presence of these minor parties, because its major strength lay in the North, the center of antislavery and free-soil sentiment. The Compromise of 1850 seriously weakened the Whig Party Compromise of 1850;and Whig Party[Whig Party] , as did the deaths of Henry Clay Clay, Henry [p]Clay, Henry;death of and Daniel Webster Webster, Daniel [p]Webster, Daniel;death of in 1852. The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 Whig Party (American);and Kansas-Nebraska Act[Kansas Nebraska Act] Republican Party;and Kansas-Nebraska Act[Kansas Nebraska Act] Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854[Kansas Nebraska Act of 1854] dealt the Whigs a fatal blow and helped cause the formation of an entirely new political organization—the Republican Party.

The national uproar over the Kansas-Nebraska Act damaged the unity of both the Whigs and the Democrats. By repealing the old Missouri Compromise, Missouri Compromise (1820);and Kansas-Nebraska Act[Kansas Nebraska Act] which had made 36°30′ north latitude (except for Missouri) the dividing line between slave and free-soil territories in the Louisiana Purchase Territory, the Kansas-Nebraska Act split both the Democrats and the Whigs into groups that either endorsed or condemned the extension of slavery into the territories, thus giving encouragement to the Free-Soilers. Free-Soil Party[Free Soil Party]

Both of the major parties possessed strong free-soil cores. These groups, in opposing the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the efforts of the administrations of Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan to force the admission of Kansas as a slave state, gradually drifted away from their original alignments into loosely knit parties held together by a common opposition to the Democratic policy in Kansas. Protest meetings occurred throughout the country in February and March of 1854. These meetings, encouraged by Free-Soilers, proved to be the first stirrings of a new political party, but the activities of the opponents of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in Ripon, Wisconsin, are generally considered to have launched that party, the Republican Party, into existence.

The events in Ripon came at a meeting held by several Whigs, Free-Soilers, Free-Soil Party[Free Soil Party] and Democrats in the Congregational Church on February 28, 1854. The meeting had been called by Major Alvan E. Bovay Bovay, Alvan E. , a prominent Whig who had, in 1852, met with Horace Greeley Greeley, Horace [p]Greeley, Horace;and Republican Party[Republican Party] and discussed the formation of a new party. The group in Ripon passed a resolution stating that if the Kansas-Nebraska bill passed, they would form a new party, to be called the Republican Party. After the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska bill, Major Bovay went from house to house to announce a meeting on March 20, 1854. Of approximately one hundred voters in the village, fifty-three turned out and voted to dissolve the local Whig and Free-Soil organizations. A committee of five was appointed to form the new party.

On May 22, 1856, South Carolina congressman Preston Brooks attacked Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner on the Senate floor in retaliation for a speech that Sumner had made criticizing President Franklin Pierce’s sympathetic attitude toward proslavery violence in Kansas.

(C. A. Nichols & Company)

The birth of the Republican Party may be said to have occurred on July 6, 1854, when a formal convention was held in Jackson, Michigan. Held outdoors under the oaks, this convention attracted hundreds of citizens from throughout the state. The convention adopted a platform and nominated a full slate of candidates for state offices. This first Republican convention has given Jackson, Michigan, its claim as the birthplace of the Republican Party. Both Michigan and Wisconsin, forging coalitions, elected their candidates on the state ticket that year. In 1855, the Republicans took control and elected Nathaniel P. Banks of Massachusetts as Speaker of the Thirty-fourth Congress.

The Republicans were not an immediate success. Many Democrats and Whigs who did not favor the Kansas-Nebraska Act were reluctant to break with their established parties. In addition, while Republican popularity was damaged by its association with abolitionism, the Temperance Temperance Party and Know-Nothing parties Know-Nothing Party[Know Nothing Party] competed with the Republican Party for public support. The political campaigns of 1854 and 1855 were inordinately confused by the numerous groups entering the fray. Republicans were most successful when they arranged fusion tickets with these other groups.

The obvious weakness of the Republicans made their organization less attractive to Whigs, who found themselves politically homeless. The struggle between proslavery and antislavery elements in Kansas again came to the aid of the Republicans, who, of all the anti-Kansas-Nebraska groups, were most persistent in their assaults on the proslavery Democratic policy in Kansas. In 1855, the Republicans won a political victory in Ohio and also gained the support of political boss Thurlow Weed Weed, Thurlow and Senator William H. Seward Seward, William H. [p]Seward, William H.;and Republican Party[Republican Party] , former Whigs from New York. With their strength growing rapidly, the Republicans planned to enter a slate in the presidential election of Presidency, U.S.;election of 1856 1856. By that time, the original Free-Soil Free-Soil Party[Free Soil Party] founders of the party had been reinforced by former Whigs, antislavery Democrats, and former Know-Nothings. All united on the basis of their opposition to the extension of slavery in the territories.

Appreciable support and sympathy for the Republicans were brought about by several factors: a disappointing convention of Republicans and other anti-Nebraskans at Pittsburgh in February, 1856; the sack of Lawrence, Kansas, by a proslavery mob; and the physical assault on Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts by Preston Brooks, a representative from South Carolina, in May, 1856. The improvement in Republican hopes guaranteed a lively fight at the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia in June, 1856.

John C. Frémont, Frémont, John C. [p]Frémont, John C.;election of 1856 Presidency, U.S.;election of 1856 the western explorer and adventurer, won the Republican presidential nomination and approached the election with some hope of receiving most of the Whig and some of the Know-Nothing votes. For so young a party, the results of the 1856 election were spectacular. James Buchanan, the victorious Democratic candidate, received 1,838,169 popular votes to Frémont’s 1,335,265. Buchanan received 174 electoral votes, Frémont 114. Beneath those figures lay a poignant political fact—of the nineteen states Buchanan carried in the election, only five were free states. The eleven states that voted for Frémont, however, were all free states. The Democratic and Republican parties were sectional parties as no others had been before them. The South believed it had reason to fear a Republican victory in 1860.


During the four years following 1856, the new party grew rapidly, capturing the House of Representatives, absorbing most Whigs and Know-Nothings, and acquiring a cadre of experienced political leaders. Comprising diverse elements, the new party emphasized free soil in the territories but successfully disassociated itself from the taint of abolitionism, and attracted support by advocating a homestead bill and old Whig measures such as internal improvements.

The Republicans’ remarkable showing in 1856 justified the optimism with which the Republicans faced the future. By the same token, the quick growth of the party testified to the ominous sectionalization of politics in the nation. This sectionalization came to the forefront with the outbreak of the Civil War following the election in 1860 of Republican Abraham Lincoln as president of the United States. In this election, the upstart new political party elected a man whom most historians consider the finest president ever to lead the United States of America.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Crandall, Andrew W. The Early History of the Republican Party, 1854-1856. Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1960. Points out the dissatisfaction that had surfaced in the Whig and Democratic parties, which spawned the formation of the Republican Party.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cuomo, Mario, and Harold Holzer, eds. Lincoln on Democracy. New York: HarperCollins, 1990. A look at Lincoln’s views on democracy and how they lined up with those of the new Republican Party.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Foner, Eric. Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War. New York: Oxford University Press, 1970. Discusses the idea that the Republican Party was formed over the issue of free labor and the moral tone this set against the use of slave labor in the South.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gould, Lewis L. Grand Old Party: A History of the Republicans. New York: Random House, 2003. Comprehensive history of the Republican Party, from its origins during the 1850’s through the early twenty-first century.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Holzer, Harold, ed. The Lincoln-Douglas Debates. New York: HarperCollins, 1993. The full text of the debates of Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas, which reveals the striking differences between the newly formed Republican Party and the established Democratic Party.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Taylor, John M. William Henry Seward: Lincoln’s Right Hand. New York: HarperCollins, 1991. Balanced, straightforward biography of an early Republican Party leader who became an important ally of Abraham Lincoln.

Clay Begins American Whig Party

U.S. Election of 1840

Compromise of 1850

Congress Passes the Kansas-Nebraska Act

Bleeding Kansas

Lincoln-Douglas Debates

Lincoln Is Elected U.S. President

Lincoln Is Inaugurated President

Pendleton Act Reforms the Federal Civil Service

U.S. Election of 1884

Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Nineteenth Century, 1801-1900</i>

John C. Frémont; Horace Greeley; Abraham Lincoln; William H. Seward. Republican Party;formation of Whig Party (American);and Republican Party[Republican Party]

Categories: History