March 20, 1854, Republican Party Founded to Oppose Expansion of Slavery

The Republican Party, forged from a coalition of political forces to oppose the advance of slavery in the American west, was created in Ripon, Wisconsin, on this day in history, March 20, 1854.  “The Republican Party grew out of resistance to the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which overrode the Missouri Compromise and allowed slavery to spread into Western Territory by popular sovereignty,” writes PBS American Experience in its history of political parties in the United States  ” ‘Anti-Nebraska’ men included anti-slavery Whigs, Democrats, Free Soilers, reformers, and abolitionists.”

Alvin Earle Bovay, an attorney and co-founder of Ripon College, was incensed by the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in the Senate in March and led a meeting at the town’s Congregational Church.  “This group, considering possible passage of the Kansas-Nebraska bill then being debated in Congress, resolved that steps should be taken to form a new Republican Party to appeal to all those who opposed slavery in the territories,” writes the Wisconsin Historical Society.

“Cries of ‘Repeal! Repeal!’ resounded throughout the nation, following the Ripon, Wisconsin meeting of March 20, 1854 in demonstration against the ‘Kansas-Nebraska Swindle,’” The Jefferson Banner of Jefferson Co., Wisconsin wrote years later of the transformative moment in American political history.  Bovay was reportedly the first to call the assembly the “Republican” party.  His moniker found a powerful ally in influential newspaper publisher Horace Greeley.  “We should not care much whether those thus united against slavery were designated ‘Whig,’ ‘Free Democrat’ or something else,” Greeley wrote in his New-York Tribune in June 1854.  “Though we think some simple name like ‘Republican’ would more fitly designate those who had united to restore the Union to its true mission of champion and promulgator of Liberty rather than propagandist of slavery.”

The Kansas-Nebraska Act was signed into law by President Franklin Pierce on May 30 amid increasing hostility in the halls of power in Washington, D.C., and amid increasing groundswell of opposition.  “Local meetings were held throughout the North in 1854 and 1855. The first national convention of the new party was held in Pittsburgh on Feb. 22, 1856,” writes the Wisconsin Republican Party in its online history.

The party held its first nominating convention in Philadelphia in July 1856. It selected California explorer John C. Fremont as the first Republican to run for president.   He lost to Pennsylvania Democrat James Buchanan, but made an impressive showing for the upstart party founded only two years earlier.   Fremont won 11 of 31 states and earned 33% of the popular vote, finishing ahead of former President Millard Fillmore of New York, who represented the short-lived Know Nothing Party.

The true impact of the Republican earthquake was felt when the party’s candidate, Abraham Lincoln, won the presidency in the hotly contested four-man race of 1860.   Democrat-led pro-slavery states quickly seceded from the Union in response to the Republican victory, launching the nation into the Civil War.   Republicans after the war pushed through in rapid order the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. Collectively known as the Reconstruction Amendments, they abolished slavery, provided equal protection under the law and guaranteed voting rights.

Democrats regained power in the years after the Civil War.   The Republicans reportedly earned the name Grand Old Party in 1888, after winning back the White House from Democrat Grover Cleveland.   “Let us be thankful that under the rule of the Grand Old Party … these United States will resume the onward and upward march which the election of Grover Cleveland in 1884 partially arrested,” the Chicago Tribune wrote in what some sources say is the first use of the GOP label.

The Republican Party led the fight for woman’s suffrage, first in the Wyoming Territories in 1869 and then pushing through the 19th Amendment after sweeping to power in both houses of Congress in November 1918.  The newly Republican-led Senate approved the amendment in June 1919 and sent it on the states “after 41 years of debate,” notes the chamber’s official history.   The Republican Party later pushed through the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 in alliance with Democrat President Lyndon B. Johnson, who split with his own party to support the bill.

The Civil Rights Act passed despite a ferocious 72-day filibuster in the Senate led by a collection of Democrat icons.  Among those senators who staunchly opposed the Civil Rights Act: Al Gore Sr. of Tennessee (father of the future vice president), J. William Fulbright of Arkansas (mentor of future president Bill Clinton), Strom Thurmond of South Carolina and Robert Byrd of West Virginia.  “The Republican Party has a rich history of fighting for the rights of all Americans, from opposing slavery to giving women the right to vote to fostering individual rights across every group in our nation today,” stated A.J. Catsimatidis, vice chairperson of the New York State Republican Party in a recent interview with Fox News.