Chicago Tribune (Sunday)
Party born out of crisis
How the Republican Party came to be as an anti-slavery force
In 1854, Abraham Lincoln was itching to get back into politics, but his party, the Whigs, were bitterly divided over an issue covered by a fig leaf when he served in the U.S. House just years earlier. The dispute dated to a fundamental contradiction between America’s most hallowed documents. It was so contentious that it would bring the Whigs to the breaking point and give rise to a new political group: the Republican Party.
The Declaration of Independence proclaimed that all men are equal. Yet the legitimacy of slavery was written into the Constitution, which provided that a state’s enslaved people be counted when seats in the House of Representatives are divvied up.
Accordingly, the United States was born a two-headed creature. In the South, slavery was legal; in the North, the institution was abolished in all states by 1804. That compromise worked because the two regions were roughly equal in clout and agreed not to upset the balance of power.
But U.S. Sen. Stephen Douglas, a Democrat from Illinois, had introduced legislation to allow residents of the Kansas and Nebraska territories to decide if they wanted to have enslaved people. Douglas, a proponent of a transcontinental railroad with Chicago as one terminus, figured his “self-government” solution to the slavery issue would be welcomed all along the tracks’ route.
But to Lincoln, it was a deal breaker, not just politically but morally.
“The doctrine of self-government is right — absolutely and eternally right — but it has no just application, as here attempted,” Lincoln said on Oct. 16, 1854, in Peoria while campaigning for abolitionist candidates.
“If the Negro is a man, why then my ancient faith teaches me that ‘all men are created equal’, and that there can be no moral right in connection with one man’s making a slave of another.”
Only too aware that some Whig Party members were ducking the slavery issue, Lincoln added: “Will they allow me as an old Whig to tell them good-humoredly that I think this is very silly?”
Indeed, Lincoln was hardly the only Whig upset by the acquiescence in Douglas’ bill.
Alvan Bovay of Ripon, Wisconsin, a lawyer and a transplant from the East, put an ad in the local newspaper announcing a meeting in March at a schoolhouse. Bovay was a friend of Horace Greeley, editor of the New-York Tribune. Over the years, Greeley had advocated vegetarianism, spiritualism and utopian socialism. Bovay had a similar taste for offbeat reform movements. They both thought the nation needed a new political party.
At the meeting, Bovay later wrote, “The actors in that remote little eddy of politics realized at the time that they were making history by that solitary tallow candle in the little white schoolhouse on the prairie.”
Whigs, Democrats and others were in the crowd. “We came out Republicans, and we were the first Republicans in the nation,” Bovay said.
It is a measure of how fast the idea spread that other cities claimed the title of the Republican Party’s birthplace.
On July 6, so many turned out in Jackson, Michigan, for the group’s first official meeting that the largest building in town couldn’t accommodate them. In a grove of trees near the county racetrack, the Republican name was adopted, and candidates for state offices were nominated.
Similar meetings were held in Maine, New York, Ohio and Massachusetts. That fall, Republicans won dozens of congressional races, and the Whig Party was on its deathbed.
The Whig Party was formed in 1834 as a loose confederation of groups opposed to what they saw as President Andrew Jackson’s autocratic style. Satirizing him as “King Andrew I,” they took their name from England’s Whigs who wanted to keep their monarch’s power in check.
The Whigs, basically an alliance of Northern business owners and professionals and Southern states-rights proponents, never projected a coherent political philosophy. Instead, they won elections by avoiding the issues — a tactic necessitated by their incompatible factions.
The Cotton Whigs supported slavery. The Conscience Whigs opposed it.
In 1852, a banner proclaimed the Whigs’ union “for the sake of the Union” at the party’s convention hall. Delegates chose a popular general as their presidential candidate, a tactic that previously worked. But the Cotton Whigs fled to the Democrats, whose party echoed white Southerners’ belief that the right of self-government entitled them to enslave Black people.
Gen. Winfield Scott lost to his Democratic opponent in 27 of 31 states, including in his home state of New Jersey.
Two years later, the Conscience Whigs deserted en masse to the Republicans. The Republican Party’s first presidential candidate lost the 1856 election, a disheartening outcome that caused some to fear that the party was stillborn.
But there wasn’t any gloom and doom in the offices of the Chicago Daily Tribune, as this newspaper was then known. Joseph Medill, one of the owners, was entranced by a speaker at the Illinois Republican Party’s organizing convention, as he told a friend, Joseph Fifer.
After the business of the 1856 convention was completed and several notables spoke, there were cries of “Lincoln, Lincoln.” A tall, gangly man rose in the back of the hall and started to speak. “Platform, Lincoln, the platform,” the crowd demanded and got its way.
“Lincoln began slowly, but rose as he progressed, and Medill said it was the greatest speech finally to which he ever listened,” Fifer recalled. “He said that at times Lincoln seemed to reach up into the clouds and take out the thunderbolts.”
Medill opposed slavery and saw in Lincoln someone who could effectively carry the abolitionist banner. When Lincoln ran against Stephen Douglas for U.S. senator in 1858, Medill sent a stenographer to transcribe his debates with Douglas, the incumbent. The lengthy texts appeared in the Tribune.
Medill helped prepare Lincoln for a debate in Freeport, urging him to go for Douglas’ jugular. “Don’t refer to your past speeches or positions,” Medill said, “but hold (Douglas) up as a traitor and a conspirator, a bamboozling pro-slavery demagogue.”
Though Douglas kept his Senate seat, the contest put Lincoln center stage on the run-up to the presidential election of 1860. To give Lincoln a home-field advantage, Medill successfully lobbied for the Republican nominating convention to be held in Chicago.
At the last minute, Lincoln came down with a case of cold feet.
“See here, you Tribune boys have got me up a peg too high,” he told Medill. “How about the vice presidency? Won’t that do?”
“We’re not playing second to any musician in this dance,” Medill shot back. “Else you can count the Tribune out. We’re not fooling away our time and science on the vice presidency.”
Lincoln’s nomination made a showdown between North and South inevitable. He had made his position on slavery crystal clear when running for U.S. senator.
“A house divided against itself cannot stand,” he said. “I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free.”
Upon the news of his winning the 1860 presidential election, the Southern states seceded. The bloody Civil War that followed brought an end to slavery in America, and in the aftermath, the Democratic Party was eclipsed. All but two of the presidents elected between 1860 and 1932 were Republicans.
Following this past presidential election, the Republican Party is on the ropes, having lost the White House and its Senate majority. But before counting the GOP out, take note: Its obituary has been prematurely written before, including by one of its founders.
Bovay, about a decade after the end of the Civil War, declared his party obsolete with the end of slavery: “Its place should be taken by a new party with prohibition as its central idea.”