The Birth of the Republican Party: Contributing Factors & Platform

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  • 0:05 Slavery in the Territories
  • 1:27 Uneasy Compromises
  • 2:57 Political Parties in Upheaval
  • 3:32 The Republicans
  • 4:47 The Platform
  • 5:11 The 1860 Election
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Troolin

Amy has MA degrees in History, English, and Theology. She has taught college English and religious education classes and currently works as a freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will examine the birth of the Republican Party. We will look at the issues that sparked the Party's creation, examine its platform, and study its early successes.

Slavery in the Territories

In the 1850s, Americans were looking west, seeking more land and more opportunities in new territories, which would eventually become new states. Southerners were especially intrigued by the thousands of acres of potential farmland in the West. Crops, like cotton and tobacco, had depleted the soil in their native South, and they eagerly turned toward the seemingly unlimited territory of the West to satisfy their need for more land. Of course, because they required people to work in this potentially fruitful land, they would have to bring their slaves west with them. Some Southerners even dreamed of an empire of cotton and slavery in that wonderful land of the West.

Northerners, however, had their own idea. Although many of them were not necessarily opposed to slavery in principle, they didn't want the institution to spread into their Western territories. They dreamed of a place where small farmers could settle, work the land, build up their farms and chase the elusive American dream. An empire of cotton and slavery definitely did not mesh with their ideas of free soil and free labor (despite the fact that the dreams only really applied to white men).

Uneasy Compromises

Over the years, Southerners and Northerners had agreed to a few uneasy compromises to cope with the issue of slavery in the West and to maintain a balance of power between the free states and the slave states. The 1820 Missouri Compromise, for instance, allowed Missouri to enter the Union as a slave state and Maine to enter as a free state. It also decreed that no slavery would be allowed in the territories north of Missouri's Southern border.

The rather shaky compromise managed to hold until 1850 when tempers flared again as California sought admission to the Union as a free state. In return for a free California, Northerners agreed to allow some Southern territories to vote on whether or not to allow slavery in their regions, a practice called popular sovereignty. The Compromise of 1850 also included the Fugitive Slave Act, which required citizens to help capture escaped slaves and return them to their masters.

By 1854, another crisis loomed as two new states, Kansas and Nebraska, prepared to enter the Union. The Kansas-Nebraska Act allowed some residents of these states to use popular sovereignty in direct violation of the Missouri Compromise. Kansas soon erupted in violence as pro-slavery groups clashed with free-soil supporters.

Political Parties in Upheaval

The issue of slavery in the West and the tried-but-failed compromises led to political upheaval. In the early 1850s, two major political parties, the Democrats and the Whigs, fought for control. Northern and Southern Democrats, however, continually argued about slavery, and the Whig party was disintegrating from within as anti-slavery-conscious Whigs clashed with pro-slavery cotton Whigs. The time was ripe for a brand new party, one that could stand united and strong.

The Republicans

On May 20th, 1854, a group of politically-minded former Whigs met in Ripon, Wisconsin, to discuss the possibility of forming a new political party that would focus on preventing the spread of slavery in the Western territories. The idea took off, and on June 6th, 1854, over 10,000 people gathered in Jackson, Michigan, to bring the new party to life. The Republican Party, so named by abolitionist newspaperman Horace Greeley, made its first strides in the 1854 election as it won Michigan and did well in a few other states. By 1855, a Republican had been elected Speaker of the House.

In February of 1856, the Republicans met in Pittsburgh to firmly establish their party organization. That June, they finalized their platform and nominated John C. Fremont as their presidential candidate. Fremont actually won 11 of the 16 Northern states in the 1856 election. The Republicans were quickly becoming a vigorous political force.

The Platform

The Republican Party united around its political platform, which contained the following major planks:

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