United States History to 1877
SS2500 OA Spring 2014
April 13, 2014
Republican Party Platform of 1856
The Republican Party founded in 1856 was an important political platform in American history. This party emerged from the collapse of the Whig party, taking dome of its economic development policies.1 It merged diverse factions into a new political movement that would dominate American politics for the next seventy-six years, winning fourteen of the next nineteen Presidential elections. It also signaled the end of thirty-six years of political confusion on the issue of slavery in America, ultimately leading to the Civil War. The Republican Party of 1856 was designed to organize a new political viewpoint and to solidify a combination of highly sensitive political forces into a strong and compelling movement. This new political party, with its history changing platform, arose out of a long and complex sequence of events. In the 1850s America’s culture was crumbling. Decades of political compromise and avoidance on the issue of slavery had kept an uneasy peace. The Mexican-American war added over 500,000 square miles to the U.S. and rekindled sectional competition for slave versus non-slave territory. Ralph Waldo Emerson prophesied, “The United States will conquer Mexico, but it will be as the man swallows the arsenic, which brings him down in turn. Mexico will poison us.”2 The balance between Northern Free states and Southern Slave states in the U.S. Senate had only been maintained by tightly controlling the admission of new states to the Union. In 1820 Missouri was ready to be admitted as a slave state. A key part of this Missouri Compromise of 1820 was to limit expansion of slave states to below the line parallel 36 degrees 30 degrees north. However after the Mexican War, Texas, California, and many other potential states insisted for admission into the Union. This reawakened the slumbering sectional conflict and the free versus slave state controversy. In 1850 a new Compromise was approved. This was a package of five separate bills that maintained the North and South balance in the Senate by allowing California to join the Union as a free state even though its southern border dipped below the 1820 slave delineation line. This was balanced by admitting Texas as a slave state. Another provision to balance the votes was ending the slave trade in Washington, DC and the strengthening of the Fugitive Slave Act. The Compromise of 1850 was the last great moment for the Whig Party. This party rose as a counter to the Jacksonian Democrats in the late 1830s. It thrived by broadly promoting westward expansion without a conflict with Mexico, supporting transportation infrastructure projects, and protecting untried American businesses with tariffs. The Whigs also benefited from having pronounced leaders in the U.S. Senate, like Henry Clay and Daniel Webster, and attracting popular war heroes to run as their presidential candidates. The resurgence of sectional competition ended their brief moment of political dominance. In 1848 the Whig Party split on slavery with pro-freedom and anti-Mexican War Conscience Whigs and pro-slavery Cotton Whigs.3 The collapse of the Whigs, and the new sectional rivalry, launched new parties, and factions within parties. These reflected the wide range of opinions on slavery from passionate support of slavery to immediate abolition. In the middle were groups that wanted to maintain the Union through various forms of compromise. On January 4, 1854, Douglas introduced the Kansas-Nebraska Act. This act revoked the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and opened the entire territory to popular sovereignty for determining whether the territories would be free or slave. At this time the Nebraska Territory was the entire Louisiana Purchase. Indiana Representative George Washington Julian commented, “The whole question of slavery was thus re-opened.”4 The debate on the Kansas-Nebraska Act was rowdy. Anti-slavery Free Soil party activists along with anti-slavery Conscience Whigs and Barn Burner Democrats held anti-Nebraska meetings and rallies across the north. These meetings in the winter and spring of 1854 were the earliest spurs of the Republican Party. The anti-Nebraska meeting held in a Congregational church in Ripon, Wisconsin on February 28, 1854, is considered the official beginning of the Republican Party. This meeting led to the Republican state convention in Madison, Wisconsin on July 13, which nominated the first slate of Republicans for that fall’s election.5 The Kansas-Nebraska Act passed the Senate in March and the House of Representatives in early May. President Pierce signed the bill into law on May 30, 1854. Both pro and anti-slave forces moved into the Kansas territory engaging in brutal guerilla warfare over the next five years. The intermittent civil war in what became known as “Bleeding Kansas” even spilled into the U.S. Senate chamber. On May 22, 1856, South Carolina Representative Preston Brooks attacked Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner in the Senate Chamber clubbing him into unconsciousness.6 This showed the chaotic environment the Republican Party was founded in. Republican Party representatives and supporters believed that they could make a virtuous change. They extended their focus beyond slavery and into America’s other pertinent issues while solving the upfront ones at the same time. The platform of the 1856 Republican Party was bold and unheard of, adapted from the Whig Party’s ideals and strengthened with even more audacious delegates and supporters. The party was able to unite people across the country and end issues that were decades long. Allowing for the party to transpire its ideas across the nation and into the future. It is arguably one of the most influential platforms in American history.