The term Republican was adopted in 1792 by supporters of Thomas Jefferson, who favoured a decentralized government with limited powers. Although Jefferson’s political philosophy is consistent with the outlook of the modern Republican Party, his faction, which soon became known as the Democratic-Republican Party, ironically evolved by the 1830s into the Democratic Party, the modern Republican Party’s chief rival.
The Republican Party traces its roots to the 1850s, when antislavery leaders (including former members of the Democratic, Whig, and Free-Soil parties) joined forces to oppose the extension of slavery into the Kansas and Nebraska territories by the proposed Kansas-Nebraska Act. At meetings in Ripon, Wisconsin (May 1854), and Jackson, Michigan (July 1854), they recommended forming a new party, which was duly established at the political convention in Jackson.
At their first presidential nominating convention in 1856, the Republicans nominated John C. Frémont on a platform that called on Congress to abolish slavery in the territories, reflecting a widely held view in the North. Although ultimately unsuccessful in his presidential bid, Frémont carried 11 Northern states and received nearly two-fifths of the electoral vote. During the first four years of its existence, the party rapidly displaced the Whigs as the main opposition to the dominant Democratic Party. In 1860 the Democrats split over the slavery issue, as the Northern and Southern wings of the party nominated different candidates (Stephen A. Douglas and John C. Breckinridge, respectively); the election that year also included John Bell, the nominee of the Constitutional Union Party. Thus, the Republican candidate, Abraham Lincoln, was able to capture the presidency, winning 18 Northern states and receiving 60 percent of the electoral vote but only 40 percent of the popular vote. By the time of Lincoln’s inauguration as president, however, seven Southern states had seceded from the Union, and the country soon descended into the American Civil War (1861–65).
In 1863 Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, which declared slaves in rebelling states to be “forever free” and welcomed them to join the Union’s armed forces. The abolition of slavery would, in 1865, be formally entrenched in the Constitution of the United States with the adoption of the Thirteenth Amendment. Because the historical role played by Lincoln and the Republican Party in the abolition of slavery came to be regarded as their greatest legacy, the Republican Party is sometimes referred to as the party of Lincoln.
The prolonged agony of the Civil War weakened Lincoln’s prospects for reelection in 1864. To broaden his support, he chose as his vice presidential candidate Andrew Johnson, a pro-Union Democratic senator from Tennessee, and the Lincoln-Johnson ticket subsequently won a landslide victory over Democrat George B. McClellan and his running mate George Pendleton. Following Lincoln’s assassination at the end of the war, Johnson favoured Lincoln’s moderate program for the Reconstruction of the South over the more punitive plan backed by the Radical Republican members of Congress. Stymied for a time by Johnson’s vetoes, the Radical Republicans won overwhelming control of Congress in the 1866 elections and engineered Johnson’s impeachment in the House of Representatives. Although the Senate fell one vote short of convicting and removing Johnson, the Radical Republicans managed to implement their Reconstruction program, which made the party anathema across the former Confederacy. In the North the party’s close identification with the Union victory secured it the allegiance of most farmers, and its support of protective tariffs and of the interests of big business eventually gained it the backing of powerful industrial and financial circles.
The 1860 election is today regarded by most political observers as the first of three “critical” elections in the United States—contests...
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