Wisconsin and the Republican Party

By the 1840s, slavery had increasingly become a political issue tied to a number of other political objectives. The Free Soil Party, behind its 1848 candidate Martin Van Buren, broadened the party's appeal to include such goals as free homesteads to settlers, federal aid for internal improvements, and opposition to the extension of slavery into the territories. The many-sided aims of the Free Soil Party proved more popular in Wisconsin than in the nation as a whole, especially the movement against the expansion of slavery.

In 1854, Democratic senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois presented the Kansas-Nebraska bill, a plan for the organization of the Kansas and Nebraska territories, to Congress. Though the 1820 Missouri Compromise had closed the area to slavery, the Douglas bill, as amended, would repeal the antislavery provisions of the compromise and would allow the settlers to decide for themselves whether to make slavery legal. Perhaps most upsetting to Wisconsin residents was the measure denying noncitizen immigrants the right to vote or hold office in either territory: Wisconsin was in the midst of rapid settlement by European immigrants.

The Kansas-Nebraska bill provoked immediate outrage in Wisconsin. Whig and Free Soil newspapers, as well as a majority of the Democratic newspapers in the state, disapproved of the amendment disenfranchising aliens as well as the provision opening the territories to slavery. Numerous political leaders promoted anti-Kansas-Nebraska meetings in the early months of 1854. In Ripon, Wis., under the leadership of lawyer Alvan E. Bovay, representatives of various political groups took a strong stand against the bill and suggested the formation of a new party. Other anti-Nebraska meetings in Michigan, New York, and throughout the North that spring also recommended the organization of a new party to protest the bill.

In July of 1854, a convention was held in Madison to organize the new party. The members resolved, "That we accept this issue [freedom or slavery], forced upon us by the slave power, and in the defense of freedom will cooperate and be known as Republicans." (Current, 221). The Wisconsin Republican Party was dominated by former Whigs, yet they played down their backgrounds to concentrate solely on the issue of slavery -- the one issue on which they knew all Republicans could agree.

When the 1854 election returns were in, Wisconsin Republicans had captured one of the two U.S. Senate seats, two of the three U.S. House of Representatives seats, a majority of the state assembly seats, and a large number of local offices. The next year, Wisconsin elected a Republican governor.

Was Wisconsin the birthplace of the Republican Party? The name was first publicly applied to the movement in a June 1854 editorial by New York editor Horace Greeley, who said it would "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." Local meetings were held throughout the North in 1854 and 1855. The first national convention of the new party was only held in Pittsburgh on February 22, 1856. Whether one accepts Wisconsin's claim depends largely on what one means by the words "birthplace" and "party." Modern reference books, while acknowledging the ambiguity, usually cite Ripon as the birthplace of the organized movement to form the party. If not born in Ripon, the party was at least conceived there.

{Sources: The History of Wisconsin vol 2 (Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin); Kasparek, Jon, Bobbie Malone and Erica Schock. Wisconsin History Highlights: Delving into the Past (Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2004); Diamond Jubilee Celebration Committee. Dedicated to the Little White School House, 1854-1929: Republican diamond jubilee celebration, Ripon, Wisconsin, June 7th, 8th, 9th, 1929. (Ripon, Wis., Ferd. Fisher and Associates, 1929); Gilman, A. F. The origin of the Republican Party. (Wisconsin : A.F. Gilman?, 1914?)]


Original Documents and Other Primary Sources

Link to article: A Wisconsin youth shares a bed with Abraham Lincoln in 1859.A Wisconsin youth shares a bed with Abraham Lincoln in 1859.
Link to article: Wisconsin Governor Jeremiah Rusk (1830-1893)Wisconsin Governor Jeremiah Rusk (1830-1893)
Link to article: Wisconsin delegates at the 1860 Republican conventionWisconsin delegates at the 1860 Republican convention
Link to article: A participant recalls the Ripon meeting of March 20, 1854A participant recalls the Ripon meeting of March 20, 1854
Link to article: German editors seek to foster unity among Republicans, 1858German editors seek to foster unity among Republicans, 1858
Link to article: Alvan Bovay is credited with founding the Republican party (1929)Alvan Bovay is credited with founding the Republican party (1929)
Link to book: What Republicans stood for in 1860.What Republicans stood for in 1860.
Link to book: Ripon celebrates 75 years of the Republican PartyRipon celebrates 75 years of the Republican Party
Link to book: The origin of the Republican Party in Ripon, 1914The origin of the Republican Party in Ripon, 1914
Link to book: A Wisconsin Republican leader repudiates slavery in 1860A Wisconsin Republican leader repudiates slavery in 1860
Link to images: Republican campaign tickets and other ephemera, 1864-1880Republican campaign tickets and other ephemera, 1864-1880
Link to manuscript: The infant Republican Party takes shape, 1857-58.The infant Republican Party takes shape, 1857-58.
Link to manuscript: Carl Schurz meets with Abraham Lincoln, July 1860Carl Schurz meets with Abraham Lincoln, July 1860
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