The Founding of the Republican Party

Photograph of politician Jacob Howard Merritt
Library of Congress

The Republican Party was founded in the mid-1850s following the fracturing of other political parties over the debate of whether to continue practicing enslavement. The party, which was based on stopping the spread of enslavement to new territories and states, arose out of protest meetings that took place in a number of northern states.

The catalyst for the founding of the party was the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in the spring of 1854. The law was a major change from the Missouri Compromise of three decades earlier and made it seem possible that new states in the West would come into the Union as pro-slavery states.

The change splintered both major parties of the era, the Democrats and the Whigs. Each party contained factions that either endorsed or opposed the spread of enslavement into western territories.

Before the Kansas-Nebraska Act was even signed into law by President Franklin Pierce, protest meetings had been called in a number of locations. 

With meetings and conventions happening in a number of northern states, it is impossible to pinpoint one particular place and time where the party was founded. One meeting, at a schoolhouse in Ripon, Wisconsin, on March 1, 1854, is often credited as being where the Republican Party was founded.

According to a number of accounts published in the 19th century, a convention of disaffected Whigs and members of the fading Free Soil Party assembled at Jackson, Michigan on July 6, 1854. A Michigan congressman, Jacob Merritt Howard, was credited with drawing up the first platform of the party and giving it the name "Republican Party."

It is often stated that Abraham Lincoln was the founder of the Republican Party. While the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act did motivate Lincoln to return to an active role in politics, he was not part of the group which actually founded the new political party.

Lincoln did, however, quickly become a member of the Republican Party and in the election of 1860, he would become its second nominee for president.

Formation of a New Political Party

Forming the new political party was no easy accomplishment. The American political system in the early 1850s was complicated, and members of a number of factions and minor parties had widely varying degrees of enthusiasm about migrating to a new party.

In fact, during the congressional elections of 1854, it seemed that most of the opponents to the spread of enslavement concluded their most practical approach would be the formation of fusion tickets. For example, members of the Whigs and the Free Soil Party formed tickets in some states to run in local and Congressional elections.

The fusion movement was not very successful, and was ridiculed with the slogan "Fusion and Confusion." Following the 1854 elections momentum grew to call meetings and begin to seriously organize the new party.

Throughout 1855 various state conventions brought together Whigs, Free Soilers, and others. In New York State, the powerful political boss Thurlow Weed joined the Republican Party, as did the state's anti-enslavement senator William Seward, and the influential newspaper editor Horace Greeley.

Early Campaigns of the Republican Party

It seemed obvious that the Whig Party was finished, and couldn't run a candidate for the presidency in 1856.

As the controversy over Kansas escalated (and would eventually turn into a small-scale conflict dubbed Bleeding Kansas), the Republicans gained traction as they presented a united front against the pro-enslavement elements dominating the Democratic Party.

As former Whigs and Free Soilers coalesced around the Republican banner, the party held its first national convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, from June 17-19, 1856.

Approximately 600 delegates gathered, mainly from the northern states but also including the border pro-slavery states of Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky, and the District of Columbia. The territory of Kansas was treated as a full state, which carried considerable symbolism given the unfolding conflict there.

At that first convention, the Republicans nominated explorer and adventurer John C. Frémont as their presidential candidate. A former Whig congressman from Illinois who had come over to the Republicans, Abraham Lincoln, was nearly nominated as the vice-presidential candidate but lost to William L. Dayton, a former senator from New Jersey.

The first national platform of the Republican Party called for a transcontinental railroad and improvements of harbors and river transportation. But the most pressing issue, of course, was enslavement and the platform called for prohibiting the spread of enslavement to new states and territories. It also called for the prompt admission of Kansas as a free state.

The Election of 1856

James Buchanan, the Democratic candidate, and a man with an uncommonly long record in American politics won the presidency in 1856 in a three-way race with Frémont and former president Millard Fillmore, who ran a disastrous campaign as the candidate of the Know-Nothing Party.

Yet the newly formed Republican Party did surprisingly well.

Frémont received about a third of the popular vote and carried 11 states in the electoral college. All the Frémont states were in the North and included New York, Ohio, and Massachusetts.

Given that Frémont was a novice at politics, and the party had not even existed at the time of the previous presidential election, it was a very encouraging result.

At the same time, the House of Representatives began to turn Republican. By the late 1850s, the House was dominated by Republicans.

The Republican Party had become a major force in American politics. And the election of 1860, in which the Republican candidate, Abraham Lincoln, won the presidency, led to the pro-slavery states seceding from the Union.

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McNamara, Robert. "The Founding of the Republican Party." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, McNamara, Robert. (2023, April 5). The Founding of the Republican Party. Retrieved from McNamara, Robert. "The Founding of the Republican Party." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 31, 2023).