Forging a Republican Majority

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Forging a Republican Majority


Filling a Void. The decline of the Whigs eliminated an important bond of Unionism but did not necessarily mean that politics would become polarized along sectional lines. To the contrary, in the immediate aftermath of the 1852 election it seemed that the major response to voters dissatisfaction would take the form of initiatives unrelated to sectional disputes. In much of the country, the future evidently lay with prohibitionist and nativist movements. Coalitions enacted adaptations of the Maine Law throughout New England and in New York, Delaware, and much of the Midwest from 1852 to 1855. These efforts fed into broader nativist impulses that received a new organization when two secret fraternal organizations, the Order of United Americans and the Order of the Star Spangled Banner, merged in 1852 to form the Know Nothing Party. The Know Nothings did not seek to restrict immigration but tried to limit newcomers influence in politics by calling for a waiting period of twenty-one years before an immigrant could be naturalized and by proposing that officeholding should be limited to native-born Americans. The anti-Catholic movement also came to focus on disputes over public funding of parochial schools and the legal control of church property. Passions intensified when Vatican emissary Gaetano Bedini arrived in July 1853 to address property ownership questions on behalf of Pope Pius IX. One observer declared that He is here to find the best way to rivet Italian chains upon us which will bind us as slaves to the throne of the most fierce tyranny the world knows.

Kansas-Nebraska Act. A different basis for the organization of politics emerged from the first session of the Thirty-third Congress, which assembled in December 1853. Stephen A. Douglas, who had watched with chagrin as the inept Franklin Pierce tried to lead the Democratic Party, moved to assert his leadership with a legislative program for western development. Douglas had long been interested in chartering a transcontinental railroad line from Chicago to the Pacific, which required the organization for settlement of additional territory that had been obtained in the Louisiana Purchase. His bid to open the so-called Nebraska Territory faced strenuous opposition from Missouri senator David Rice Atchison of Missouri, a state in which the slave population was rapidly declining as labor flowed to the richer lands of the South. Atchison staked his political career on preserving slavery in Missouri, aware that the erosion of the institution would accelerate if the state were surrounded not only by free states on the east and north but also by new territory to the west that the Missouri Compromise required to be free. Douglas sought to accommodate Atchison and his Southern allies in January 1854

by ignoring the restriction on slavery north of the 36° 30 line. When Atchisons faction called for more-explicit concessions, Douglas revised his proposal to establish two territories, Kansas and Nebraska, and to declare the Missouri Compromise superseded by the principle of popular sovereignty that the Compromise of 1850 applied to the New Mexico and Utah territories. Douglas saw little practical significance to this formulation, for he correctly predicted that settlers in the new territories would mostly come from free states and would not favor the establishment of slavery. He nevertheless anticipated that what he called a hell of a storm would result in the North from jettisoning of the hallowed Missouri Compromise, and he prepared for the furor by committing Pierce to make the Kansas-Nebraska bill a test of loyalty to the Democratic Party.

Reactions. Douglass expectations of an outcry were fulfilled many times over. On the day after the Illinois senator introduced his revised proposal, a small Free Soil contingent in Congress led by Sens. Salmon P. Chase and Charles Sumner and Rep. Joshua Giddings of Ohio published an Appeal to the Independent Democrats arguing that Douglas had acted as the pawn of slavery interests in order to advance his ambition to become president. Throughout the North, coalitions of anti-Nebraska Democrats, Whigs, and Free Soilers met to express opposition to the repeal of the Missouri Compromise. The extension of slavery into the territories mobilized many moderates who had accepted the Fugitive Slave Law as the unfortunate price of Unionism, including Abraham Lincoln. The influence of the anti-Nebraska meetings was counteracted in Washington by the marshaling of patronage and other party resources to maintain Democratic discipline in support of the bill. While Northern Democrats were forced to choose between party and section, Whigs divided almost completely along sectional lines on the bill. When Congress passed the measure in May 1854, anti-Nebraska leaders intensified the organizational efforts that produced a Republican Party limited entirely to the Northern states. The potential appeal of the party was demonstrated by the congressional elections of 1854. The contingent of Northern Democrats in the House of Representatives fell from 93 to 23. Where the Democrats had won control of all but two free-state legislatures in 1852, they lost all but two in 1854. The Democratic ascendancy in the North was shattered; within the party, moreover, the Southern wing now became dominant.

Slave Power. The principal development in Northern politics between 1854 and 1856 was a struggle between nativists and Republicans to succeed the Whigs as the major party rival to the Democrats. The competitors in some ways made similar appeals. Just as the Know Nothings argued that the Pope secretly manipulated immigrants to subvert American liberties, the Republicans maintained that a conspiracy of powerful slaveholders was covertly working through the Democratic Party to subvert American liberties. The Republican argument was not based on racial egalitarianism but on a conviction that slavery was an impediment to modernization and that Southern efforts to preserve the institution were infringing upon the political rights of whites. Thus, Republicans emphasized the suppression of free speech in the South, where only a few courageous individuals like Cassius Clay of Kentucky braved physical attacks to criticize slavery as incompatible with economic development and social progress in such matters as the education of whites. As settlers moved into the newly opened Kansas territory, Republicans publicized the ways in which border ruffians from Missouri perverted democratic processes and relied on violence to set up a proslavery government. The clash between the Southerners and antislavery settlers led to the establishment of two separate legislatures in Kansas and eventually to the outbreak of civil war in the territory. The Republican critique of slave power found its most dramatic focus when Rep. Preston S. Brooks of South Carolina brutally assaulted Charles Sumner in the Senate chamber in May 1856 after the Bostonian made derogatory remarks about Brookss relative, Sen. Andrew Pickens Butler, in a speech titled The Crime Against Kansas. Sumner did not return to the Senate for three years, his vacant seat serving Republicans as a constant reminder of the fate of civil liberties in a government dominated by slaveholders.


Abraham Lincolns House Divided speech, delivered on 16 June 1858, upon his acceptance as the Illinois Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate, was one of the strongest statements of the argument that a secret Democratic conspiracy was expanding and entrenching slavery. The workmen to whom he refers are Stephen A. Douglas, Franklin Pierce, Roger B. Taney, and James Buchanan.

A house divided against itself cannot stand.

I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free.

I do not expect the Union to be dissolved I do not expect the house to fall but I do expect it will cease to be divided.

It will become all one thing or all the other.

Either the opponents of slavery, will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become alike lawful in all the States, old as well as new North as well as South.

Have we no tendency to the latter condition?

Let anyone who doubts, carefully contemplate that now almost complete legal combinationpiece of machinery so to speakcompounded of the Nebraska doctrine, and the Dred Scott decision. . . .

When we see a lot of framed timbers, different portions of which we know have been gotten out at different times and places and by different workmenStephen, Franklin, Roger and James, for instanceand when we see these timbers joined together, and see they exactly make the frame of a house or a mill. . . we find it impossible to not believe that Stephen and Franklin and Roger and James all understood one another from the beginning, and all worked upon a common plan or draft drawn up before the first lick was struck.

It should not be overlooked that, by the Nebraska bill, the people of a State as well as Territory, were to be left perfectly free subject only to the Constitution

Why mention a State? They were legislating for territories, and not for or about States. Certainly the people of a State are and ought to be subject to the Constitution of the United States; but why is mention of this lugged into this merely territorial law? Why are the people of a territory and the people of a state therein lumped together, and their relation to the Constitution therein treated as being precisely the same?. . .

In what cases the power of the states is so restrained by the U.S. Constitution, is left an open question, precisely as the same question, as to the restraint on the power of the territories was left open in the Nebraska act. Put that and that together, and we have another nice little niche, which we may, ere long, see filled with another Supreme Court decision, declaring that the Constitution of the United States does not permit a state to exclude slavery from its limits?. . .

We shall lie down pleasantly dreaming that the people of Missouri are on the verge of making their State free; and we shall awake to the reality, instead, that the Supreme Court has made Illinois a slave State.

The Dred Scott Decision. The twin issues of Bleeding Kansas and Bleeding Sumner propelled the Republicans to a strong showing in the 1856 presidential election. Their nominee, John C. Fremont, easily outdistanced Know Nothing candidate Millard Fillmore, whose party served mostly to provide an alternative to Democrats in the upper South, and posed a formidable challenge to Democratic winner James Buchanan. Two days after Buchanans inauguration in March 1857, the Supreme Court announced its ruling in Dred Scott v. Sandford that Congress did not have constitutional authority to prohibit slavery from the Louisiana Purchase Territory and that African Americanswhether slave or freecould not be citizens of the United States. The decision about the invalidity of the Missouri Compromise bar on slavery struck directly at the Republican Party, which was united by a common desire to restore the ban. Here again, Republicans argued, was the hand of the slave power, now seeking to remove a vital issue from democratic processes by ruling for the first time in

more than a half century that an act of Congress was unconstitutional.

The Lecompton Controversy. The conflict over slavery in the Kansas Territory came to a climax in 1857 as settlers prepared to request admission into the Union. Federal judgment on the validity of any proposed constitution was complicated by the fact that proslavery and antislavery elements remained separate political communities, although violence had largely been suppressed. Antislavery Kansans did not participate in the drafting of a proslavery constitution in Lecompton, which did not allow for a popular vote on whether to permit settlers to keep their slaves. President Buchanan caved in to pressure from Southern leaders in Washington and supported the admission of Kansas under the Lecompton constitution. This decision proved catastrophic to the Democratic Party, the last intersectional political institution in the country. Stephen A. Douglas broke with Buchanan to lead efforts in Congress to block the admission of Kansas. The eventual resolution finally provided Kansas voters with an opportunity to reject the constitution, although it offered the state a large grant of federal land if the state adopted the proslavery charter and stipulated that additional population would be required to apply for admission as a free state. The antislavery majority in Kansas overwhelmingly spurned the bribe in an August 1858 referendum and rejected the Lecompton constitution. Kansas would enter the Union as a free state. More important than that outcome, however, was the fierce resentment of Douglas harbored by Southern political leaders as a result of the most prominent Northern Democrats part in the struggle.

Lincoln-Douglas Debates. The Lecompton controversy defined the national stakes in Douglass campaign for reelection in 1858. Douglas maintained that his policy of popular sovereignty had been vindicated. He had proven that he was not a pawn of slave power; he had helped to preserve the integrity of democratic processes in Kansas; and, although he professed to indifference whether Kansas voters in fact adopted or rejected slavery, his tacit premise that popular sovereignty would produce free states had been confirmed. Some Republicans, including influential New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley, consequently called on the party to endorse Douglas for reelection as the most effective counterbalance to the slave power. Taking the lead in opposition to this strategy was Abraham Lincoln, a lawyer who had served one term in Congress during the Mexican War and who had narrowly lost a race for the Senate in 1856. Public campaigns for Senate seats were rare because state legislatures elected senators, but Lincoln arranged for the Illinois Republican Party to nominate him for the Senate in June 1858 so that he could present himself as the nominee during the election of state legislators. This shrewd maneuver attracted national attention to the seven formal debates between Lincoln and Douglas. Upon accepting the nomination Lincoln delivered the House Divided speech that echoed the charges of a slave power conspiracy, claiming that Douglas was in league with Presidents Pierce and Buchanan and Supreme Court justice Roger B. Taney to subvert liberty in the North. As the debates progressed, however, he refined this theme to emphasize the difference between the men who think slavery a wrong and those who do not think it wrong. Republicans thought that slavery was wrong and sought to contain it; hiding behind the policy of popular sovereignty, Douglas had the high distinc tion of never having said slavery is either right or wrong

Republican Ascendancy. Douglas narrowly defeated Lincoln in the Senate campaign, but the Republican political momentum was vividly illustrated when the new House of Representatives attempted to elect a Speaker. The roll call included 113 Republicans and 101 Democrats; former Whigs elected from the upper South under the banner of the American Party could tip the balance in either direction. The Republicans nominated John Sherman of Ohio, a moderate former Whig. Sherman, however, was one of sixty-eight Republican congressmen who had signed an advertisement for The Impending Crisis of the South, an 1857 book in which white North Carolinian Hinton Rowan Helper had attacked slavery as the root of all the shame, poverty, ignorance, tyranny and imbecility of the South. Like some Northern Republicans, Helper did not disguise his racism. But he extended the Republican appeal in calling on the three-fourths of Southerners who did not own slaves to topple this entire system of oligarchical despotism. Southern Democrats denounced Sherman for endorsing the work of Helper, whom they branded a traitor and an insurrectionary, and they carried with them enough border-state Americans to deadlock the House of Representatives for forty-four ballots continuing over two months. Eventually Sherman withdrew and the Republicans elected another candidate. But the speakership contest not only demonstrated the growing Republican majority in the North; the tempest over Impending Crisis of the South revealed Southern fears that Republican voices were emerging in the South as well.


Eric Foner, Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party before the Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1970);

William E. Gienapp, The Origins of the Republican Party, 18521856 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987).