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Wisconsin and the Republican Party | Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

Wisconsin and the Republican Party

A New Vision for the United States

Wisconsin and the Republican Party | Wisconsin Historical Society
EnlargeA campaign poster for Free Soil Party candidates Martin Van Buren and Charles Francis Adams.

Free Soil Party Candidates, 1848

A campaign poster for Free Soil Party candidates Martin Van Buren and Charles Francis Adams for President and Vice-President. Above is the American eagle, below is the Capitol and President's House. Martin Van Buren was the 8th President of the United States, from March 4th, 1837 until March 4th, 1841. View the original source document: WHI 97129

By 1840s, the Free Soil Party broadened their agenda to include goals such as free homesteads to settlers, federal aid for internal improvements and opposition to extending slavery into the territories. The Free Soil Party's goals proved more popular in Wisconsin than the rest of the nation, especially the opposition to expanding slavery.

Kansas-Nebraska Bill

In 1854, Democratic senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois presented Congress with a plan to organize the Kansas and Nebraska territories. The plan was called the Kansas-Nebraska bill. The 1820 Missouri Compromise had closed the area to slavery. But the Douglas bill would repeal the compromise and allow settlers to decide for themselves whether to make slavery legal. But Wisconsin residents  most of whom were immigrants  were outraged by the measure that denied non-citizen immigrants the right to vote or hold office in either territory.

Whig, Free Soil and most Democratic Wisconsin newspapers disapproved of the amendment disenfranchising aliens as well as the provision opening the territories to slavery. Many political leaders held meetings against the bill in the early months of 1854. Lawyer Alan E. Bovay led a group of various party representatives in Ripon who took a stand against the bill. They suggested the formation of a new party. Other anti-Nebraska meetings in Michigan, New York and throughout the North also recommended the organization of a new party to protest the bill.

The Republican Party

EnlargeExterior view of the birthplace of the Republican Party, located on the Republican House grounds.

Birthplace of the Republican Party

Exterior view of the birthplace of the Republican Party, located on the Republican House grounds, in Fond du Lac. Photo ca. 1950. View the original source document: WHI 39662

The word "Republican" was used to describe the movement for the first time in June of 1854. New York editor Horace Greeley wrote in an article that the title 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."

In July of 1854, a convention to organize the new party was held in Madison. The members resolved, "That we accept this issue, 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. They played down their backgrounds to concentrate solely on the issue of slavery. It was the one issue all Republicans could agree on.

When the 1854 election results 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 and many local offices. Wisconsin elected a Republican governor the next year.

Local meetings were held throughout the North in 1854 and 1855. The first national convention of the new party was held in Pittsburgh on February 22, 1856. Modern reference books usually cite Ripon as the birthplace of the organized movement to form the party. If not born in Ripon, the Republican party was at least conceived there.

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{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?)]