By Joan Brown Wettingfeld
Coincidentally, it is at the same time the 150th anniversary of what has come to also be known by the nickname the GOP, or the Grand Old Party.In the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act, when two Western territories were to decide by referendum whether or not slavery would be allowed there or not, the Free-Soilers joined the Whigs and Northern Democrats to form a completely northern political party. Meetings to discuss the issue in the Northwestern states were held, the impetus coming from anti-Nebraska meetings in the Northwestern states, particularly Wisconsin and Michigan.It was not long before a gathering in Wisconsin of a determined group formed a new party. A local lawyer, Alvan Bovay of Jackson, Mich., suggested the name “Republican” especially because of its ties to Jefferson. Austin Blair, also a resident of Jackson, who had helped write the party's platform, was elected to the state Senate as a “Republican.” (He would become Michigan's governor in 1860.)It is interesting to note that Thomas Jefferson, elected in 1800 and 1804, represented what was called then the “Republican Party.” At that time, Jefferson's party was the party of liberalism, of slashing the national debt, lowering national defense expenditures and ending the then “National Bank.” Republicanism at that time meant upholding a liberal tradition. After 1830 the two primary parties would be called the “Democrat-Republicans” (shortened to “Democrat”) and the “Whig Party.”When the Whig Party dissolved in disarray, the Republican Party emerged anew. A lawyer and a Whig Party member named Abraham Lincoln had come out strongly against slavery and the Kansas-Nebraska Act. In an 1854 speech Lincoln stated: “No man is good enough to govern without the other's consent,” proclaiming that slavery “was a monstrous injustice and a breach of the Declaration of Independence.” (It was at this time that Lincoln briefly favored transporting slaves back to Africa.)The new party gained momentum in the Northern states, and as early as the 1854 election the majority in the House of Representatives was Republican. By 1856 the party ran its first presidential candidate, the famed Western explorer John Fremont, who ably carried 11 states.In 1860 the Republican Party's convention selected Lincoln as its candidate, with running mate Hannibal Hamline of Maine, a former Democrat. The Republican ticket won the election, as we know, receiving all of the electoral votes of the Northern states.In the span of its 150-year history, the Republican Party won 22 presidential elections and saw 18 of its members serve as president.Starting as a radical reformist political movement, the Republican Party has evolved to become the more conservative party of our nation. Known in its beginnings as a party for nationalism and positive government, over the years the Republicans took a stance for states' rights and limited federal power. The direction the party now moves in would seem improbable to its original members. The question today may be, “Will the two parties again reshape themselves in the future?”It seems unlikely at this time that a new ideological coalition will arise. For the immediate future, traditional alignments will most likely persist.Joan Brown Wettingfeld is an historian and freelance writer. She can be reached at JBBAY@aol.com.