Emergence of the Republican Party

Emergence of the Republican Party

It can be challenging to remember in today’s rigidly partisan political climate, but our country’s political parties have evolved over time. Their major platforms, their approach to government, and their supporters have all changed over the years.

The Republican Party of today traces its history back to 1854. At the time, slavery—and particularly the expansion of slavery into the western territories—was the most contentious issue of the day. The United States had recently gained the area from Texas west to the Pacific Ocean as a result of the Mexican-American War. After gold was discovered in California in 1848, the population of the territory multiplied. By 1850, the population had grown to the point that it could be admitted to the Union, although the debate over its admission was rancorous and worsened sectional tensions. Within four years, there were enough people in California—not to mention a significant amount of trade headed back East—that a transcontinental railroad was needed.

Because of the time and expense involved in building a railroad that would reach from the central United States to California, it was understood that there could only be one route when it was all said and done. A new rail line would mean money and population growth. An increased population would eventually translate to more representation in Congress, and that, both regions understood, could have serious ramifications for the future of slavery. Given the intense sectional tensions at the time, both North and South were determined to secure both the railroad route and the terminus from which it would extend.

The debate over the railroad seemed unresolvable until Democratic Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois intervened. Douglas proposed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which would create two new territories, Kansas and Nebraska, with the option that settlers in Kansas could choose to be a slave state. Douglas allowed for that possibility to win over Southerners, who had no real reason to support the plan, as it put the terminus in Chicago and sent the new rail line through Northern territories to California. The problem with the Kansas-Nebraska Act was that it essentially involved repealing the Missouri Compromise, which had banned slavery in the Louisiana Territory north of Missouri’s southern boundary and had been law since 1820.

Douglas’s proposal was immediately controversial and galvanized many in the North, particularly those in his own party. Northern Democrats began to leave the party and, within a short period, joined with anti-slavery members of the Whig Party and members of the Free-Soil Party, which opposed slavery, to form the Republican Party. The new party’s core principle was its opposition to slavery. However, Republicans frequently differed in their degrees of opposition, with some wanting merely to ban it from the territories and others wishing to abolish it outright. It was also, as one might imagine, an exclusively Northern party. (It would be more than a century before the South became a Republican Party stronghold.) All of this meant, of course, that the Democratic Party of those days was, by default, a Southern, pro-slavery party.

In the presidential election of 1860, the results were split along regional lines, making compromise virtually impossible and hastening the pace toward the looming conflict. The Kansas-Nebraska Act led to a regional political realignment that gave rise to the Republican Party and was arguably the most consequential event leading to the Civil War.