The Republican Party was founded in 1854 by a group of renegade Democrats, Whigs, and political independents who opposed the expansion of SLAVERY into new U.S. territories and states. What began as a single-issue, independent party became a major political force in the United States. Six years after the new party was formed, Republican nominee ABRAHAM LINCOLN won the U.S. presidential election. The Republican Party and its counterpart, the DEMOCRATIC PARTY, became the mainstays of the nation's de facto two-party system.
Lincoln's victory in 1860 signaled the demise of the WHIG PARTY and the ascendance of Republican politics. From 1860 to 1931, the Republicans dominated U.S. presidential elections. Only two Democrats were elected to the White House during the 70-year period of Republican preeminence.
The early Republican Party was shaped by political conscience and regionalism. Throughout the early and mid-nineteenth century, states in the North and South were bitterly divided over the issues of slavery and state sovereignty. In 1854 the enactment of the KANSAS-NEBRASKA ACT inflamed political passions. Under the act residents of the new territories of Kansas and Nebraska could decide whether to permit slavery in their regions. In effect, the act invalidated the MISSOURI COMPROMISE OF 1820, which prohibited the extension of slavery in new areas of the United States. Opponents of slavery condemned the measure, and violence erupted in Kansas.
Antislavery parties had already sprung up in the United States. The abolitionist Liberty Party began in 1840, and the FREE SOIL PARTY was formed in 1848. In much the same spirit, the Republican Party arose to protest the Nebraska-Kansas Act. The new group drew support from third parties and disaffected Democrats and Whigs. After organizational meetings in 1854 in Ripon, Wisconsin, and Jackson, Michigan, the Republican Party was born.
In 1856 the Republicans nominated their first presidential candidate, John C. Frémont, a former explorer who opposed the expansion of slavery in new U.S. territories and states.
Although defeated in the national election by Democrat JAMES BUCHANAN, Frémont received one-third of the popular vote.
In 1860 Abraham Lincoln from Illinois was the Republican presidential nominee. Lincoln appealed not only to antislavery voters but to business owners in the East and farmers in the Midwest. The Democratic Party was in turmoil over slavery. The northern Democrats nominated STEPHEN A. DOUGLAS, who tried to sidestep the issue, and the southern Democrats backed John C. Breckinridge, who denounced government efforts to prohibit slavery. Lincoln defeated both candidates.
Although Lincoln's election was a triumph for the Republicans, his support was concentrated primarily in the North. Shortly after Lincoln's victory, several southern states seceded from the Union, and the bloody U.S. CIVIL WAR began.
Throughout the war Lincoln and his policies took a drubbing from the press and public. When Lincoln ran for reelection, the Republican Party temporarily switched its name to the Union Party. Lincoln sought a second term with Democrat ANDREW JOHNSON as his running mate in order to deflect criticism of the Republican Party. Johnson, from Tennessee, was one of the few southerners to support the preservation of the Union. Despite his critics Lincoln defeated the Democratic nominee, George B. McClellan, who ran on a peace platform.
After the North's victory in 1865, the Republicans oversaw Reconstruction, a period of rebuilding for the vanquished South. Lincoln favored a more conciliatory attitude toward the defeated Confederacy. Radical Republicans, however, sought a complete overhaul of the South's economic and social system. After Lincoln's assassination in 1865, the Republicans' Reconstruction policies?such as conferring citizenship and VOTING RIGHTS to former slaves?created long-lasting resentment among many southern whites.
Republicans depended upon the support of northern voters and courted the vote of emancipated slaves. The party fanned hostility by reminding northern voters of the South's disloyalty during the war. The Republicans were the dominant party in the United States from 1860 to 1931, and the party's base among southern whites began to grow in the 1950s, when political loyalties began to shift.