First Republican National Convention
Click to play audio.

When the Kansas Nebraska Act became law in May of 1854, it gave settlers in those territories the right to vote on whether they would allow slavery.

The frontier land had been off-limits to slavery for more than 30 years because of an agreement between the free North and Southern slave states. With that compromise broken, the North voiced its anger.

An editorial in the Evening Journal of Albany, New York, in May 1854:

"The crime is committed. The work of Monroe, and Madison, and Jefferson, is undone. The wall they erected to guard the domain of Liberty, is flung down by the hands of an American Congress, and Slavery crawls, like a slimy reptile over the ruins, to defile a second Eden."

Protest meetings against the Kansas Nebraska Act provided the foundation for the Republican Party. The issue of slavery had already eroded the political dominance of the Whigs and the Democrats. Drawing on these groups and others, the early Republican Party was a political grab-bag, says Randall Miller, professor of history at St. Joseph's University.

Randall Miller:

"Northern Democrats dissatisfied with the pro-Southern policies, old conscience Whigs and what have you looking for a new political home, Free Soilers, Liberty Men and others who were agreed on only one thing…and that was they needed to stand together to prevent any further extension of slavery into the territories and the Kansas-Nebraska Act was the catalyst for that."

The party chose the name "Republican" in 1854, after gatherings in Ripon, Wisconsin and Jackson, Michigan.

Randall Miller:

"In taking on that name in effect what they were doing was using a name that had great weight among people. The name resonated among people when they heard it because what it did was conjure up images of the early days of the republic...the great heroes. By taking a name like that they were claiming a lineage all the way back to George Washington. We are the true heirs of the American Revolution. We are the Republicans."

Kansas took center stage in national politics again in May of 1856. Pro and anti-slavery groups had been flooding into the territory, hoping to influence the vote on slavery. Violence erupted when a pro-slavery militia invaded Lawrence, the anti-slavery stronghold.

And In Washington, blood spilled on the floor of Congress, when a member of Congress from South Carolina clubbed Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner.

From the Albany Evening Journal, May 1856:

"The logic of the Plantation, brute violence and might, has at last risen where it was inevitable it should rise to - the Senate of the United States. If we are not virtuous and firm, in the discharge of our duty to ourselves and the Republic, to strangle this serpent of Slavery Extension, it will fold us at every point in its grasp."

The sack of Lawrence and the attack on Sumner revived the fortunes of the fledging Republican Party. Many Northerners were indifferent to the plight of slaves themselves … but for the first time, they embraced the stance that the institution of slavery itself should be contained. Republicans saw their chance.

Robert Engs teaches history at the University of Pennsylvania:

"What Republicans managed to do was persuade Northern voters that the South was trying to make slavery legal in Buffalo and in Boston as well as in the South..."
"It gave them something more tangible to fight against. It wasn't just we're trying to dictate to the South, but rather we're trying to protect ourselves from the aggression of Southerners."

On June 2, 1856, the Democrats met in Cincinnati for their national convention, selecting James Buchanan of Pennsylvania as their presidential candidate. Two weeks later, the Republican Party held its first convention in Philadelphia. Pennsylvania was a crucial swing state, says historian Robert Engs.

Robert Engs:

"If Pennsylvania could be brought into the Republican side in the electoral college, the Republicans might be able to win even if they didn't get a majority of the popular vote. …So one of the ways perhaps to steal some of the thunder from the Democrats was to have the Republican convention here in the city and hopefully sway lots of undecided voters."

More than 500 delegates from the North and West, and even a few from the South, gathered in the Musical Fund Hall on Locust Street.

From the Evening Bulletin, June 1856:

"Our town is alive with the bustle and excitement of a grand convention. The hotels are crowded to the highest flight with politicians of many shades."

On the first day, the convention adopted its platform, the confinement of slavery being the key plank. Talk then turned to selecting a presidential candidate. Senator William Seward and Supreme Court Justice John McLean were among those in contention…but retired Army officer John Frémont won the nomination. Agreeable to most, offensive to few...Frémont was able to trade on his western adventures, says Randall Miller.

Randall Miller:

"And so the nation, which was always looking for heroes. And the nation, whether North or South, was looking to the West as the future of America could glom on to somebody like this great pathfinder opening up California....which was to be the golden isle...eventually the Golden State."

Republicans came out of the convention with a united front and identity, at least in public. Frémont would eventually lose to Buchanan, but the Republicans performed well in Congressional elections, emerging as a party to be reckoned with - a party that would win the White House just four years later.
Back to Top