Stories from PA History
Abraham Lincoln and the Politics of the Civil War
Abraham Lincoln and the Politics of the Civil War
Chapter Two: Rise of the Republican Party

The 1856 political banner for the first nominees of the Republican party, John C. Fremont for President and William Dayton for Vice President.
Political banner for the first nominees of the Republican party: John C. Fremont...
The Republican Party was born out of the great political crisis of the 1850s. During that decade, Americans grew fearful that their experiment in self-government was falling apart. Disagreement over the fate of slavery was the prime force behind this crisis, but European immigration, westward expansion, industrialization, and political corruption also troubled Americans, especially northerners who lived amidst the greatest changes.

The two major political parties, the Democrats and the Whigs, seemed unable to deal with these new challenges. Part of the problem was regional. In the past, politicians of both parties had focused on achieving national unity, working to smooth over the differences between North and South. By the 1850s, however, most Americans considered those sectional divisions too fundamental to ignore.

By the early 1850s, a new, cohesive political party was emerging that had a regional basis in the North. A driving force in the creation of the Republican Party was Pennsylvania congressman markerDavid Wilmot. Wilmot actively organized the first Pennsylvania Republican State Convention, held in Pittsburgh in 1855.

A national organizing convention held the next year in Pittsburgh attracted delegates from twenty-four states and established a National Executive Committee to organize their first convention, to be held the following year in Philadelphia. Democrats responded to the Republican Party by nominating Pennsylvanian James Buchanan for president in 1856.

At the first markerRepublican national convention in Philadelphia in 1856, Republicans nominated John Frémont as their first presidential candidate. Best known and widely admired for his explorations of the West, Frémont was also a vocal anti-slavery activist and served as one of California's first Senators. William Dayton of New Jersey was the vice-presidential nominee chosen instead of Abraham Lincoln, who finished second in the balloting.

Black and white, head and shoulders image.
Pennsylvania Senator David Wilmot, circa 1860.
The party focused their platform on preventing the spread of slavery in the western territories. With this belief, they embraced a doctrine that had been popularized by David Wilmot during the Mexican War (1846-48). In a proposal known as the "Wilmot Proviso," he had urged that slavery be prohibited from any territory acquired as a result of that conflict. It was never passed into law but nonetheless became the basis for the Republican movement.

A handful of Republicans fought against the extension of slavery because they believed it was wrong, and hoped for equality for blacks. Most, however, joined the anti-slavery crusade to promote what they celebrated as white "free labor." Wilmot was a good example of this view. So was his law partner, markerGalusha Grow, who replaced him in Congress.

Grow urged the adoption of homestead legislation to help white farmers settle the western frontier by giving free public lands to settlers. This principle of westward expansion for the benefit of hard-working white farmers and laborers became a pillar of the early Republican Party.

In some ways, Abraham Lincoln was a symbol of that vision. His family had been migrating westward for generations. Lincoln's English ancestors arrived in colonial Massachusetts and eventually moved to the Delaware River valley. There was a markerLincoln Homestead in Berks County, Pennsylvania.

Lincoln himself had been born in Kentucky, raised in Indiana and as an adult was a resident of Illinois. Self-educated and self-made, Lincoln represented what most Republicans considered an ideal example of the American dream. 
Photographer Matthew Brady captured this image of Abraham Lincoln in 1860.
Abraham Lincoln, by Matthew Brady, 1860.

Some eastern Republicans recognized the need to find a suitable western candidate and Lincoln slowly emerged as a prime contender for his party's nomination for president. The desire to promote a markerLincoln nomination was reportedly the topic of a secret meeting in Honesdale, Pennsylvania in 1859.

There was no secrecy, however, about the markerLincoln biography that was published by the Chester County Times in early 1860. That flattering profile helped ignite Lincoln's bid for the Republican endorsement. But politics requires hard work as much as symbolism, and the legendary Railsplitter was also a shrewd vote-getter.

The Republicans had lost the presidential contest in 1856 largely because they failed to win three key northern states: Indiana, Illinois, and Pennsylvania. Lincoln had deep connections with the first two, but if he were to win the 1860 nomination, he needed to find support in Pennsylvania.

Pennsylvania delegates also helped earn Lincoln the nomination in 1860 at the Republican Party's second national convention held in Chicago. Fearful that Seward would be unable to win either Indiana or Pennsylvania, and therefore lose the election, a stop Seward movement emerged with Lincoln as the preferred candidate.

On the third and final tally of the convention, Pennsylvania's delegates cast fifty-two of their fifty-four votes in support of Lincoln's nomination. The Illinois attorney was a surprising choice, but not an unknown figure. With a platform that endorsed a protective tariff, a transcontinental railroad, internal improvements, a homestead act, and opposed the extension of slavery in the territories, the Republican Party adopted a moderate stance.

In 1860, Lincoln won the presidency by carrying the north, including Pennsylvania, where he received 56 percent of the popular vote and received the state's twenty-seven electoral votes. Still, Lincoln's election in November sent shock waves across the South.

A Republican candidate had won despite southern threats of secession and war. The result was chaos. Before Lincoln became president in March 1861, seven states from the Deep South voted to leave the Union rather than accept his election.

Faced with this unprecedented crisis, President-elect Lincoln used his pre-Inaugural journey from Springfield, Illinois, to Washington, D.C. to rally northern public opinion. In markerBristol, markerHarrisburg, and other Pennsylvania towns, he found enthusiastic support for his mission. His enemies were equally aroused, however, and credible rumors indicated that there was a plot to assassinate him. For security reasons, he left Pennsylvania and slipped into Washington unannounced.

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