Real Republicans? The Election of 1856

Joshua Giddings

By this point everyone is aware that this year is an election year in the United States. The presidency and most seats in Congress are at stake. Throughout the next three and a half months, in addition to my on-going look at the events of the Amer8ican Civil War, I shall be taking a critical look at American politics through the lens [yes, I deliberately use the plural form] of history. There are many amazing stories to share.

This essay begins with a warning. When I started this blog a bit over a year ago, I wrote in my first essay: “My interests are varied, my age senior, my politics and theology unapologetically liberal. If you enjoy my rambling, I am pleased. If you don’t, well the web is a wide, wide world. To each her own.” Allow me to elaborate, to demonstrate further what I mean.

I am a pro-choice feminist. Women are entitled to the integrity of their own bodies. Women do not exist merely to satisfy the sexual fantasies and desires of men. When a woman says “no!” she means “no!” Marital rape is as much a crime as any other involuntary sexual act. Women are entitled to equal pay for equal work. Glass ceilings are a crime. A woman’s place is in the House as well as the Senate and the Supreme Court. Women are just as good in science, math and engineering as men. Any doubts, look at the work of Marie Curie, remembering she was not necessarily unique, except for winning two Nobel prizes in two different sciences, a feat matched many years later by only one man. I am a fierce supporter of lesbian, gay,.bisexual and transgender persons. I believe that marriage is a civil right for all citizens, regardless of sexual orientation or gender expression. I do not believe that corporations are legally “persons” for purposes of American constitutional law, nor should they be, and I do believe that corporations and wealthy persons should be taxed at higher rates than poor and middle class persons. Corporations should not be entitled to tax breaks for the purposes of exploiting our natural resources. Workers are entitled to decent wages, safe working conditions and health insurance. Labor unions are one way, not the only but certainly one way, that workers’ rights are protected. Minority groups have been exploited and discriminated against in the American past, in some ways many still are and these persons are entitled to recompense and equal protection of the law. To my understanding, the Second Amendment to the Constitution of the United States does not allow citizens to own arsenals of weapons in their homes, to carry concealed weapons or to shoot people because they don’t like the color of their skin or their choice of religion. Separation of church and state and free exercise of religion are essential to democracy. The death penalty is cruel and unusual punishment. Freedom of the press makes possible free government. The Supreme Court decision in Citizens United is a step backward, an attempt by the Court’s right wing along with monied interests to take government away from the common people and return to the power of the rich robber barons, just as in the nineteenth century. As a Christian, I believe that the heart of the Gospel is to reach out to the poor, the oppressed and the marginalized as Jesus himself did.

In this election year I have a thing or six to say about American politics. Most of that is harsh and unflattering to the Republican Party nationally and to the current Republican administration in my state, Pennsylvania. And if you, gentle reader, are conservative in your views, you will most likely be offended by what I say. So read on at your own risk or switch right now to another blog. I think that blogging is a kind of modern independent journalism and a journalist I greatly admire is the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. In the opening editorial of The Liberator in 1831, he declared:”I do not wish to think, or speak, or write, with moderation. . . . I am in earnest – I will not equivocate – I will not excuse – I will not retreat a single inch.”

This is the first of a series on the roots and origins of the Republican Party. My question is “Are there any real Republicans these days?” And my short answer is “No, there are not.” To show how I reached my answer, I am going to look at the elections of 1856 and 1860, the Radical Republicans [yes, that is not a contradiction in terms–once upon a time there were senators and representatives who identified themselves as such] and the Reconstruction amendments [13th, 14th & 15th] to the United States Constitution, and finally the elections of 1900 and 1904 when Teddy Roosevelt embodied, for the last time, I believe, the Republican values and virtues of John Fremont, Abraham Lincoln and Charles Sumner.

FDR in Pittsburgh, 1940

I must emphasize that I speak only for myself, not for any organization or group. What follows are my opinions. In the interests of full disclosure, I must say that my maternal grandparents were Republicans. My mother, who grew up during the Great Depression, always proudly considered herself not merely a Democrat but a “Roosevelt Democrat.” [She successfully convinced her mother to change party affiliation in 1960 and vote for the Kennedy-Johnson ticket.] Her younger brother, my favorite uncle, is also a card-carrying Democrat who glories in the term “liberal.” In the first election in which I could vote I was one of those college students who went “Clean for Gene.” My political views come from FDR’s New Deal, Jack Kennedy’s New Frontier, Eugene V Debs’ “Bending Cross” speech, chapters 5, 6 and 7 of the Gospel of Matthew [when the Italian social activist Father John Bosco was asked about politics, he replied, “My political views are those of the Lord’s Prayer”], Quaker peace principles and the IWW’s concept of “one big union.” I have voted for Democrats, independents and various third party candidates but, never, to my knowledge, for a Republican. And since my dominant hand has not withered, I believe that I never have pulled the lever for a Republican. In my mind, the criticism of President Obama as a “socialist” simply reveals the ignorance of his critics who apparently do not know enough history or current events to recognize a real socialist if one stood in front of them. All that said, if you are still reading, let me move on apiece to my first historical study–the election of !856.

George Washington Julian

In the January, 1899 issue of the American Historical Review, the retied Quaker politician from Indiana George Washington Julian published an article entitled “The First Republican National Convention.” Julian was present in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in February of 1856. It is fortunate for us that he published when he did for he died six months later at the age of 82. In his opening Julian wrote, “No roll of the members was preserved, while the several histories of political parties and conventions which have since appeared contain little more than a mere reference to the subject. Since the writer is one of the very few survivors of the convention, and was officially and somewhat actively connected with its proceedings, and since there is always a natural curiosity to know something of the beginnings of a great historic movement, perhaps a brief paper on the subject may prove timely and not entirely without value as a contribution to the literature of politics. The creation of the proposed new party was a vexed problem.”


Horace Greeley


Julian points out that the old Whig Party, begun in 1833, floundered in the election of 1852 and by 1854 groups calling themselves Republicans began appearing in Michigan, Wisconsin, Vermont, Ohio and Indiana. Responding to a call from state organizations for a national organizing convention, self-selected volunteers representing sixteen northern states and eight southern states gathered February 22nd and 23rd at Lafayette Hall in downtown Pittsburgh. An historical marker still adorns the spot. Those present included Julian and his father-in-law, Joshua Giddings from Ohio who had made a name for himself in Congress by siding with the elderly John Quincy Adams against the southern gag rule forbidding discussion of the slavery question. When southerners had him disciplined and dismissed from Congress, his constituents in northeast Ohio promptly reelected to the House of Representatives.

Owen Lovejoy

Others present included Horace Greeley, age 45, founding editor of the New York Tribune, out-spoken opponent of slavery and the use of liquor, advocate of working people, vegetarianism and some ideas of European socialism. His paper would quickly become the national organ of the new party. John A King, age 68, who would become the first Republican governor of New York. Owen Lovejoy, age 45, from Illinois, a minister and abolitionist and whose brother Elijan P Lovejoy had been murdered by a pro-slavery mob for his attempt to start an abolitionist newspaper. Francis P Blair, a Maryland man approaching age 65, a former slave-owner who now opposed the expansion of slavery. Lawrence Brainerd from Vermont, age 61, abolitionist and businessman. Abijah Mann, age 62, a lawyer and politician from New York state, active in a number of reforms. Zachariah Chandler, age 43 from Michigan, a teacher and politician who organized state-wide resistance to the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. Oliver P Morton, age 33, from Indiana, a lawyer and anti-slavery activist. And David Wilmot, age 42, a Pennsylvania who was also anathema to slave-holders for his opposition while a Congressman to allowing slavery to expand to territory seized from Mexico in the war of 1846.

Zachariah Chandler

From this point onward, one can speak of a national Republican Party. As Julian wrote, it was formed primarily by “men who favored the formation of a great national anti-slavery party.” It drew some dissatisfied Democrats, particularly from the mid-Atlantic states and the mid-West as well as former Whigs, former Free Soil Party members, some temperance advocates and some former Know-Nothings, a party that was violently anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant.

The new party held its first nominating convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania from June 17th to June 19th in 1856. The convention adopted a platform which, among other things, called for prohibiting the expansion of slavery into the territories not yet organized into states, condemned polygamy and slavery as “twin relics of barbarism,” and federal appropriations to build a transcontinental railroad and to improve rivers and harbors. The convention nominated John C Fremont for President.

John C Fremont

Fremont, 43 years old at the time, was a former soldier, hero of the war with Mexico, credited with the seizure of California, an explorer and adventurer, former senator from California, and married to the beautiful Jessie Benton Fremont, daughter of Senator Thomas Hart Benton, Democrat of Missouri. His campaign slogan was “Free Soil, Free Men and Fremont.” He opposed the expansion of slavery, particularly Senator Stephan A Douglas’ Kansas-Nebraska Act which effectively destroyed the Compromise of 1820 and gave delighted southerners the prospect of expanding slavery throughout the west, all the way to the Pacific coast. Fremont blamed Democrats for the on-going bloodshed in Kansas between pro-slavery and anti-slavery forces. He wanted Kansas admitted to the Union as a free state. Fremont also opposed the Ostend Manifesto which called for taking Cuba from Spain by purchase or force and which northerners saw as a southern attempt to expand slavery as Havana had one of the largest operating slave markets in the Western Hemisphere.

Democrats said that electing Fremont would result in civil war. Even his father-in-law, Senator Benton, spoke against him. In the election, the Democrat James Buchanan won 1,836,072 popular votes [45.3%] and carrying the south as well as California and his home state of Pennsylvania. Fremont won 1,342,345 popular votes [33.1%], carrying all of New England, New York, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa. The remaining 21.6% of the popular vote went to third party candidates.

David Wilmot

Are there today people like Fremont, George Washington Julian, Joshua Giddings, Zachariah Chandler, Horace Greeley, David Wilmot and Owen Lovejoy in the Republican Party now? Unfortunately not. Would these people be welcome today in the party which they helped to found? The answer is clearly not. They were too liberal, too reform-minded. Will the Republican platform this summer call for federal money for railroads, rivers and harbors? I have grave doubts. Are there any real Republicans today? No! Not when compared to these greats of 1856.

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