I’ve seen two references in the last two weeks to “the Republican Party” pre-1854. Here’s one, and I don’t recall the other. For those of us who have spent any time at all in Ripon, Wisconsin, “Home of the Republican Party,” those references sound bizarre. (Hey, Bill and Judy!) So I thought I’d check it out.
The Republican Party, according to the history I knew, was formed by a group of businessmen and farmers who felt that the two political parties of the time, the Democrats and the Whigs, were not addressing the abolition of slavery, too wedded to the status quo, too afraid that they would wind up on the wrong side of the issue, too indebted to their big moneymen.
So I wondered what “Republican Party” those recent articles meant. As far as I knew, the party with that name originated in 1854. In researching this on the Web, however, I find that one of the historians of this question says that the 1854 Republicans chose the name because it “had been applied by Thomas Jefferson to his party.”
Thomas Jefferson opposed the Federalists, who wanted a stronger national government and alliance with England. He initially called the party “Republican,” but the name became “Democratic-Republican.” Still later, it dropped the second part of that long hyphenation and became 1854’s and today’s Democratic Party.
The Federalists came apart after the War of 1812 made it hard to argue for alliance with Britain. A few years later, Andrew Jackson was one of those presidents who evoke strong feelings, and those who opposed him began calling themselves Whigs. The Ripon residents who founded their Republican Party included Whigs, Democrats, and Free-Soilers, with perhaps a predominance of Whigs.
The Republicans' candidate, Abraham Lincoln, won the 1860 presidential election.
So it’s quite inaccurate to refer to Thomas Jefferson as a Republican, unless you qualify that term. The New Yorker article seems unaware of this history.
And a party with its origins in vehement single-issue antislavery? How did it get to here?