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The Birth of the Republican Party

In the course of history there sometimes arises a man who has a marvelous power of attaching others to himself. He commands a measure of devotion and enthusiasm which it is impossible fully to understand. Such a man was Henry Clay. Under the fascination of his qualities Lincoln lived. From childhood to maturity Clay had been his idol, and Clay’s party, the whig, nearly synonymous with all that was desirable in American politics. It was therefore no easy matter for Lincoln to leave the whig party. Nothing could accomplish this but the overmastering power of a noble emotion.

From childhood Lincoln had hated slavery. The fact that Kentucky was a slave state had its influence in his father’s removal to Indiana. His personal observations upon his journeys down the Mississippi River had given him a keener feeling on the subject. The persistent and ever- increasing outrages of the slave power had intensified his hatred. The time had come when he, and such as he, felt that other party questions were of minor importance, and that everything else should for the time be subordinated to the supreme question of slavery.

There were certain reasons why the whig party could not accomplish the desired end. Its history had identified it with a different class of subjects. Though Clay himself and a majority of his party were opposed to the extension of slavery, there were still pro-slavery men in its ranks in sufficient numbers to prevent any real efficiency on the slavery question.

On the other hand, while the democratic party was overwhelmingly pro- slavery, there were anti-slavery democrats who, from their numbers, ability, and character, were not to be overlooked. The election to the senate of Lyman Trumbull as an anti-Douglas democrat had crystalized this wing of the party. The fiasco of Lincoln’s defeat when the whigs were in a good plurality caused much discontent in that party. If the anti-slavery men were to be united for efficiency in opposing Douglas, it must be under another organization–a new party must be formed.

In this the newspapers took the initiative. A number of papers editorially called for a convention, which was really a mass meeting, for there were no accredited delegates, and could be none. This met in Decatur on Washington’s birthday, 1856. It was a motley assembly, from a political standpoint. It included whigs, democrats, free-soilers, abolitionists, and know-nothings. Said Lincoln: “Of strange, discordant, even hostile elements, we gathered from the four winds." Politicians were conspicuously absent, for it would imperil their political orthodoxy to be seen there. Lincoln was the principal one who had anything to lose. He was consulted on all measures, and gave freely of his counsel. The proceedings ended with a dinner, at which he made a speech.

He was the most prominent man in the new movement, was popular throughout the state, and was the logical candidate for governor. He would have been highly gratified with the candidacy. But again he put personal desires one side that the general good might not be endangered. He therefore proposed, in his after-dinner speech, for nomination a democrat who had a record of earnest opposition to the slave power. Refusing the use of his own name, he added: “But I can suggest a name that will secure not only the old whig vote, but enough anti-Nebraska democrats to give us the victory. That man is Colonel William H. Bissell.” Bissell was afterwards regularly nominated and triumphantly elected. The meeting at Decatur called for a convention to be held at Bloomington on the 29th of May.

About the same thing had been going on in some other free states. On the very day of the Decatur meeting there was a notable meeting for the same purpose in Pittsburg. This was attended by E. D. Morgan, governor of New York, Horace Greeley, O. P. Morton, Zach. Chandler, Joshua R. Giddings, and other prominent men. They issued the call for the first national convention of the republican party to be held in Philadelphia in June.

In May the Illinois convention assembled in Bloomington, and the most conspicuous person there was Lincoln. It was there that he made the amazing speech already described. It was the speech which held even the reporters in such a spell that they could not report it. It is known in history as the “lost speech,” but the fame of it endures to this day.

The democratic convention met in Cincinnati early in June and nominated James Buchanan to succeed Franklin Pierce. Thus Douglas was for a second time defeated for the nomination.

The republican convention met a few days later in Philadelphia. At that time John C. Fremont was at the height of his fame. His character was romantic, and the record of his adventures was as fascinating as a novel by Dumas. He had earned the name of “pathfinder” by crossing the continent. Although unauthorized, he had in California raised a military company which was of material assistance to the naval forces of the United States against a Mexican insurrection. He was an ardent hater of slavery. He was precisely the man, as standard-bearer, to infuse enthusiasm into the new party and to give it a good start in its career. He did this and did it well. The large vote which he polled augured well for the future.

All this we may claim without denying the fact that it was fortunate for the party and for the country that he was not elected. There was no doubt of his sincerity or his patriotism. But he lacked self-control, wariness, patience. He was hot-headed, extreme, egotistical. He never could have carried the burdens of the first administration of the republican party.

When the election was over, it was found that Buchanan had carried every slave state except Maryland, which went to Fillmore. Fremont had carried every New England state and five other northern states. Buchanan received 174 electoral votes; Fremont, 114; Fillmore, 8. The popular vote was, for Buchanan, 1,838,169; for Fremont, 1,341,264; for Fillmore, 874,534. That was an excellent showing for the new party. It showed that it had come to stay, and gave a reasonable hope of victory at the next presidential election.

Lincoln was at the head of the electoral ticket of the state of Illinois. He usually was on the ticket. He playfully called himself one of the electors that seldom elected anybody. In Illinois the honors of the election were evenly divided between the two parties. Buchanan carried the state by a handsome majority, but Bissell was elected governor by a good majority. Lincoln had faithfully canvassed the state and made nearly fifty speeches. One paragraph from a speech made in Galena should be quoted. The slave party had raised the cry of sectionalism, and had charged that the republicans purposed to destroy the Union. Lincoln said:

“But the Union, in any event, will not be dissolved. We don’t want to dissolve it, and if you attempt it we won’t let you. With the purse and sword, the army, the navy, and the treasury in our hands and at our command, you could not do it. This government would be very weak indeed if a majority with a disciplined army and navy and a well-filled treasury could not preserve itself, when attacked by an unarmed, undisciplined minority. All this talk about the dissolution of the Union is humbug, nothing but folly. We do not want to dissolve the Union; you shall not.”

These words were prophetic of the condition of the country and of his own policy four or five years later. But he apparently did not apprehend that an unscrupulous administration might steal the army and the munitions of war, scatter the navy, and empty the treasury.

On the 10th of December Lincoln spoke at a republican banquet in Chicago. It was after the election, after Buchanan’s supercilious message to congress. The purpose of the speech was to forecast the future of the young party. The following quotations may be read with interest:

“He [Buchanan, in his message to congress] says the people did it. He forgets that the ’people,’ as he complacently calls only those who voted for Buchanan, are in a minority of the whole people by about four hundred thousand votes.... All of us who did not vote for Mr. Buchanan, taken together, are a majority of four hundred thousand. But in the late contest we were divided between Fremont and Fillmore. Can we not come together for the future? Let every one who really believes, and is resolved, that free society is not and shall not be a failure, and who can conscientiously declare that in the past contest he has done only what he thought best, let every such one have charity to believe that every other one can say as much. Let bygones be bygones; let past differences as nothing be; and with steady eye on the real issue, let us re-inaugurate the good old ’central ideas’ of the republic. We can do it. The human heart is with us; God is with us. We shall again be able to declare, not that ’all states as states are equal,’ nor yet that ’all citizens as citizens are equal,’ but to renew the broader, better declaration, including these and much more, that ’all men are created equal.’”

It was upon the wisdom of this plan that, four years later, he held the foes of slavery united, while the foes of freedom were divided among themselves. It was this that carried the party to its first victory and made him president.