Leading the Way: Michigan and the Birth of the Republican Party

Article excerpt

One hundred and fifty years ago Michigan was at the forefront of a political movement that gave rise to a new political party. During its first statewide convention in Jackson, the party adopted the name "Republican." The convention was well attended, the crowd being too large for the planned meeting hall. The gathering was moved outside and hence the Republican Party is said to have been born "under the oaks" in Jackson. The formation of the new party was part of a movement spreading across the North. But why was the first Republican convention in Michigan?

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In 1854, America's newest political party was a coalition of three groups that came together as a result of the debate over slavery. During the 1840s, Michigan witnessed the development of an active Underground Railroad network and a third-party movement dedicated to the abolition of slavery. In the eastern states, antislavery activists disagreed over the propriety of involving themselves in a political system they felt had been hopelessly corrupted by the presence of slavery. Some antislavery activists advocated political action and formed the Liberty Party (later called the Free Soil Party) as an alternative to the traditional Democrat and Whig parties.

Michigan's antislavery societies were dominated by practicalists who formed a statewide chapter of the Liberty Party. Michigan's Liberty Party was the first antislavery party to field a statewide ticket in the Northwest. The state party was further bolstered by the resettlement of Liberty Party founder James G. Birney to Bay City, Michigan, in 1841. A former Alabama slaveholder, Birney served as his party's presidential candidate in 1840 and 1844. Birney found a sympathetic audience among Michigan's abolitionists, who nominated him for governor in 1843 and 1845.

Michigan's Liberty Party captured only 1 percent of the vote in the 1840 election; four years later, Birney won a credible 5 percent of the Michigan vote. In 1845, Birney suffered a serious stroke that forced his withdrawal from public life. But subsequent national events propelled the Liberty Party into the political mainstream.

The Mexican War (1846-48) led to the acquisition of new territories and an inevitable debate arose as to whether the states originating from those territories would be slave or free. In 1846, David Wilmot, a Democratic congressman from Pennsylvania, proposed that an amendment to an appropriations bill that "neither slavery nor involuntary servitude shall ever exist in any part" of territory acquired from Mexico. The Wilmot Proviso, as it was called, proved popular in Michigan. In Congress, most Whigs favored the proposal while most Democrats opposed it.

Congressman Kinsley S. Bingham of Livingston Country, a Democrat, broke with party ranks and became one of a handful of northern Democrats who supported the proviso. At the same time, a growing contingent of western Michigan Democrats, including Governor Epaphroditis Ransom of Kalamazoo, expressed their opposition to the extension of slavery. On the national scene, those Democrats opposing the slavery's extension became known as "Barnburners," a derisive reference to an imaginary farmer who would burn down his barn in order to rid it of rats. The conservative element of the party, preferring the party take no position on the divisive slavery issue, became known as the "Hunkers."

The debate over the expansion of slavery manifested itself in the Michigan Democratic Party when the Hunkers and Barnburners faced off over the 1848 U.S. Senate election. Lewis Cass, a Hunker and one of Michigan's two Democratic senators, had resigned his seat in 1848 in order to run for the presidency. Governor Ransom had announced his intention to seek Cass's vacated Senate seat. When Cass lost the presidential election, however, he asked the Democrat-controlled Michigan legislature to send him back to the Senate. After several weeks of balloting, the legislature chose Cass over Ransom. …