Guest Essayist: Scot Faulkner, Former Chief Administrative Officer of the U.S. House of Representatives

The Republican Party Platform of 1856 is the most important political platform in American history.  It coalesced diverse factions into a new political movement that would dominate American politics for the next 76 years, winning 14 of the next 19 Presidential elections.  It also signaled the end of 36 years of political obfuscation on the issue of slavery in America, ultimately leading to the Civil War.  The Republican Party Platform of 1856, more than any other platform in American history, was designed to codify a new political philosophy and to solidify a coalition of highly fractious political forces into a cogent and compelling movement.

This new political party, with its history changing manifesto, arose out of a long and complex sequence of events.  The RESOLVED provisions of the 1856 Republican Platform reflect the pathways that brought diverse political leaders and factions together for their first national political convention on July 6, 1854 in Jackson, Michigan.

In the 1850s, America’s civic culture was crumbling.  Decades of political compromise and avoidance on the issue of slavery had maintained an uneasy peace.  The Mexican-American War (1846-47) added over 500,000 square miles to the U.S. and rekindled sectional competition.  Ralph Waldo Emerson prophesied, “The United States will conquer Mexico, but it will be as the man swallows the arsenic, which brings him down in turn.  Mexico will poison us.” [1]

The carefully orchestrated balance between Northern/Free states and Southern/Slave states in the U.S. Senate had only been maintained by tightly controlling the admission of new states to the Union.  In 1820, Missouri was ready to be admitted as a “slave” state.  Their Senate votes were to be off-set by separating the northern part of Massachusetts into the new “free” state of Maine.  A key part of this Missouri Compromise of 1820 was to limit expansion of “slave states” to below a line, parallel 36°30′ north.  However, after the Mexican War, Texas, California, and many other potential states, clamored for admission into the Union, reawakening the slumbering sectional strife and the “free” versus “slave” state controversy.

In 1850, a new Compromise was approved. This was a package of five separate bills that maintained the North/South balance in the Senate by allowing California to join the Union as a free state, even though its southern border dipped below the 1820 slave demarcation line.  This was balanced by admitting Texas as a slave state.  Other provisions balanced ending the slave trade in Washington, DC with strengthening the Fugitive Slave Act.

The Compromise of 1850 was the last great moment for the Whig Party.  This party rose as a counter to the Jacksonian Democrats in the late 1830s.  It thrived by broadly promoting westward expansion without a conflict with Mexico, supporting transportation infrastructure projects, and protecting fledgling American businesses with tariffs.  The Whigs also benefited from having stellar leaders in the U.S. Senate, like Henry Clay and Daniel Webster, and attracting popular war heroes to run as their presidential candidates.  The reawakening of sectional competition ended their brief moment of political ascendancy.

In 1848, the Whig Party split on slavery with pro-freedom/anti-Mexican War “Conscience Whigs” and pro-slavery “Cotton Whigs” (“lords of the lash” allied with “lords of the loom”). [2]   They still stumbled across the 1848 Presidential finish line with Mexican War hero Zachery Taylor.  Unfortunately, food poisoning led to Taylor’s death on July 9, 1850 ushering in the Presidency of anti-immigrant Millard Filmore and his “No-nothing” nativist movement. In 1852, the highly divided Whig Party needed 53 roll call votes to nominate another war hero, Winfield Scott, only to lose in a landslide to Pro-slavery Democrat Franklin Pierce.  Rep. Alexander Stephens, a “Cotton Whig” pronounced, “the Whig Party is dead.” [3]

The implosion of the Whigs, and the new sectional rivalry, launched new parties, and factions within parties.  These reflected the wide range of opinions on slavery from zealous support of slavery every where possible to immediate abolition every where possible.  In the middle were factions that wanted to maintain the Union through various forms of compromise, allowing slavery some places, but not others.

This cauldron of factionalism came to a boil in 1854.

It began with the proposed trans-continental railroad to California.  Southerners wanted the rail line to take a southern route.  James Gadsden, Pierce’s Ambassador to Mexico, negotiated the purchase of Mexican lands in what is now the southern border of Arizona and New Mexico on December 30, 1853 to assure sufficient rights-of-way through less mountainous terrain.

The north wanted a northern route that began at St. Louis, Missouri and linked to Chicago, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York City.  Most northern business leaders favored the northern route and felt that organization of the Nebraska Territory would facilitate this decision.  However, rival factions within Missouri wanted control of the route and the potential fortunes to be made from land speculation. Pro-slave forces threatened to block any efforts to organize Nebraska because Missouri would then be surrounded on its west, east, and north by free states.  Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas, a key architect of the Compromise of 1850 and Chairman of the Senate Committee on Territories, wanted to help his business supporters and avoid a confrontation with southerners. [4]   The seventh RESOLVED of the Republican’s 1856 platform reaffirms building of this transcontinental railroad

On January 4, 1854, Douglas introduced the Kansas-Nebraska Act.  This act repealed the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and opened the entire territory to popular or “squatter” sovereignty for determining whether the territories would be free or slave. At this time the Nebraska Territory encompassed the entire Louisiana Purchase from the Missouri Compromise line to the Canadian Border. Indiana Representative George Washington Julian, who would serve as the Chairman of the Committee on Organization for the 1856 Republican Convention, commented, “The whole question of slavery was thus re-opened.” [5]

The debate on the Kansas-Nebraska Act was tumultuous.  Ohio Senator, Salmon Chase, published, “The Appeal of the Independent Democrats in Congress to the People of the United States”, in the New York Times on January 24, 1854.  He declared the abandonment of the Missouri Compromise a, “gross violation of a sacred pledge” and an “atrocious plot” to convert free territory into a “dreary region of despotism, inhabited by masters and slaves.” [6] These sentiments are echoed in the second and third RESOLVES of the Republican’s 1856 platform.

Anti-slavery “Free Soil” party activists along with anti-slavery “Conscience Whigs” and “Barn Burner” Democrats held anti-Nebraska meetings and rallies across the north.  These meetings in the winter and spring of 1854 were the earliest stirrings of the Republican Party.  The anti-Nebraska meeting held in a Congregational church in Ripon, Wisconsin on February 28, 1854, is considered the formal beginning of the Republican Party.  This meeting led to the Republican state convention in Madison, Wisconsin on July 13, which nominated the first slate of Republicans for that fall’s election. [7].

The Kansas-Nebraska Act passed the Senate in March and the House of Representatives in early May. President Pierce signed the bill into law on May 30, 1854.  New York Senator William H. Seward responded to victorious southern Senators by stating, “Since there is no escaping your challenge, I accept it in behalf of the cause of freedom.  We will engage in a competition for the virgin soil of Kansas, and God give the victory to the side which is stronger in numbers as it is in right.” [8] Both pro and anti slave forces moved into the Kansas territory engaging in brutal guerilla warfare over the next five years. The sporadic civil war in what became known as “Bleeding Kansas” even spilled into the U.S. Senate chamber.  On May 22, 1856, South Carolina Representative, Preston Brooks assaulted Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner in the Senate Chamber, bludgeoning him into unconsciousness. [9]   The fourth and fifth RESOLVES of the Republican’s 1856 platform recommend a swift resolution of the Kansas dispute in favor of it being a free state and assails the Pierce Administration for its role in causing so much harm.

On October 9-11, 1854, President Pierce’s Secretary of State, William L. Marcy, met with the Administration’s European ambassadors in Ostend, Belgium to discuss the possibility of the United States purchasing or invading Cuba and bringing it into America as a slave state. The resulting dispatch was the infamous Ostend Manifesto or Circular.  This gave official sanction to years of free lance efforts by Southern slave zealots (known as filibusters) to bring slave holding parts of Central and South America into the Union and further inflamed northern opposition. This is the basis of the sixth RESOLVED of the Republican’s 1856 platform.

The 1856 Presidential campaign was waged in a chaotic environment.  The fragmented Democratic Party competed with the fragments of the Whig Party over slavery.  The newly formed “Free Soil”, “Opposition”, and “North American” parties competed with the fledgling Republican Party.  Lurking in the wings was the “Know Nothing” Party that focused on stopping immigration into the U.S. and restricting citizenship for recently arrived immigrants.

There was much behind the scenes negotiations and deals to consolidate factions into the new Republican Party.  Abraham Lincoln spent most of 1855-1856 building a new coalition among the factions and even among politicized newspapers in Illinois. [10] As George Washington Julian later explained, “The dispersion of the old parties was one thing, but the organization of their fragments into a new one on a just basis was quite a different thing.” [11] The ninth RESOLVED in the Republican’s 1856 platform reflects this matrix of deals and arrangements that created a true coalition movement.

The first Republican Presidential Nominating Convention was held in the Musical Fund Hall in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on June 17-19, 1856. Pro-slavery assaults in Kansas and the U.S. Senate during May emboldened the delegates to be more explicit in their anti-slavery position. [12] The delegates also felt the Republicans had a good chance of winning the Presidential election of 1856.  They almost did.  Pennsylvania Representative Thaddeus Stevens called the surprisingly close loss a “victorious defeat” and Indiana Representative Schuyler Colfax compared it to the Battle of Bunker Hill. [13]

Republican delegates sensed they had a historic opportunity and expanded their platform beyond planks focused on anti-slavery and infrastructure to articulate their philosophy on the role of government.  These sentiments are outlined in the preamble and the first RESOLVED and woven in as themes in the second, fourth, eighth and ninth RESOLVES.  This approach to limited government, grounded in our nation’s founding principles, allowed an embryonic coalition of renegades to become the dominant political movement for the next seventy-six years.  These core beliefs guide the Republican Party to this day.

Read the Republican Platform of 1856 here:

Scot Faulkner served as the first Chief Administrative Officer of the U.S. House of Representatives and was Director of Personnel for Reagan-Bush 1980. You may read his columns at


[1] McPherson, James, Battle Cry of Freedom (Oxford University Press, New York, 1988) page 51.

[2] Ibid., page 60.

[3] Ibid., page 118.

[4] Mayer, George H., The Republican Party 1854-1966 Second Edition (Oxford University Press, New York, 1966) page 25.

[5] Julian, George Washington, Political Recollections; Anthology – America; Great Crises in Our History Told by its Makers; Vol. VII (Veterans of Foreign Wars, Chicago, 1925) page 212.

[6] Op. Cit., McPherson, page 124.

[7] Op. Cit., Mayer, page 26.

[8] Op. Cit. McPherson, page 145.

[9] Op. Cit. McPherson, page 150.

[10] Op. Cit., Mayer, pages 38-39.

[11] Gould, Lewis L, Grand Old Party; A History of the Republicans (Random House, New York, 2003) page 5.

[12] Ibid., page 18.

[13] Op. Cit. Mayer, page 47.



5 replies
  1. Ron
    Ron says:

    This led me to various other websites where I tried to understand all the crosscurrents of the political landscape of those days, and I often I felt as though I was reading commentaries of politics in the 21st century. It was interesting to see that, even then, the right to bear arms being infringed was a big issue. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

  2. Barb Zack
    Barb Zack says:

    Interesting. Despite claims to the contrary, the Republicans were the ones fighting against slavery. I did not know the roots of the Republican Party, thank you for the lesson. Perhaps the issue of slavery should not have been allowed to fester for so long.

  3. Scot Faulkner
    Scot Faulkner says:

    Barb: African Americans were a key Republican constituency until FDR’s welfare state arose in the 1930s. President Woodrow Wilson refused to meet with African AMerican leaders and many Democrats supported the KKK even into the 1940s.

    Slavery was a contentious issue even during the Constitutional Convention. Leaders from the Federalist era to the Civil War grappled with how to preserve the Union while addressing slavery. The compromises of this period “kicked the can down the road” until there was no road left. John Brown’s 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry, proved not only that the era of compromise was over, but that it was a tragic fiction.


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