Why did the Republican party succeed where previous abolition/antislavery/antiSlavePower parties had failed?
Oh, yes, there were previous parties in the North that addressed the slavery issue. The Liberty Party ran presidential candidate James G. Birney in 1840 and 1844, but drew few voters (although scholars debate on whether the party drew from the Whig electorate, helping James K. Polk prevail over Henry Clay in 1844 by taking New York, where the Liberty Party enjoyed some popularity). There was also the Free Soil Party, which ran presidential candidates in 1848 and 1852, and which did attract support from some northern Democrats who resented southerners’ control of the party’s agenda. However, if you looked at northern politics in 1853, after the dismal performance of the Free Soilers in 1852, you would have wondered about the prospects of antislavery politics … and this was in the wake of the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 and the appearance of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in serial form. True, the Whig party seemed to stand on shaky ground, following its own poor showing in 1852, and with the passing of leaders such as Clay and Webster. But that did not necessarily bode well for antislavery politics. Moreover, if any movement excited northern voters in 1853, it was the growth of the Know Nothing movement, which was a response to increased immigration, especially Catholic immigrants from Ireland and central Europe, many of whom gravitated to Democratic ranks (sound familiar)? For all the talk of a slave power conspiracy, in 1853 more northerners seemed concerned about a papal conspiracy to subvert American liberties and make Americans slaves of Rome.
In 1853 it would have been hard to believe that by 1860 an antislavery northerner would win the presidency. Indeed, Lincoln’s electoral triumph obscures the fact that by 1858 Republicans had already secured the majorities they simply needed to preserve to win in 1860.
How did this happen?
In brief, several things happened:
1. White southerners continued to take steps that infringed upon the economic future of white northerners, especially access to western lands; in the process they reneged on deals that had divided the West between free and slave for decades. Here the Kansas-Nebraska Act takes pride of place, with Dred Scott a close second and the call for a slave code in the territories coming in third.
2. White southerners resorted to violence to upset the political process, as in the case of the Border Ruffians, the sack of Lawrence, or the caning of Charles Sumner by Preston Brooks in 1856. Yes, there were northern responses, including Beecher’s bibles and John Brown, but the former was looked upon as a form of self-defense and many Republicans (including Abraham Lincoln) disavowed the acts of Brown, while white southerners cheered Brooks on. The message was clear: to paraphrase a saying later employed toward much the same end, white southerners were willing to triumph peaceably if they could, forcibly if they had to.
3. While white southerners had no problem using federal power to protect the economic interest known as slavery, they opposed the desire of white northerners to do the same (as in higher tariffs, river and harbor improvements, a transcontinental railroad other than a line from New Orleans to southern California [for which southerners had acquired land through force and diplomacy], and opening up western lands to homesteaders). These positions placed northern Democrats in a difficult situation, especially after the Panic of 1857, when they had nothing to offer northern voters, even as they complained that their southern allies made it impossible for them to offer a more aggressive response.
4. Political nativists soon found that once in office, they could not achieve much to counter immigration; moreover, nothing happened between 1854 and 1860 to suggest that the foreign/Catholic “threat” was actually posing a real threat. In contrast, northern antislavery/antiSlavePower/antiSouth politicians could point to a string of events that pointed to a slave power bent upon rule or ruin by whatever means were necessary. In short, events gave life to Republican predictions.
The Republican party of the 1850s was a coalition opposed to “slavery” in its many forms, but primarily in the form of a “slave power”: that is, a political and economic movement designed to dominate the federal government in the interests of slavery, casting aside the interests of white northerners. Sure, many Republican leaders (including Lincoln) thought slavery was evil and immoral, but they gained support from voters when they identified northern Democrats as the puppets of that slave power and argued that only Republicans served northern interests. Democrats like Stephen Douglas found it impossible to retain southern support while appealing to northern voters (which is one reason why Douglas played the race card all the time … because he knew that many northern voters harbored deep racial prejudices, especially among Democrats).
Understanding these principles also helps one understand why Reconstruction turned out the way it did: with the preservation of the Union and the destruction of slavery, Republicans divided over black equality, with a critical minority never being invested in that fight; they also divided over economic issues. Reviving wartime sentiments was one way to counter that erosion of support: thus “waving the bloody shirt” was a recognition that many northern voters were more antiSouth/antiSlavePower than truly abolitionist/antislavery.
Too many times people study the years 1860-1865 in isolation, ignoring what preceded it and what followed it. However, a better understanding of northern politics in the 1850s can help us recapture and comprehend the world in which white northerners lived, and helps us make sense of how they acted as they did (as well as recognizes that they were divided).