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Eric Litke
By Eric Litke May 29, 2020

Claim on Republican Party origin oversimplifies Democrats' position

If Your Time is short

  • Ripon has a solid claim as a key part of the Republican Party’s origin, as the party labels it the site of the first meeting, and the name originated there.

  • But other meetings around that time were also instrumental in launching the new party.

  • Historians say it’s over-simplifying to refer to a slavery expansion as the "Democrats’ plan," since many Democrats opposed slavery, particularly in the north.

Political polarization hasn’t exactly diminished in the face of a worldwide pandemic.

So it’s hardly a surprise that a recent Facebook post highlighting Wisconsin’s role launching the Republican Party was built on a critique of the Democrats of old.

A post shared more than 9,000 times after being posted in the "Educate-A-Liberal" Facebook group described it this way:

"The Republican Party of the United States of America was founded in a schoolhouse in Ripon, Wisconsin. PURPOSE: To counter the Democrats’ plans to expand slavery in America. EVERY American should REMEMBER this important bit of American history on election day!"

There is, of course, an underlying assertion here that the parties have changed so little in 150-plus years that their 19th-Century policies should be factored into present voting decisions. 

But we’ll set that aside to focus on where and why the party started.

This post was flagged as part of Facebook’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Facebook).

Is it correct to say the Republican Party started in Ripon "to counter the Democrats’ plans to expand slavery"?

We’ll examine the location and motivation claims one at a time.

The location

The exact origin of the Republican party is a point of debate, but Ripon has a solid claim as — at the very least — playing a key role.

A brief history page on the official GOP website describes Ripon as hosting the first Republican party meeting, on March 20, 1854.

A 1914 writeup on the origin of the party by Ripon College professor A.F. Gilman said 54 of the 100 or so eligible voters in the area attended that meeting, a combination of Whigs (a party that was fading at the time), disillusioned Democrats and Free-Soilers (a short-lived anti-slavery coalition).

Gilman reports the meeting was organized by Alvan Bovay, a founder of what became Ripon College, who put forth the name Republican for the newly formed group. Bovay was friends with Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune, who eventually published the term as a recommended label for the fledgling party, furthering the name’s eventual adoption.

Other key moments include a July 6, 1854, anti-slavery convention in Jackson, Mich., where the first statewide candidates were selected by the new party. They adopted a platform that said the group would "cooperate and be known as Republicans." The GOP website says this is the first ever "mass gathering of the Republican Party."

Encyclopedia Britannica also pointed to the Ripon and Jackson meetings as the key founding moments

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Charles Cohen, an emeritus professor of history at the University of Wisconsin, said calling Ripon the birthplace overreaches a bit, though.

"The Republican Party was founded by dissident Whigs and others in a decentralized process; it had no single origin," he said in an email. "It would be more accurate to say that Ripon is the birthplace of the name ‘Republican Party.’"

The motivation

Historians are clear that the Republican Party was founded, in large part, as an anti-slavery party.

The creation was spurred by the May 1854 passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which was sponsored by Democrat Stephen Douglas. To garner needed support from southern Democrats, Douglas inserted a provision allowing residents of the new Kansas and Nebraska territories to decide for themselves whether to allow slavery. 

This effectively repealed the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which had divided the country at the 36° 30' parallel between the pro-slavery South and the anti-slavery North.

So Republicans were pushing back against a Democratic piece of legislation, but is the post right to summarize this as "the Democrats’ plans to expand slavery"?

Not really, historians say.

The divide at the time was not as much Democrats and what would soon be called Republicans, but simple geography — the North-South split that ultimately fueled the Civil War.

"(The Republican Party) was a party founded by ex-Democrats and ex-Whigs who were opposed to slavery," said Joshua Zeitz, an author who has taught history and politics at Cambridge, Harvard and Princeton universities. "A whole bunch of northern Democrats opposed (the Kansas-Nebraska Act), and that’s why they left the party."

James Thurber, a government professor at American University, agreed.

"It is not accurate nor fair to describe that as the ‘Democrats’ plan,’" he said in an email.

Cohen said the majority of the Democratic Party at the time did support expanding slavery, but they "were not united in support of slavery, as the (post’s) wording suggests."

Our ruling

A viral Facebook post says the Republican Party started in Ripon, Wis., "to counter the Democrats’ plans to expand slavery."

The party has clear origins in Ripon, notably because the name of the party originated there. But there were other meetings around that time that can lay claim to being pivotal in the party’s formation as well.

More critical to this rating is the over-simplification of the Democratic Party’s stance. The majority of Democrats did indeed support an expansion of slavery, but not all. Northern Democrats opposed that expansion, some of whom abandoned the party to help create the Republican Party.

In other words, the split was more geographic than partisan.

That leaves us with a statement that is partially accurate but leaves out important details. That’s our definition of Half True.

Our Sources

Facebook post, April 6, 2020

Republican Party, History of the GOP, accessed May 28, 2020

A.F. Gilman, The Origin of the Republican Party, posted by the Wisconsin Historical Society, circa 1914

Politico Magazine, Never Trumpers Will Want to Read This History Lesson, July 14, 2018

Interview with Joshua Zeitz, author and historian, May 28, 2020

Email exchange with James Thurber, government professor at American University, May 28, 2020

Email exchange with Charles Cohen, emeritus professor of history at the University of Wisconsin, May 28, 2020

Encyclopedia Britannica, Republican Party, accessed May 28, 2020

Encyclopedia Britannica, Kansas-Nebraska Act, accessed May 28, 2020, The Origins of the Republican Party, accessed May 28, 2020

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