Friday, May 30, 2008

The Origins of the Republican Party

I wasn’t planning on writing a review of William Gienapp’s wonderful The Origins of the Republican Party, 1852 - 1856 – and I’m still not. The book came out twenty years ago, and everyone knows that it’s an outstanding work – I’ve been hearing about how great it is for years, although I can’t tell you where, it’s just one of those things that’s in the air.

I noticed, however, that the book is the subject of only two Amazon reviews: both pretty favorable, although they’re pretty perfunctory and contain more whiney complaints than I believe they should. To give the book its due, I thought I’d write, if not a review, at least a few disjointed thoughts.

To begin at the end, the book is simply superb. The depth of Professor Gienapp’s knowledge is stunning and is reflected in his ability to place tremendous detail in a beautifully woven organic synthesis in which everything makes sense. He writes well. The story picks up steam as the Republican Party gradually coalesces and becomes compelling as the 1856 nominations and canvass take place.

True, some parts of the book are difficult and favor political junkies. Anti-Nebraska coalition parties were formed in the North on a state-by-state basis. This requires a state-by-state examination of the tortured and confused political background of a number of key states, and of the tortuous paths that proto-Republican fusionists had to cut among other parties and divisive issues that competed with theirs. Know Nothings and Hards and Softs and Hunkers and Barnburners abound. It is probably best to have some background in the period (such as David Potter’s The Impending Crisis) first.

And yet Professor Gienapp’s intimate knowledge of the lay of the land allows him to point out the path with eerie facility. I compared Professor Gienapp’s discussions of some of the key state races in my home state of New York with those of Michael Holt in his The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party. Of course, the two historians are looking at the races for slightly different purposes and have somewhat different emphases, but what really stood out was that Professor Gienapp distilled the issues into a more comprehensible, and somewhat less confused narrative. Professor Holt sees so many trees that sometimes it hard to see the forest. Professor Gienapp makes it easier to discern the patterns.

The book focuses, of course, on the birth of the Republican Party through its first presidential nomination and election in 1856. But it is far more than that. In the process, Professor Gienapp sheds invaluable light on the events that gave rise to the birth and allowed the party to reach maturity. The discussion of the effect of Bleeding Kansas and Bleeding Sumner on northern opinion in mid-1856 brings home, like nothing else I have read, how utterly critical those events were in electrifying northern perceptions of the Slave Power and transforming the Republican party from an infant struggling for breath to a healthy toddler growing, as it were, by leaps by bounds. The discussion makes me (at least) wonder what would have happened if President Pierce had not been such a moron, and if Preston Brooks had stayed his hand and cane.

In a similar vein, Professor Gienapp’s analysis of the ideology of the party in its early years – essentially a chapter length version of Eric Foner’s Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men – is worth the price of admission alone. Not to give away the punch line, but the author concludes, correctly in my view, that beneath a broad range of issues and opinions the critical common denominator was the fear that the tentacles of the Slave Power were reaching out to crush the liberty of northerners.

Other fascinating observations and discussions abound. How did the Republicans manage to prevail over the Know Nothings in 1855-56? Why was Nathaniel P. Banks so important that I have placed his picture at the top of this post? How on earth did John C. Fremont, a political cipher, become a serious candidate for the nomination, much less the nominee? Why was James Buchanan a brilliant choice by the Democrats? How and why did the Republicans do so well in the election – and why didn’t they do better?

In the end, the book brilliantly drives home just how critically important the period from January 1854 (when Douglas introduced Kansas-Nebraska) through the election of 1856 was. You don’t have to be a determinist to imagine this period as one in which it becomes clearer that there are two trains headed toward each other – and they’re picking up steam. The books examines the turning pistons of one of those trains in slow motion, and the reader feels queasy precisely because he can see, with the benefit of hindsight, the train wreck that will come four years hence.


  1. seannalty1:29 AM

    As far as Franklin Pierce is concerned, I guess you and I will have to wait until Professor Holt gets through with the short biography he is writing for Sean Wilentz's American Presidency Series. Personally, I think Pierce has gotten a real bad wrap from historians. True, his policies gave the opposition much to coalesce around, but I think his task was much harder than people think. Try being the leader of a party that includes Hards and Softs, Barnburners, anti-compromise Southern Rights men, pro-compromise Union men, northwestern expansionists and radical hard money locofocos and THEN work to conciliate each of these factions through patronage and policy. All I guess I am saying is that his task was difficult even under the best of circumstances. I actually think Professor James Huston (in a review of Holt's Whig book on H-Net) has it right that we should perhaps give more credit to Lincoln for spending as much time on patronage appointments as he did early in office.

  2. Sean,

    I didn't know that Prof. Holt was engaged in such a project -- but then, since you're at UVA, perhaps you have inside information! I will be delighted to read it.

    Seriously, I am sure that Pierce had a very difficult job -- those were confused and confusing years. Still, it's hard to imagine anyone doing a worse job than he did. That said, I tend to be skeptical of unchallenged story lines, and I'm not sure I've ever seen a good thing written about Pierce. If Professor Holt has another take, I'll read it with all the more interest.

    On the importance of patronage, maybe you have a point. Wasn't it Prof. Holt who pointed out that many of President Taylor's appointments remained unapproved at the time of his death, and argued that unhappiness with his patronage decisions contributed to the Crisis of 1850?


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