William H. Seward of New York threw his lot in with a new political coalition formed from the wreckage of the Whig Party and the alienation of Democrats who wanted to keep slavery out of the new U.S. territories west of the Mississippi.
The following month, victories for Seward and the abolitionist Salmon P. Chase in the Ohio Governor’s race signaled a formidable new political force in the North, if not yet the nation.
Officially, the Republican Party had only formed the year before in Ripon, Ill. But now, growing unrest over race, immigration and religion created conditions that made it possible for major politicians like Seward and Chase to view it as a feasible vehicle for their electoral ambitions.
Anger, tumult, even violence, were breaking out all across America in 1855, fed by native-born whites who felt more and more marginalized. If this sounds eerily similar to what is happening today--well, it was.
In the North, Midwest and West, the lower class feared the loss of jobs and/or income as a result of free slave labor. In the South, slave-owning aristocrats saw a threat of encirclement and decreased political power in the admission of new free states to the Union—and a delegitimization of their “peculiar institution” in bans on their rights to bring slaves into the new territories and to pursue escaped slaves into the North.
With the greatest difficulty, Congress had, with the Compromise of 1850, narrowly avoided unleashing secession over admitting to the Union new territories gained in the Mexican War. Recognizing that Congress could no longer resolve the issue on its own, Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas proposed a cure worse than the disease: the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which left the decision of banning slavery to voters in these territories.
The result: in Kansas, a pitched battle between pro- and anti-slavery forces, with the former group engaging in enough voter intimidation to produce a fraudulently elected legislature.
At the same time, nativist sentiment directed against German and Irish immigrants—particularly virulent toward Roman Catholics—became concentrated in the American (or “Know-Nothing”) Party. At the start of 1855, the Know-Nothings had 10,000 lodges and about 1,000,000 members. Governors from the party took office in Pennsylvania and Massachusetts, and additional gains were made across New England that spring.
A significant number of these also voted in New York State, where they considered what to do about Seward. His support in 1839 as New York Governor for equal educational funding for all state children, including in Catholic-run parochial schools, had left many biding their time, weighing whether to terminate his career.
With all of these ideological, ethnic and religious divisions, the two-party system that held steady through the Age of Jackson—the Democrats and Whigs—had splintered. The issue that unified the Republicans—keeping slavery out of the territories—made several ambitious Whigs curious about the new organization but, until the fall of 1855, unsure about its potential. One, former Congressman Abraham Lincoln, contemplating a return to politics after tending to his law practice for six years, wrote longtime friend Joshua Speed, “I think I am a Whig but others say there are no Whigs and I’m an abolitionist. I do no more than oppose extension of slavery.”
It was in this uncertain environment that Seward looked for political daylight in the fall of 1855. In September, he followed a maneuver suggested by his mentor, Albany political boss Thurlow Weed. As narrated by Doris Kearns Goodwin in Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (2009):
“Two state conventions, one Whig, one Republican, were convened in Syracuse in late September 1855. When Seward was asked by a friend which to attend, he replied that it didn’t matter. Delegates would enter through two doors, but exit through one. The Whig delegates assembled first and adopted a strong antislavery platform. Then, led by Weed, they marched into the adjoining hall, where the Republicans greeted them with thunderous applause. From the remnants of dissolving parties, a new Republican Party had been born in the state of New York.”
By mid-October, Seward was ready to formally announce his new affiliation and explain the reason for his move, in a speech in Albany. The “privileged class” of slaveowners, he avowed, represented only “one-fifteenth part of the American people,” and could be countered at the ballot box. All that was wanting, he believed, was “organization.” But which one?
Not the Know-Nothing Party, he warned, because of “its false and prevaricating rituals, its unlawful and in Christian oaths, its clandestine councils and its dark conspiracies, its mobs and its murders.” Not the Democrats, who either actively pursued pro-slavery policies or weakly abetted a Presidential administration that would not stop them. Not the Whigs, who because of the slavery issue were no longer the “united and consolidated” party they had been even in the 1852 Presidential election.
That left the Republicans, with their “new, sound and liberal platform,” with principles broad enough to be supported by “true Whigs” and “true Democrats.”
Seward’s move was greeted ecstatically by his anti-slavery colleagues in Congress, including in a letter from Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts:
“I have devoured your speech with admiration & delight. The latter half I read aloud to the Longfellows who enjoyed it with me. It is very finely thought and composed. I am so happy that you and I are at last on the same platform and in the same political pew. I feel stronger.”
The victories for Seward and Chase went a long way toward answering that concern, and thrust these two politicians into the vacuum left in the last five years by the deaths of the “Great Triumvirate”: Senators Henry Clay, Daniel Webster and John C. Calhoun.
They would vie for the GOP Presidential nod in 1860, continuing their jockeying for position and influence in the Cabinet of the surprise nominee of their party that year, Lincoln. All the while, they would cooperate just enough to help bring down the slave power they despised.