Eyewitness 1856: Republicans get their act together

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Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune, is often credited with offering the advice, "Go West, young man."

In 1856 -- years before he used that line in an editorial -- Greeley crossed the Alleghenies and traveled to Pittsburgh. He was one of the best known delegates at the national organizing convention for the new Republican Party. While those attending included a handful of Southerners, most were from northern, western and border states.

The two-day session began Feb. 22 in Lafayette Hall, which was on Wood Street, between what are now Third and Fourth avenues. "The hall, it is estimated, will hold comfortably eight or nine hundred," the Pittsburgh Post reported in its Feb. 25 convention wrap-up story. "Yet there was room enough for all the delegates, all the sympathizers and all those who looked in from curiosity."

Greeley's address to the delegates was one of the first-day highlights.

"Loud cries were now made for Greeley! Greeley!" the Daily Pittsburgh Gazette reported on Feb. 23. "The white coat and broad, bald head of the Tribune editor was seen moving toward the Speaker's stand, and, as he mounted it, he was greeted by a perfect whirlwind of applause."

Bringing together former Whigs, some anti-immigrant Know-Nothings and anti-slavery Democrats, the Republicans sought to form a shaky coalition united in opposition to the expansion of slavery. Their cause had been invigorated two years earlier when Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which allowed residents to decide whether their territory should enter the union as a slave or free state. It effectively overturned the Missouri Compromise, which had forbidden slavery in the northern portion of the Louisiana territory.

The result was "Bleeding Kansas," a mini-civil war in which slavery supporters and opponents poured in from neighboring territories, shooting and stabbing each other.

Greeley began his talk urging conciliation. "Not only our acts but our words should indicate an absence of ill-mind toward the South," he told the delegates. But he warned of the potential for future violence.

"My apprehensions are dark," the Gazette quoted Greeley in its Feb. 23 edition. "I know that Jefferson Davis, an implacable hater of the free State policy, is at the head of the War Department."

Slave-holding Missourians controlled the new Kansas legislature and had made it a felony to oppose slavery.

"Unless those laws are abrogated, our brothers will fall," Greeley told the Republicans. "If the people of Kansas come together to make their own laws, they are treated as rebels."

Greeley proposed sending GOP counselors to help anti-slavery supporters "maintain their rights and yet not throw themselves into the jaws of rebellion."

The resolutions adopted by the new party in its closing session on Feb. 23, 1856, offered support for free-soil Kansas and opposition to Democrat Franklin Pierce's administration.

"We will support by every lawful means our brethren in Kansas in their constitutional and manly resistance to the usurped authority of their lawless invaders; and will give the full weight of our political power in favor of the immediate admission of Kansas to the union as a free, sovereign and independent state.

"Believing the present National Administration has shown itself to be weak and faithless, and that its continuance in power is identified with the progress of the slave power to national supremacy, with the exclusion of freedom from the territories and with increasing civil discord -- it is a leading purpose of our organization to oppose and overthrow it."

Judge Rufus Spalding, of Ohio, asked for the unanimous adoption of the resolutions "without discussion, and that being done, we give nine cheers for our party," according to the Feb. 25 Gazette. It being a political rally, there was brief discussion before the vote.

"It was unanimously carried," the Gazette reported. "The whole assemblage then rose to its feet and nine thunderous cheers were given amidst intense enthusiasm."

In its final bit of business in Pittsburgh, the Republicans agreed to meet June 17 in Philadelphia to select their first-ever candidate for president. Delegates there picked soldier-explorer John C. Fremont. On Nov. 3, 1856, he and Know-Nothing candidate Millard Fillmore lost a three-man race to Democrat James Buchanan, Pennsylvania's only president.

Len Barcousky can be reached at lbarcousky@post-gazette.com or 724-772-0184. The entire "Eyewitness" series can be read on www.post-gazette.com . Look for "Pittsburgh 250" on the home page under Special Reports.


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