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Anti-Slavery Activists, New York Politics, and Formation of the Republican Party: Selected Items from Afro-Americana Imprints, 1535-1922

Posted on 09/02/2014

One hundred and sixty years ago, on July 6, 1854, the first official party convention of the Republican Party was held in Jackson, Michigan. The party was founded in the Northern states by, among others, anti-slavery activists and ex-Whigs who opposed the Kansas-Nebraska Act. The Whig Party, established in 1833, had become divided over the question of whether to allow the expansion of slavery into the territories. By 1855 the party was collapsing as many of its members joined the new Republican Party or the American Party, which had formed that year around the anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic movement known as the Know-Nothings.  

United States Senatorial Question (1855)
Speeches Delivered in the Assembly of the State of Exposition of the Oaths, Obligations, and Rituals of the Know-Nothings, during the Debate on the United States Senatorial Question, February 1, 2, 3, 5 and 6, 1855

William Seward’s bid for a second term as U.S. Senator from New York took place amid the Whig Party’s schism. Seward’s detractors, primarily from the Know-Nothing faction, disliked his willingness to allow the education of immigrants in their native language and according to their religious beliefs. Joel T. Headley, who was elected on the American Party ticket, outflanked Seward’s critics and defended his bid for re-election by appealing to his fellow assemblymen’s love of freedom, saying,

I am no Romanist. But I would not exclude from Heaven a Roman Catholic, although I might from office under this democratic and republican government. But in opposing Romanism, are we necessitated also to oppose freedom?

I desire to call upon every true American—upon every philanthropic lover of his country—upon every genuine friend of freedom—upon every friend of God and man—to beware, lest, incautiously, they be led, through undue zeal in opposing Romanism, to so vote on this question of United States Senator as to give a death stab to liberty. For if Wm. H. Seward is elected to the Senate of the United States, freedom triumphs; but if he is defeated, it matters not who may be elected, freedom is rolled back, and must retire and weep at her own alter, —which I pray Heaven to prevent.

Rather than concern himself with Seward’s political positions, New York Assemblyman C.C. Leigh lauded the senator’s character in this peculiar way:

It is not important for me to know whether in all minor things he thinks as I do. I care not whether his theological tenets do or do not agree with mine. But I have a right to ask, before I give my vote, whether his principles or habits lead him into indulgences that are hurtful to himself or his neighbor. On this, I am happy to say, I am entirely satisfied. If I mistake not, you will find him no drunken brawler, disgracing himself and the state he represents; nor a gambler, fleecing his victim; nor debauchee, polluting the domestic hearth or ruining innocence; nor a duelist, governed by false principles of honor, blowing out the brains of his foe to avenge an imaginary or intended insult; but in his private life he is the faithful husband and constant friend. In these important matters, he will represent the moral and religious portion of the state. Would to God that every member of Congress were as pure in their lives as William H. Seward! 

Freedom National—Slavery Sectional (1860)
Speech of the Hon. S.H. Hammond, of the Twenty-seventh Senate District, on the Governor's Message

Although by 1860 the American Party had become defunct, the Republican Party had grown and even attracted the anti-slavery members of its primary opposition, the Democratic Party. Tensions between the parties grew, and in a February 1860 speech New York Attorney General Stephen H. Hammond defended the fledgling Republican Party, attacking its critics, including fellow Northerners who continued to support slavery:

I have said; Sir, that this sentiment in favor of freedom is universal throughout the north; but, Sir, it shames me to say, that there are craven sprits who cowed by the arrogant pretension of the domineering propagandists of human slavery and under the lash of party drill, meanly suppress the instincts of their nature, and stultify their own convictions of right… Sir, I can respect a man who has been educated in the midst of Slavery, who has grown up under the influence, imbibed the sentiments, and become familiarized with that absolutism, which is the fundamental principle of a slave code. I can respect such a man as an apologist for the existence of slave institutions. I can excuse him for advocating their extension. I can forgive him, even though he insists, that it is not wrong to buy and sell men; but, Sir, I have no charity for, I cannot fellowship, the man who, in these times of enlightenment, and in this free State, with the light of discussion blazing all around him, with freedom to talk, freedom to reason, freedom to think upon this great subject, meanly suppresses his convictions, speaking with bated breath and walking with a cringing gait; surrendering in coward fear his manhood; bartering his birthright of independence; his heritage of freedom for a mess of pottage, compared with which, that for which Esau sold his birthright was a monarch’s feast. Sir, I can respect a slaveholder; there are honorable men, patriotic men, Christian men among them. Men who are conscientious in their pro-slavery faith; but sir, language fails to express my measureless scorn of a northern doughface. Let no man accuse me now of using language unbecoming this place. We have heard three hundred thousand voting men, citizens of our State, men to the manner of freedom born, denounced as traitors. We have heard ourselves maligned, the Republican Party of this State, and all the North, denounced as traitors and rebels to the constitution. We have listened calmly to this gigantic lie (pardon the use of this strong old Saxon word), reaching through an hour of forensic essay; and are we to choose our words, to select gentle phrases, when we hurl back this stupendous calumny upon our traducers….Sir, it is this love of free institutions, of free thought, free speech, free discussion, free labor and free soil; of making freedom and the spread of free institutions, the leading feature of the policy of this great republic that form the foundation stones and the strong pillars of the Republican Party. Sir, that party was not an accident. It was not the work of intriguants. It was not the creation of politicians. It was a necessity growing out of the exigencies of the times. It was a logical sequence of the genius and spirit of the age.

“One Country! One Constitution! One Destiny!” (1862)
Speeches of William Curtis Noyes, Daniel S. Dickinson, and Lyman Tremain at the Great Union War Ratification Meeting, Held at the Cooper Institute, in the City of New York, October 8th, 1862

Two years after Stephen Hammond’s speech decrying the denunciation of his fellow Republicans as traitors and rebels, William Curtis Noyes employed similar language to describe their party’s opposition in a speech during the Great Union War Ratification meeting. He initially stayed above party politics, saying, “…this is not a political meeting in the ordinary paltry party sense.” And he continued:

It is, indeed, political in its aims and aspirations; because it relates to good government, to the preservation of the Constitution, to the sacredness of the Union, and to the preservation of the lives and the property of all Union-loving men. In that sense it is the highest political wisdom which has brought this meeting together, and which in every heart here beats with patriotic impulses in behalf of the country, in behalf of its integrity, in behalf of union for every inch of its soil.

Hammond again argued the meeting was above politics, and while the following dissection of the Democratic Party could be described in various ways, apolitical is not one of them:

 I wish you to recollect also that it is not a party meeting in the sense of its being a meeting of the Democratic Party, or of the Union Party, or of the Republican Party. It is a meeting of genuine earnest, positive friends of the country, men earnest and honestly loyal, men who know no hypocrisy in the expression of their loyalty to their country, who do not say one thing and mean another thing, and who will not be, as a distinguished man said to me today, honest before the election but traitors afterwards. When the Democratic Party was broken into fragments at Charleston by a band of traitors and conspirators, it crystallized into three classes. I would compare them as good, worse, worst, and in considering them shall reverse the order of the comparison. The worst are the traitors, the conspirators, composting the entire Democratic Party of the South, now as a general thing, in arms against the country, and headed by their candidate for president, who is engaged in slaughtering some of the men who voted for him, and in denouncing many and many thousands who voted for him. The next class are those who are worse. They are those who, when Fort Sumter was assailed, and its beleaguered garrison were attempted to be murdered, were cold, indifferent, doubting of success; taking no share in the patriotic excitement which prevailed a year ago last April, taking no pains to stimulate the energies of the country to great activity in the struggle which was upon us, and recently crystallizing into a party opposed to the administration, opposed to the war into which madness and treason have plunged us, and ready to submit to, or to do anything to gain favor with the rebels, with whom they are affiliated.

Hammond did, eventually and “with great pleasure,” address the “good” Democrats, namely those whose representatives were in attendance.

Opinions of a Man Who Wishes to be Governor of Pennsylvania (1863)
By George Washington Woodward

This imprint is interesting not only for its content but also its provenance. George Washington Woodward was an associate judge of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania with political aspirations, but which in 1863 had yet to be achieved. He had been an unsuccessful Democratic candidate for United States Senator in 1844, and the following year was nominated as a Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, although not confirmed by the Senate.

While the opinions expressed here are presumably Woodward’s, the identity and intent of those disseminating this imprint are unclear. The final page contains a note that reads suspiciously like a disclaimer written by an opponent of Woodward in an attempt to use Woodward’s own words against him:

The speech, in pamphlet form, from which these extracts are taken, was published at the time by Judge Woodward or his friends, and the proof corrected by himself, so that no authority can be more undoubted. The pamphlets are now scarce; but the same sentiments, in nearly the same language, may be found by any person in the public prints of the day following that (13th December, 1860) on which they were uttered.

Woodward defended his pro-slavery position not only in terms of inherent racial superiority but also on his religious convictions. In his own words:

It will be said that slavery is a sin against God, and therefore, that all reasons drawn from our material interests, for favoring or abetting it, must go for nothing. If it be a sin, I agree there is an end to my argument. But what right has the abolitionist to pronounce it a sin? I say abolitionist, because the pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Brooklyn, in a sermon preached within a week, defined an abolitionist to be one who holds that slavery is a sin. I accept the definition, and according to it, many of our best Christian people must be accounted abolitionists; for it is astonishing how extensively the religious mind of the North has admitted into itself that suspicion, not say conviction, that slaveholding is a sin. If a sin, then it is a violation of some Divine law; for sin is the transgression of the law. Now I deny that any such law has ever been revealed. The burden of showing it is on him who alleges it; and when it is shown, I agree it shall rule out all that has been said or can be said for a Union founded on slavery. I bind myself never to raise my voice again in behalf of such a Union. But so far from any such law being found plainly written for our instruction, whoever will study the Patriarchal and Levitical institutions will see the principle of human bondage and of property in man divinely sanctioned, if not divinely ordained; and in all the sayings of our Saviour we hear no injunction for the suppression of a slavery which existed under His eyes, whist He delivered many maxims and principles which, like the golden rule, enter right into and regulate the relation. So do the writings of Paul abound with regulations of the relation, but not with injunctions for its suppression. If we go to the most accredited commentators, or consult divines really wise and good in our own midst, or, what is better, study and search the Scriptures for ourselves, we shall fail to find a law which, fairly interpreted and applied, justifies any man in asserting, in or out of the pulpit, that the negro slavery of the United States is sinful.

Opinions of the Early Presidents, and of the Fathers of the Republic, upon Slavery, and upon Negroes as Men and Soldiers (1863)

This work belongs to an American tradition even older than the Republican Party: a compilation of quotes by the “fathers of the republic,” which in this instance were selected for their denunciation of slavery. Although many of those quoted did in fact own slaves, compilations such as this are valuable in that they offer as much, and perhaps more, of an insight into the times of those publishing the work as they do into the founders’ beliefs as quoted.

For more information about Afro-Americana Imprints, 1535-1922: From the Library Company of Philadelphia, or to request a trial for your institution, please contact


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