This simple frame schoolhouse, built in 1853, holds a powerful history. In the Little White Schoolhouse a decision made by a small group of Ripon citizens changed the course of our nation’s history.
A meeting in this simple, one story clapboard and frame schoolhouse on March 20, 1854, and another in Jackson, Michigan, on July 6, to protest passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which permitted the extension of slavery beyond the limits of the Missouri Compromise, drew dissatisfied Whigs, Free Soilers, and Democrats. These meetings were the first of those that led to the formation of the Republican Party.
The birth of the Republican Party brought a dedicated following of individuals together who pledged to organize and fight against the spread of slavery. The spark that brought this action to reality came from the introduction of the Kansas-Nebraska Bill, which was brought to Congress in January 1854 by Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois. The bill threatened to extend slavery into the newly opening territories of Kansas and Nebraska. His bill was based on the “Popular Sovereignty” theory that would allow settlers to choose whether slavery would or would not exist within a territory. Douglas hoped the bill would satisfy the interests of both the North and the South.
At the time, a young lawyer named Alvan E. Bovay was living in Ripon. He had come from New York in 1850 to settle here with his family. Bovay was a Whig, and when he lived in New York he became a good friend of Horace Greeley, the influential newspaper publisher of the New York Herald Tribune. Bovay and Greeley had many political interests in common. They were both advocates of land reform, and against the spread of slavery into the newly opening territories. They maintained their friendship when Bovay moved west. In 1852 when Bovay and Greeley met in New York at the National Whig Convention, Greeley did not support the idea for a new political party. He felt that the Whig candidate would be elected president. Bovay insisted that the party’s vitality was gone, and its platform no longer commanded the attention of the people. Slavery, was the issue that absorbed the minds of the people.
It had become a political and a moral issue. He urged the formation of a new party that would bring together all the anti-slavery forces in the country. When Greeley asked him what name he would give the party, Bovay replied, “Republican” and gave his reasons.
It was a significant name. It indicated what they wished to symbolize – “Res publica,” common weal, the common good, equality. It was a simple word, not like Free-Soil, or Free Democrat. Bovay, however, thought the most important idea was that it was the name chosen by Thomas Jefferson for his own party. This name would be held in reverence by the best people of the land. Bovay returned to Ripon, and continued to support the Whig Party until it disbanded after the lost presidential election of 1852. With the introduction of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, ensuing debate on its passage did damage to the Democrat Party as well. A group of Democrats in Congress published an “Appeal to the People of the United States,” protesting the revocation of the Missouri Compromise. The almost dormant Free-Soil Party suddenly found strength from thousands of defectors from the Whig Party, and many northern communities like Crawfordsville, IA adopted resolutions calling for a new party embracing Free Soil principles. The Free states were swept by a storm of protest. Bovay became more certain that the time was ripe for his party to emerge.
On February 26, 1854, while the Kansas-Nebraska bill was still being debated in the Senate, Bovay wrote to Greeley telling him of the strength of people’s feelings in Ripon. Bovay urged Greeley to use the influence of the Tribune to rally the antislavery forces of the nation “to call together in every church and schoolhouse, all the opponents of the Nebraska bill and to bring them together under the name Republican.” He insisted the organization should be formed at once. Without waiting to hear from the editor, Bovay called a meeting together in Ripon by printing a small ad in the local newspaper. The notice read as follows: “NEBRASKA. A meeting will be held at 6:30 o’clock this Wednesday evening at the Congregational Church in the Village of Ripon to demonstrate against the Nebraska swindle.” (signed, Many Citizens) This meeting was held on March 1, 1854. What took place at this meeting can best be expressed by the resolutions that were adopted. “Resolved, that of all the outrages hitherto perpetrated or attempted upon the North and freedom by the slave leaders and their natural allies, not one compares in bold and impudent audacity, treachery, and meanness with this, the Nebraska Bill.” A resolution was also passed to the effect that if the Nebraska Bill should pass, they would dissolve old party organizations and form a new party directly opposed to the principals of that legislation.
On March 3, the bill passed the Senate, and a general feeling was held that it would pass the House and become law. Bovay and his followers felt that this bill “expressly intended to extend and strengthen the institution of slavery.” They decided to call a second meeting for more definite action, and to attempt to form an organization. A reply from Greeley came in a letter dated March 7. He thought the plan of organizing a party was alright if the people were in agreement for it. He made no mention of it in his Tribune. Bovay went ahead with his plan. The second meeting was held in the schoolhouse of District #2 on the evening of March 20, 1854. Dozens of Ripon residents gathered in the little building. Bovay offered the name “Republican” for the new party, and it was well received. By a formal vote the local committees of the Free Soil and Whig parties were dissolved. Five men, Alvan Bovay, Jedhiah Bowen, Amos Loper, Abram Thomas, and Jacob Woodruff – three Whigs, a Democrat, and a Free Soiler – were chosen as the committee of the new party.
The Spread of the New Party Happened Quickly
The Nebraska Bill passed the House of Representatives on May 22, 1854. President Pierce signed the bill into law on May 30, 1854. On the day following adoption, approximately 30 antislavery members of the House of Representatives, Whigs, and Democrats held a meeting and discussed the necessity of organizing a new party under the name “Republican” and pledged themselves to fight against the extension of slavery. On June 7, at a state convention in Maine, the presiding officer advocated that the two parties combine with the old-line Whigs under the name “Republican Party.” On June 12, Bovay again wrote to Greeley urging him to put forth the name Republican. Greeley responded with an article published June 24, 1854 in which he recommended the name “Republican” for those who wished to return the Union to its original directive as a champion of liberty. Greeley also wrote to Jacob Howard in Michigan where a convention had been called to protest the Nebraska bill. Greeley suggested that Michigan also take up the name, as Wisconsin would in a convention which was scheduled for the following week. Howard prepared a platform with this name, and on July 6, 1854, Jackson, Michigan became the site of the first state to adopt the name at its party convention.
More state conventions followed suit including Wisconsin, Vermont, and New York. The anti-slavery conventions being held in the summer and fall of 1854 resulted in an overturning of the House of Representatives, and an inroad into the Senate. Fifteen states showed antislavery pluralities, and eleven United States senators were either elected as Republicans, or afterwards acted with the new party as a result of the 1854 fall elections. With Greeley’s help and continued influence, the name Republican was accepted throughout the states. An informal convention for the purpose of perfecting a national organization was held in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on February 22, 1856. The convention was held because of a call issued by the chairmen of the Republican state committees of Maine, Vermont, Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, and Wisconsin. Twenty-four delegates were present. The delegates declared that the purpose of the convention was to oppose the repeal of the Missouri Compromise and the extension of slavery into any free territories. Among those present were Horace Greeley and Abraham Lincoln.
At the Pittsburgh meeting the first Republican National Committee was formed. Shortly after, this committee called for the party’s first national delegate convention, which met in Philadelphia on June 17, 1856. The U.S. Dept. of Interior has declared landmark status on three sites because of their significance in the forming of the Republican Party. Ripon’s Little White Schoolhouse where the first local organization was established; a location in Jackson, Michigan where the the first state convention met “under the oaks;” and a meeting hall in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania where the first national convention was held. All are important in the party’s history.
The birth of this party brought a dedicated following of individuals who pledged to organize together and fight against the spread of slavery. Ripon Wisconsin’s Little White Schoolhouse was designated a National Historic Site in 1974.