The Heroic Origins of the Republican Party in the 1850s

Boston College History Professor Heather Cox Richardson has posted on Youtube.com her 8-part, 8-hour lecture series on the history of the Republican Party. She has studied and taught this history since the 1980s. Given that the ideas of Republicans dominated the nation from 1860 to 1932, and again from 1980 to at least the 2000s, knowing their history is important to knowing the story of the United States.

In less than a year, this first lecture has garnered nearly 30,000 views.

If you listen to this lecture while doing something else, you may want to review the transcript. That can be done by first, enabling closed-captions and then (on the Youtube site) opening the transcript by clicking on the three-dots next to the “save” button on the right.

Richardson would probably describe herself as an Abraham Lincoln Republican. She argues that the history of the Republican Party exemplifies a “fundamental tension in America” between equality of opportunity and the protection of property.

She begins her lecture by describing the difference between the nation’s two founding documents — the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. The Declaration seeks to explain to the world why the founders were not thugs who should be hanged but were entitled to the respect of the world because they were standing up for great ideas and principles. It declares that all men are created equal, and should not, could not be ruled by a monarchy or far-away king or a colonial power. They described the ways the king had attacked their civil society.

The first constitution, the Articles of Confederation, did not work. So in 1789, the founders adopted a new constitution, a new structure of government, and it really wasn’t clear until after the war of 1812 that it would work.

The founders had to convince people of property to get behind this new form of government. So that’s one of the fundamental aspects of the Constitution, the protection of property.

But who’s property?

The western lands were owned by Native Americans but the colonists were not particularly concerned about that.

“One of the things that drives the colonials bonkers” is the restrictions the British government has placed on settlement of the West. When settlers cross the Appalachian Mountains and keep pushing West and keep killing Indians the British government says you can’t do that anymore. You have to stop moving west, it tells the colonists in the 1760s. The colonists think the far-away British government cannot tell them what do to.

Richardson mentions pioneer and frontiersman Daniel Boone (1734-1820) who met Abraham Lincoln’s grandfather (1744-1786), an accountant in Virginia and tells him how wonderful the Kentucky frontier is.

She goes on to describe the Lincoln family story, how Abraham Lincoln’s father treated his son kind of like a slave, but how he nevertheless rose from a hardscrabble childhood in a log cabin to become a backwoods rail-splitter and then a prosperous lawyer in Illinois who married quite well.

She describes how Lincoln and the early Republicans opposed the mudsill theory of James Henry Hammond and other Southern plantation-owners and slave-owners.

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