*See Jesse Macy, "The Anti-Slavery Crusade". (In "The Chronicles of America".)
When the fight began there were four parties in the field: the Democrats, the Whigs, the Free-Soilers, and the Know-Nothings.
The Free-Soil party, hitherto a small organization, had sought to make slavery the main issue in politics. Its watchword was "Free soil, free speech, free labor, and free men." It is needless to add that it was instantaneous in its opposition to the Kansas-Nebraska Act.
The Whigs at the moment enjoyed the greatest prestige, owing to the association with them of such distinguished leaders as Webster and Clay. In 1854, however, as a party they were dying, and the very condition that had made success possible for the Democrats made it impossible for the Whigs, because the latter stood for positive ideas, and aimed to be national in reality and not in the evasive Democratic sense of the term. For, as a matter of fact, on analysis all the greater issues of the day proved to be sectional. The Whigs would not, like the Democrats, adopt a negative attitude toward these issues, nor would they consent to become merely sectional. Yet at the moment negation and sectionalism were the only alternatives, and between these millstones the Whig organization was destined to be ground to bits and to disappear after the next Presidential election.
Even previous to 1854, numbers of Whigs had sought a desperate outlet for their desire to be positive in politics and had created a new party which during a few years was to seem a reality and then vanish together with its parent. The one chance for a party which had positive ideas and which wished not to be sectional was the definite abandonment of existing issues and the discovery of some new issue not connected with sectional feeling. Now, it happened that a variety of causes, social and religious, had brought about bad blood between native and foreigner, in some of the great cities, and upon the issue involved in this condition the failing spirit of the Whigs fastened. A secret society which had been formed to oppose the naturalization of foreigners quickly became a recognized political party. As the members of the Society answered all questions with "I do not know," they came to be called "Know-Nothings," though they called themselves "Americans." In those states where the Whigs had been strongest --Massachusetts, New York, and Pennsylvania--this last attempt to apply their former temper, though not their principles, had for a moment some success; but it could not escape the fierce division which was forced on the country by Douglas. As a result, it rapidly split into factions, one of which merged with the enemies of Douglas, while the other was lost among his supporters.
What would the great dying Whig party leave behind it? This was the really momentous question in 1854. Briefly, this party bequeathed the temper of political positivism and at the same time the dread of sectionalism. The inner clue to American politics during the next few years is, to many minds, to be found largely in the union of this old Whig temper with a new-born sectional patriotism, and, to other minds, in the gradual and reluctant passing of the Whig opposition to a sectional party. But though this transformation of the wrecks of Whiggism began immediately, and while the Kansas-Nebraska Bill was still being hotly debated in Congress, it was not until 1860 that it was completed.
In the meantime various incidents had shown that the sectional patriotism of the North, the fury of the abolitionists, and the positive temper in politics, were all drawing closer together. Each of these tendencies can be briefly illustrated. For example, the rush to Kansas had begun, and the Massachusetts Emigrant Aid Society was preparing to assist settlers who were going west. In May, there occurred at Boston one of the most conspicuous attempts to rescue a fugitive slave, in which a mob led by Thomas Wentworth Higginson attacked the guards of Anthony Burns, a captured fugitive, killed one of them, but failed to get the slave, who was carried to a revenue cutter between lines of soldiers and returned to slavery. Among numerous details of the hour the burning of Douglas in effigy is perhaps worth passing notice. In duly the anti-Nebraska men of Michigan held a convention, at which they organized as a political party and nominated a state ticket. Of their nominees, two had hitherto ranked themselves as Free-Soilers, three as anti-slavery Democrats, and five as Whigs. For the name of their party they chose "Republican," and as the foundation of their platform the resolution "That, postponing and suspending all differences with regard to political economy or administrative policy," they would "act cordially and faithfully in unison," opposing the extension of slavery, and would "cooperate and be known as 'Republicans' until the contest be terminated."
The history of the next two years is, in its main outlines, the story of the war in Kansas and of the spread of this new party throughout the North. It was only by degrees, however, that the Republicans absorbed the various groups of anti-Nebraska men. What happened at this time in Illinois may be taken as typical, and it is particularly noteworthy as revealing the first real appearance of Abraham Lincoln in American history.