The name “Republican”

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Donald Trump, presumptive nominee of the Republican Party for President of the U.S.

To mark the start of the Republican National Convention, which starts tomorrow in Cleveland, Ohio, Glossophilia takes a look at the origins of the name of the party formed 162 years ago, as well as its nickname, “GOP”. 

About a decade ago the Wisconsin Historical Society posted on its website a pamphlet called “The Origin of the Republican Party” by A.F. Gilman, published in 1914. As the society summarized in its abstract of the document: “The need for a new party that would oppose slavery was felt strongly in many parts of the north during the early months of 1854. Meetings were held in Michigan, New York, and other states besides Wisconsin as the momentum built. The name was first publicly applied to this movement in a June 1854 editorial by New York editor Horace Greeley, who said it would “fitly designate those who had united to restore the Union to its true mission of champion and promulgator of Liberty rather than propagandist of slavery.” … The following excerpts from the pamphlet explain quite colorfully and succinctly the history of that movement, and how it came to be named the Republican Party.

“In the little town of Ripon (Wis.) early in the fifties there lived a man with sufficient political sagacity to read the signs of the times and to predict that a new political party would soon be formed which would become national in its scope and character. This man was Alvan Earl Bovay.

Mr. Bovay was secretary of the National Reform Association and while in New York City, he met and became a firm friend of Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune. He was admitted to the bar in Utica, N. Y., in 1846. In the latter part of the year 1850, he moved to Wisconsin and settled in Ripon where he began the practice of law. He was one of the original incorporators of Brockway, now Ripon College, and for a time taught mathematics in the college. It was natural that the people of a small frontier town should look to a man of Mr. Bovay’s training for advice and he was soon recognized as a leader in the political questions of the day.

During the time of the National Whig Convention in 1852, Mr. Bovay was visiting in New York City. He was the guest of his old friend, Horace Greeley, at a lunch in the Lovejoy Hotel, and as the convention was then in session their conversation naturally turned to the candidates whose names had been presented. Mr. Bovay declared that General Scott would be the Whig nominee, although at this time the returns showed that he was not in the lead. Mr. Greeley felt confident that the candidate nominated by the Whigs would be elected in the coming presidential election, while his guest predicted the defeat of the Whig party, for he maintained that its vitality was gone, and that its issues no longer commanded the attention of the people.

The slavery question was absorbing the minds of the people and it had assumed the phase of as much of a political as of a moral issue, and Mr. Bovay urged the formation of a new party with the idea of bringing together the anti-slavery element of all parties. He seems to have been as much concerned about the name of the proposed party as about the formation of it and when asked by Mr. Greeley what name he would give to the new party he suggested the name “Republican.” His reasons for the use of this name were :

1. Political parties should have significant names and this name was not only significant but it indicated the thing they wished to symbolize: “Res publica,” common weal. It also suggests equality, that “you are as good as I,” not like the Democratic doctrine that “I am as good as you.”

2. It should be a simple and not a compound word like Free-Soil, Free-Democrat or Liberty Party.

3. That it should be flexible and could be used as an adjective as well as a noun. There were two other considerations, however, that outweighed all of the rest and which Mr. Bovay thought would contribute the most to the success of a new party: one of these was that this name had been applied by Thomas Jefferson to his party and it would be held in reverence by the best people of the land; and the other was, that it would attract the foreign element. He said: “These people (the foreigners) will at once decide that the Republican party is the one for them and we shall bring in thousands of Democrats just by the name, if we call it ‘Republican.’ ” Mr. Greeley did not accept the suggestion of forming a new party because of his confidence in the Whig party which he thought would win in the coming election.”

Mr. Bovay returned to Wisconsin and continued to support the Whig party, “following its banners, fighting its battles faithfully, at the same time praying for its death.” The prediction in regard to the defeat of General Scott came true, and after the presidential election of 1852 the Whig party went to pieces, many of the old party joining the new Know-Nothing party that had just been organized.

During the two years that followed a spirit of unrest prevailed throughout the country and the people were losing confidence in their political leaders. The introduction into the Congressional session of 1853-54, by Senator Stephen A. Douglas, of Illinois, of the “Kansas Nebraska Bill” brought forth a storm of indignation from the anti-slavery people in the North. Mr. Bovay and his followers thought that the time had come for some definite action and on February 26, 1854, when the Nebraska Bill was before the senate, he wrote a letter to Greeley explaining how strong the feeling was in Ripon and its vicinity against the Nebraska Bill, and as the New York Tribune was the leading paper in the country, he urged upon Mr. Greeley the necessity of calling together in every church and school-house in the free states all opponents to the Nebraska Bill and band them together under the name Republican, the only name, he said, that would serve all purposes and the only one that would live and last. This organization, he said, should be formed at once.”

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G.O.P., referring to the U.S. Republican Party,  is an abbreviation of Grand Old Party. The term originated in 1875 in the Congressional Record, referring to the party associated with the successful military defense of the Union as “this gallant old party”; the following year in an article in the Cincinnati Commercial, the term was modified to “grand old party”. The first use of the abbreviation is dated 1884. According to Etymonline, the Democratic Party was also referred to occasionally as the “grand old party”, with lower-case letters, in the 1870s-80s when the Republicans (formed in 1854) still were considered new and radical. The designation “grand old ______” is from about 1850.

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