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02.06.03 Gienapp, William E., The Origins of the Republican Party, 1852-1856, published in 1987 by Oxford University Press.

Notes Concerning the Author:

William Gienapp (1944-2003) was born in Denton, Texas, spent his boyhood in rural Iowa, then his teenage years in Southern California.  His father was a public school principal and teacher, and his mother taught as well.  Possessing a mind skilled in scientific pursuits, “he began his undergraduate work at the University of California at Berkeley as a physics major, but was seduced into the study of history by his first college course on the subject, given by Kenneth Stampp, Berkeley’s distinguished historian of the Civil War and Reconstruction periods.”  Under Dr. Stampp’s direction, he completed his PhD dissertation at Berkley in 1980.  Well along toward writing his book, the 1980 dissertation was likewise titled, “The Origins of the Republican Party, 1852-1856.”  He took a teaching position at the University of Wyoming and there completed his book, published in 1987 by Oxford University Press.  Two years later he became a professor of history at Harvard.  Unfortunately he died young, at the age of 59, leaving a wife and two sons.

Of “Origins . . .”, Michael F. Holt of the University of Virginia wrote, “A magnificent achievement.  Its sweep is broad, its research astonishingly thorough, its command of detail superb, its analysis compelling.  This is absolutely the best book about the formation of the Republican Party ever written.”

James M. McPherson of Princeton University added, “Gienapp has given us by far the fullest account of the origins of the Republican Party in literature. . . .  This book provides one of the clearest narratives and analyses of the complex processes by which the American political system was profoundly transformed in the 1850’s and the country set on a collision course toward civil war.”


A book of 564 pages, “The Origins of the Republican Party, 1852-1856” presents a well-researched narrative account of how the Republican Party grew out of several northern States political movements, each of which were seeking a winning combination of issues capable of defeating the dominant political party of the time, the Democratic Party.   The primary political opposition to the Democratic Party had been the Whig Party, a national organization.  But, issues over political control of western lands taken from Mexico in 1848, rising political sectionalism, and efforts to control a huge wave of immigration into the northern States had disrupted the American political landscape throughout that region.  There arose the Prohibition Movement against alcoholic beverages, the Free Soil Democrat Movement against any new State that permitted African American slaves, the Nativism Movement and the Know Nothing Movement.  But none of these agendas aimed at defeating Democrats held lasting voter appeal.  That is, until the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854.  From that point on, the new Republican Party swallowed up all political activists opposed to Democrats and, by 1856, was in total control of opposition to Democrats in every northern State.  That year Republicans made great gains in taking control of State and local governments across the northern States. 

This is the story detailed so thoroughly in Gienapp’s book.  But, for context, let us proceed further in time to better understand the consequence of a powerful section political party in the northern States by the close of 1856.  What about 1857, 1858, 1859 and 1860?   What about 1861 and the War Between the States?

With Bleeding Kansas manipulated to generate a continuing steady stream of powerful political propaganda, the stage was set for Republicans to continue to post major victories across the region in 1857, 1958 and 1859, culminating in 1860, by which time it gained control of all northern State governor’s offices.  The election of Abe Lincoln that year precipitated the peaceful and legal secession of seven States from South Carolina to Texas.  With a Republican President in control of the Federal military and Republican governors in control of militia in each and every northern state, all Abe Lincoln had to do to stage an incident to facilitate his military campaign to conquer the Confederate States was to dispatch a fleet of Federal transports and warships to the coast within sight of Charleston harbor in hopes that would encourage Confederates to force a small Federal garrison to evacuate Fort Sumter and ride away on a north-bound railroad.  Lincoln’s “first shot strategy” worked.  Cannon were fired in the harbor.  Nobody was killed, but Abe had his excuse to call for militiamen to subjugate Maryland, Kentucky and Missouri and proceed southward to conquer the Confederacy.  After 360,000 Federal dead, the conquest was complete.  Political Reconstruction followed.  

That was the consequence of the rise of the Republican Party from 1852 to 1856.  “Origins . . . ” provides all the narrative and facts that students of American history need to acquire to understand that event, the most powerful political event in American history, second only to the rise of passions to declare the 13 colonies independent of Great Britain.

Look no further than William E. Gienapp’s “Origins” to gain the understanding you need.

There are three books that represent a closely related set and all three ought to be read as a directed study.  Alice Nichols “Bleeding Kansas”, William E. Gienapp’s “The Origins of the Republican Party . . .” and Otto Scott’s “The Secret Six . . .” together tell the story.  Perhaps add Robert W. Johannsen’s “Stephen A. Douglas” to the list.  All are among the Society’s Recommended Reading List.

Availability of this Book

You can get a new or used copy of Gienapp’s “Origins . . .” on and other places.  There is no Kindle e-book, but a Google digital book is available.