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The 1858 Midterm Election

November 2, 1858

Lincoln-Douglas Debates Stamp

“There is always a lull after a tempest, and so the political world has subsided into an unwonted calm since the election,” commented a reporter for The New York Times. “The Republicans are naturally . . . exultant over their sweeping victories.” Such a commentary might apply to any number of elections, but this reporter described the outcome of a particularly historic election—the midterm election of 1858. The Republican success that year was especially remarkable because the Republican Party was only four years old.

Almost by spontaneous combustion, the Republican Party burst forth in 1854 in response to the controversial Kansas-Nebraska Act. For decades, America’s political battles had been fought between the Democrats and the Whigs. By the early 1850s, however, the issue of slavery had splintered the Whigs into warring factions and divided Democrats between north and south. When Democratic senator Stephen Douglas pushed his Kansas-Nebraska bill to passage, including its proposal to settle the issue of slavery by popular sovereignty, the uproar among northern abolitionists and anti-slavery activists was too fierce to be contained by the ailing Whig Party. As one person commented, “The Whigs were simply not angry enough.”

Beginning at the local level, in Wisconsin and Michigan, and quickly spreading across the north, a coalition of former Whigs and northern Democrats organized under a new party label—Republican—and called for the immediate repeal of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. While voters supplied the anger, political leaders provided the organization. “Superior leadership was vital to the success of the Republican party,” wrote historian William Gienapp, “since the task of uniting such a disparate array of . . . factions was enormous.”

Republicans held a national convention in 1856, embracing the ideology of “Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men,” but it took another two years and a series of dramatic events to fuel the movement toward electoral success. In 1856 Senator Charles Sumner suffered that brutal beating, perpetrated by a pro-slavery representative. Radical abolitionist John Brown attacked a pro-slavery settlement in Kansas and murdered seven men. In 1857 Chief Justice Roger Taney delivered the Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Dred Scott v. Sanford, declaring that Blacks in America were not citizens. Then, in 1858, seven debates with Senator Stephen Douglas catapulted the relatively unknown Abraham Lincoln to national leadership. “Without these specific events,” Gienapp concluded, “it is impossible to imagine the Republican party taking shape when it did.” The 1858 midterm election became a referendum on this new political party.

After the 1858 midterm election, Stephen Douglas kept his Senate seat, but Abraham Lincoln won national acclaim. Republicans took control of the House and swept northern gubernatorial races, but Democrats maintained a majority in the Senate. Prior to this election, only a handful of the Senate’s 66 members identified themselves as Republican; now that number grew to 26 and included such important converts as William Seward, Charles Sumner and Benjamin Wade. This set the stage for 1860, when Republicans took control of the Senate, the House, and the presidency.