The Republican party was created in 1854 in opposition to the Kansas-Nebraska Act that would have allowed the expansion of slavery into Kansas. The Republican activists denounced the act as proof of the power of the Slave Power—the powerful class of slaveholders who were conspiring to control the federal government and to spread slavery nationwide. The name "Republican" gained such favor in 1854 because "republicanism" was the paramount political value the new party meant to uphold. The name had been in previous use by Jeffersonians, Jacksonians, and nationalists. The party founders adopted the name "Republican" to indicate it was the carrier of "republican" beliefs about civic virtue, and opposition to aristocracy and corruption.
Two small cities of the Yankee diaspora, Ripon, Wisconsin and Jackson, Michigan, claim the birthplace honors. Ripon held the first county convention on March 20, 1854. Jackson held the first statewide convention where delegates on July 6, 1854 declared their new party opposed to the expansion of slavery into new territories and selected a state-wide slate of candidates. The Midwest took the lead in forming state party tickets, while the eastern states lagged a year or so. There were no efforts to organize the party in the South, apart from a few areas adjacent to free states.
More than just expansion, the party opposed what it called the Slave Power, that is the political control over the national government exerted by southern slave owners. Besides opposition to slavery, the new party put forward a progressive vision—emphasizing higher education, banking, railroads, industry and cities, while promising free homesteads to farmers. They vigorously argued that free-market labor was superior to slavery and the very foundation of civic virtue and true American values—this is the "Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men" ideology explored by historian Eric Foner. The Republicans absorbed the previous traditions of its members, most of whom had been Whigs, and some of whom had been Democrats or members of third parties (especially the Free Soil Party and American Party). Many Democrats who joined up were rewarded with governorships: (Nathaniel P. Banks of Massachusetts, Kinsley Bingham of Michigan, William H. Bissell of Illinois, Salmon P. Chase of Ohio, Hannibal Hamlin of Maine, Samuel J. Kirkwood of Iowa, Ralph Metcalf of New Hampshire, Lot Morrill of Maine, and Alexander Randall of Wisconsin) or seats in the U.S. Senate (Bingham and Hamlin, as well as James R. Doolittle of Wisconsin, John P. Hale of New Hampshire, Preston King of New York, Lyman Trumbull of Illinois, and David Wilmot of Pennsylvania.) Since its inception, its chief opposition has been the Democratic Party, but the amount of flow back and forth of prominent politicians between the two parties was quite high from 1854 to 1896.
This caricature tries to link Frémont to other "weird" movements like temperance, feminists, socialism, free love, Catholicism and abolitionism.
Historians have explored the ethnocultural foundations of the party, along the line that ethnic and religious groups set the moral standards for their members, who then carried those standards into politics. The churches also provided social networks that politicians used to sign up voters. The pietistic churches, heavily influenced by the revivals of the Second Great Awakening, emphasized the duty of the Christian to purge sin from society. Sin took many forms—alcoholism, polygamy and slavery became special targets for the Republicans. The Yankees, who dominated New England, much of upstate New York, and much of the upper Midwest were the strongest supporters of the new party. This was especially true for the pietistic Congregationalists and Presbyterians among them and (during the war), the Methodists, along with Scandinavian Lutherans. The Quakers were a small tight-knit group that was heavily Republican. The liturgical churches (Roman Catholic, Episcopal, German Lutheran), by contrast, largely rejected the moralism of the GOP; most of their adherents voted Democratic.