On the cold, windy night of March 20, 1854, 36-year-old lawyer Alvan Bovay rounded up dozens of his neighbors in Ripon, Wisconsin, and gathered them in a schoolhouse for a meeting that would change the course of American history.
It was the group’s second gathering of the month. Weeks earlier, Bovay, a member of the Whig Party, had issued a bulletin: “A meeting will be held at 6:30 o’clock this Wednesday evening at the Congregational Church in the Village of Ripon to remonstrate against the Nebraska swindle.”
The Kansas-Nebraska Act—which would repeal the 1820 Missouri Compromise’s restrictions on slavery above the 36°30’ parallel—was barreling through Congress, and those opposed to slavery’s spread were furious. “Of all the outrages hitherto perpetrated or attempted upon the North and freedom by the slave leaders and their natural allies, not one compares in bold and impudent audacity, treachery and meanness with this, the Nebraska Bill,” read a motion adopted at that first Ripon meeting.
If the federal legislation became law, the group resolved, according to 20th-century historian A.F. Gilman, they would “throw away old party organizations” and form a new one: One “directly opposed” to the principles of the Nebraska bill. President Franklin Pierce signed the Kansas-Nebraska Act into law on May 30, and Ripon voted to dissolve their Free-Soil and Whig parties. The Republican Party was born.