It was the party of Northern Yankees

Tuesday, January 4th, 2022

The Republican Party was born as an ethnic party, Razib Khan reminds us:

Formed out of a fusion of the anti-slavery factions in the Whigs and the Democrats, it absorbed the straightforwardly named Free Soil Party and established itself as one half of the American political duopoly that has persisted down to the present. But its core motivations were as much cultural as ideological. It was a revolt of one section of America against the power of the South and “Slave Power.”

Despite all of the nostrums about ending slavery and polygamy and the need for federal investment in public works, the 1856 map shows who the Republican Party first drew its support from: it was the party of Northern Yankees. It was about identity, not ideology. Though in some contexts “Yankee” gets used as shorthand for all Americans, the term originates with the citizens of New England. Seeking opportunity outside of their overpopulated homeland, New England Yankees fanned out from their crowded corner of the United States. Yankee traders and whalers became the most numerous Americans beyond the nation’s shores. So common that the term Yankee became synonymous with American.

New Englanders also migrated westward all along the northern fringe of the United States, creating the “Yankee Empire.” They settled the vast domains of western New York, northern Ohio and Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. Later the western portions of the Yankee Empire also became a magnet for Germans and Scandinavians, whose lifestyles and values were more consonant with those of New Englanders than with other factions of “Old Stock” Americans further south.

This was the soil where the Republican Party took root. In 1860, the Republicans nominated a Kentucky-born candidate, Abraham Lincoln, and the party’s reach expanded to other parts of the north beyond the Yankee fringe, thus capturing political power, which it would hold until FDR’s New Deal. Until Roosevelt’s realignment, every election involved jockeying between the old factions of Yankees, other Northerners, and the South. Though all these groups were white, their rivalries were deep and old. Despite attempts to patch up the fabric of American society, the blood spilled during the Civil War forever held the citizens of the North and South at a remove from one another.

In contrast, in 2020 the debate often foregrounds “whites” and “communities of color” as if the world is divided into such stark demographic dualities and always has been. Only it isn’t describing anything more than a recent fashion.


  1. Bob Sykes says:

    The Republican Party was also an anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic party, and it still is. The Boston Schools still had some anti-Catholic, evangelizing Protestant teachers in the 1950′s when I was enrolled there.

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