It’s 1856. Many don’t realize that the Republican Party – when birthed here in Iowa and across the nation – came into existence because thousands of young Americans had grown tired and weary of a political system that failed to recognize Thomas Jefferson’s words found in the Declaration of Independence:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed, by their Creator, with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.“
Many in the North – including Iowa – were fed up with a political system that refused to stand up for those in our midst who were enslaved – treating them as property instead of human beings. You see, in the 1850’s, the political system across America was failing to address a very sad truth. Here in Iowa, for example, while we were, technically, a “free state”, there were still many in both the Democrat and Whig Parties who either supported the practice of holding slaves, or simply believed it best, politically, to ignore the subject.
In Washington D.C., for example (1853), Iowa’s own Senator Augustus C. Dodge – an old-school Democrat who was sympathetic toward the South’s view on slavery – introduced a bill to organize the new territory of Nebraska, and under the leadership of Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas, that bill eventually became the controversial Kansas-Nebraska Act, which both of Iowa’s Senators – Dodge and George W. Jones – forcefully supported. This bill, which was not popular in Free States like Iowa, sparked a thunderous political explosion, with antislavery Whigs and Democrats alike flocking into, what was called, the “Wide Awakes” movement – joining with many abolitionists to establish The Free-Soil Party, which by the mid-1850’s had evolved into The Republican Party.
Here in Iowa, Governor James W. Grimes – who was first elected as a Whig candidate (1854) and then became a Republican – was actively involved in the anti-slavery movement long before the new party was “officially” formed in 1856. You see, most people, today, don’t realize this, but the new Republican Party that was birthed nationally in response to the pro-slavery bigotry found in both the Democratic and Whig Parties – had its beginnings right here in Iowa!
Yup. On March 28, 1854 – one day before a larger organizational meeting was held in Ripon, Wisconsin – in the little Washington County village of Crawfordsville, Iowa, a very strategic political meeting was held. According to one young lady, Sarah Crawford – who offered up a first-hand account – wrote that the meeting at the old Seceder Church in Crawfordsville lasted most of the night, with so many groups and views being presented, that it was several hours before an agreement was reached. But history shows, that when the convention finally adjourned, there was one thing that these anti-slavery proponents could agree upon…
The next governor of Iowa (1854) should be the anti-slavery candidate – James W. Grimes! Biographer Dr. William Salter tells us more…
In truth, James W. Grimes – though the candidate nominated by the Whig Party at their February 23 & 24, 1854 convention in Iowa City – truly represented the rapidly growing anti-slavery movement that was expanding across Iowa. And while those who gathered in Crawfordsville in March represented varying groups, they did all conclude that, despite his Whig party alignment, Grimes could be trusted to speak out boldly against those – like Democratic Senators Dodge & Jones – who still believed that slavery had a place in America’s future.
So, by a majority of 2,468 votes, Grimes was elected to be Iowa’s third governor, succeeding the old-school, pro-slavery Democrat – Stephen P. Hempstead. Serving as Governor of Iowa from 1854 to 1858, James W. Grimes ended up becoming a guiding light in the Republican Party’s establishment across Iowa in the mid-1850’s.
So, two years into his governorship, James W. Grimes had become a major spokesman for the birth of the new Republican Party. Below is an excerpt from an editorial written in January 1856 by Grimes – calling for the first “official” Iowa convention of the new party – gathering those who stood against the evils of slavery…
With Grimes – the anti-slavery spokesman – now serving as the Governor of Iowa, the die had been cast – not just here in the Hawkeye State – but across the North. Now, it was time for these many anti-slavery voices – groups like the Wide Awakes, the Free Soil Party, and other abolitionist groups to consolidate their strength and focus on the birth of one new political organization – The Republican Party. Which is exactly what happened in February of 1856 – just in time for the next Presidential Election.
As we discuss elsewhere, the tide toward the anti-slavery movement was increasing rapidly across Iowa. In 1854, the pro-slavery, old-school Democrat – Senator Dodge – was thrown out of office, replaced by an anti-slavery proponent – James Harlan from Mt. Pleasant (below right). Dodge attempted to attain a public office once again in 1860, running against the abolitionist Samuel Kirkwood for the Iowa governorship. But, as you can read here, Dodge got his butt kicked once more, and in 1858, his fellow Democrat – the former slave-holder George W. Jones – was tossed aside, replaced by – you guessed it – Governor James W. Grimes (below left)!
So, on March 4, 1859, Grimes became Iowa’s fourth U.S. Senator, joining his fellow anti-slavery Republican, Harlan. Together, these two new Iowa Senators became very involved in helping a young statesman from neighboring Illinois become the Republican Party’s presidential nominee in 1860. You might know his name – Abraham Lincoln.
So, who, exactly, was James W. Grimes?
Born on October 20, 1816 in Deering of Hillsborough County in New Hampshire, James Wilson Grimes graduated from Hampton Academy and attended Dartmouth College. He studied law, moved west, first to Alton, Illinois in 1835, and in 1836, at age 20, commenced practice in Burlington, Iowa. Equipped with a critical mind, a retentive memory, and an innate self-confidence, Grimes established a reputation for himself as a talented and sagacious lawyer, entering into partnership with Henry W. Starr in 1841. As the local economy began to expand, his practice proved to be a lucrative one. Along with heavy speculative investments in land and tax liens, it provided this imposing young man with a sound financial base on which to build a successful political career in the new Territory of Iowa.
A farmer as well as a lawyer, Grimes entered into politics by serving as a member of the Iowa Territorial House of Representatives in 1838–1839 – in Burlington, and again, in 1843–1844 – in Iowa City. Before being elected as Governor in 1854, Grimes was also a member of the Iowa General Assembly (1852-1854).
During Grimes’ tenure as Governor, a hospital for the mentally-ill was established in Mt. Pleasant, the Iowa capital was moved to from Iowa City to Des Moines (1857), a new Iowa Constitution was created, and new laws were endorsed that benefited banks, businesses, and schools. Also, the State Historical Society was provided for, as well as libraries, state colleges and universities, and federal grant money was secured for railroad construction. As we mentioned earlier, after his four years as Governor, Grimes served in the U.S. Senate from March 4, 1859 until December 6, 1869 – when he formally resigned after suffering a serious stroke. He then returned home to Burlington, where James W. Grimes died less than three years later – on February 7, 1872 at age 55.
Click here for more about Grimes, his family, and his sudden passing.
We have four different postal covers and letters from the pen of Governor Grimes – written before he became Iowa’s third governor.
Click here to see two business letters from 1839 & 1840, and a family letter from 1850.
Click here to see a personal letter to Judge Charles T. Mason – one Iowa farmer to another – written during the summer of 1853.
Without a doubt, James W. Grimes played a major role in the early history of Iowa. In an article, written by one of Grimes’ biographers, we read this about the amazing influence Governor Grimes had during the earliest days of the Republican Party here in Iowa…
Another biographer says this about Grimes and his service to Iowa and our nation as an elected servant…
The plot of land that was the Grimes’ home in Burlington is now home to an elementary school that bears his name. The town of Grimes, Iowa (above left) is named for him, as is the Grimes State Office Building (above right) in Des Moines. In one obituary, it mentions how Grimes – in his heyday – was seriously considered as a candidate for the U.S. Presidency…
Finally, here’s an article from 1890, discussing the merits of erecting a monument for Governor John W. Grimes in his hometown of Burlington…
Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.
Why Republicans mapped slavery in the 1856 election, Mapping The Nation, August 22, 2012
The Birth Pains of the Republican Party, IAGenWeb/Washington County
1856 United States presidential election, Wikipedia
The Election of James W. Grimes In 1858, Chapter V, Dan Elbert Clark, History of Senatorial Elections In Iowa, 1912, pp 104-119
Iowa Republicans Organized in 1856, E.H. English, Annals of Iowa, Volume 32, Issue 1, Summer 1953, pp 43-46
Governor James Wilson Grimes, Iowa, National Governors Association
1854-1858, James Grimes-Governor, The Iowa Heritage Digital Collections
Representative James Wilson Grimes, Iowa Legislature
Elizabeth Sarah Neally Grimes, Find-A-Grave
Death of Senator Grimes, Muscatine Weekly Journal, February 16, 1872, p 1
James Wilson Grimes – monument, The Davenport Democrat, June 8, 1890, p 2
James Wilson Grimes, Find-A-Grave
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