The Republican Party’s origin story reads a little like a super-hero comic book: uprisings born of moral indignation, secret meetings, larger-than-life historical figures, and legends handed down through generations.
There’s just one problem: No one can agree where the very first scene in this tale took place.
Several communities claim to be the birthplace of the Republican Party: New Hampshire politicians have long argued that Exeter is the site of an early and crucial organizing meeting. Historians in Ripon, Wisc., say something similar happened in their little town. And Jackson, Mich., is often cited as the place where the GOP officially began to take shape.
For Ripon and Jackson, the links to the early days of the party are points of civic pride, but Exeter’s claim has a more profound effect. The Seacoast town of 14,000 is a favorite place for Republican presidential candidates campaigning in the state’s first-in-the-nation primary, something that throws the town — and its historical bona fides — into the national spotlight every four years.
Already in the 2016 race, GOP candidates Ben Carson, Chris Christie, Lindsey Graham, and Marco Rubio have held town hall meetings in Exeter. Jeb Bush was there in September for a tax policy forum. Rand Paul held a question-and-answer session there in March. George Pataki announced his candidacy there in May. “We are here in Exeter, New Hampshire, birthplace of the Republican Party,” Pataki noted that day.
“It does make us a lightning rod,” said Barbara Rimkunas, the curator of the Exeter Historical Society and one of the local historians who often have to explain how a secret meeting that took place 162 years ago this month makes the town the real birthplace of the GOP.
“The town of Exeter maintains that the Republican Party was founded here. That’s our story, and we’re sticking with it,” she said.
The broad outlines of the party’s early days are not in dispute. During the first half of the 1850s, many politicians and activists grew frustrated that slavery might be allowed in the western territories and began organizing a new political party to stop that expansion. They met, sometimes secretly, in small towns scattered across the North and, at some point, decided to call themselves “Republicans.”
It makes sense that a number of communities identify with the early stages of this movement, says Lewis Gould, professor emeritus in American history at the University Texas at Austin and author of “Grand Old Party: A History of the Republicans.”
“They got angry in Michigan, they got angry in New Hampshire, they got angry in Wisconsin. They wanted to do something,” he said. “I’m not here to adjudicate these disputes. Let me tell you about something easy — like Tom Brady.”
Jackson’s claim is fairly clear: On July 6, 1854, Jackson, Mich., hosted the first statewide convention held under the Republican Party’s name. It was a large public gathering that took place outside. Some of the participants took notes and kept other records of the proceedings. That was not the case in Ripon or Exeter.
Both Ripon and Exeter claim to be the site of small, informal meetings at which participants decided that, yes, they should form a new political party and, yes, it should be called “Republican.”
“If you’re going to hold a meeting that’s going to have important decisions made like that, you should keep minutes,” said Rimkunas. “But they didn’t.”
In Exeter, the meeting is said to have taken place on Oct. 12, 1853, when US Representative Amos Tuck invited a dozen people to gather at the Squamscott Hotel. Tuck had fallen out of favor with the Democrats for his opposition to slavery and wanted to form a new party that, as the story goes, Tuck suggested should be called “Republican.”
Many of the participants were planning to run for office under their current political parties, so they kept their involvement secret. Written accounts of the meeting didn’t surface until years later, and Tuck himself never took credit for his role.
Ripon’s story also focuses on a meeting thin on documentation. There, activists met in early 1854 in what’s known as The Little White Schoolhouse. The participants didn’t take minutes or attendance, said William Woolley, past president of the Ripon Historical Society, so everything the town knows about the gathering comes from interviews that took place later. A further complication: The local newspaper was run by Democrats at the time who ignored the whole thing.
“We’re not sure how many were there. Legend said 54, but the schoolhouse will hold nowhere near that number,” said Woolley. “We’ve done all the research we can. There’s almost no written evidence.”
Twenty years ago, former New Hampshire governor Hugh Gregg coauthored a book that built Exeter’s case, but its 89 pages cite few primary sources about the meeting. It is clear, however, that Tuck wanted to form a coalition of smaller parties to oppose the Democrats.
Political leaders in Ripon, says Woolley, were of a similar mind.
“It’s such a great story,” said Woolley. “A little town in the boondocks, the citizens rising up in moral anger, claiming they’re going to change the nation — and doing it. What little town wouldn’t want that story?”
Ripon and Exeter have coexisted for decades in the political history books, but Exeter’s relationship to the Republican Party may have just gotten more complex. A volunteer researcher at the historical society recently discovered a letter Tuck wrote to his son on Oct. 10, 1853. It is, Rimkunas says, “just a chatty little letter” — but it was written from Chicago, and it would have been impossible for Tuck to travel back to Exeter in time for the famed meeting.
Rimkunas stresses that the letter could be less significant than it seems — how often have you put the wrong date on a check? — but it’s still giving her lots to think about.