“Gustave Koerner and the Republican Party”
Reprinted with permission of the author. Appeared in Journal of St. Clair County History 32, 2003,
published by the St. Clair County Historical Society
The six years following the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act witnessed the birth and maturation of the Republican Party. Throughout the northern states there emerged a coalition of Whigs, Democrats, Free-Soilers, and Know-Nothings unified only in their opposition to the extension of slavery into the territories. Republican success required that long-standing, bitter differences over economic and cultural issues be set aside. Nowhere was this truer than in the critical state of Illinois, and no person in Illinois did more to rectify the differences than Gustave Koerner.
Koerner spent many days in the state capitol in Springfield. He was elected to the state legislature in 1842, was appointed Supreme Court justice in 1843, and was elected Lieutenant Governor in 1852. (Photo courtesy Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library)
Koerner, a Democratic stalwart and political leader of the immigrant Germans in St. Clair County, had been elected Lieutenant Governor of Illinois in 1852 by a large majority. His star was rising, and it was rumored that he would receive the Democratic nomination for U. S. Senator or Governor in 1856. Halfway through his term, in 1854, Koerner had to opt between his future in the Democratic Party and his opposition to the Kansas-Nebraska Act. This legislation stated that slavery could exist in any state created in the territories of Louisiana, if the voters so decided. The Act, in reality, repealed the Missouri Compromise, which had allowed Missouri to enter the Union as a slave state, but all new states in the northern territories would be free.
Koerner chose to become an Anti-Nebraska Democrat, officially still within party ranks but in disagreement with party policy. In this new mold, Koerner attacked the author of the Act, Stephen A. Douglas. Koerner aroused his power base, the German-Americans, against Douglas. Mass protest meetings were held and a petition was presented by Koerner to the Illinois Legislature urging repudiation of the Act. Koerner’s attack on Douglas was so effective that usually strong Democratic and pro-Douglas papers, including the Belleville Advocate, denounced the Senator for supporting the repeal of the Missouri Compromise.(1)
Douglas struck back to regain ground lost to the Anti-Nebraska Democrats. He traversed the State and with the support of Governor Joel Matteson, removed anti-Douglas men from office, and replaced them with friends.(2) Douglas could then count on support from the middle and southern parts of Illinois. In southern Illinois, only St. Clair County, Koerner’s stronghold, remained anti-Douglas. This agitation between Koerner and Douglas was a prelude to the stormy election of 1856.
The political situation in 1856, shortly before the major party conventions, in Koerner’s words, was “very peculiar.” The Whig Party in the South had never been very strong. On dissolution of their party, Southern Whigs, owing to the slavery question, joined the Democrats. The border state Whigs joined the Native American Party. In the North, a number of Whigs and Democrats formed the Republican Party based on the sole issue of no extension of slavery into the territories. Another group of northern Democrats, opposed to the repeal of the Missouri Compromise and in favor of free soil in the territories, hesitated to join the Republicans because on all other issues they were still Democrats. Koerner was a member of this last group.(3)
The rationale given by Koerner and other Anti-Nebraska Democrats for not bolting the Party was that the National Democratic Committee had not yet come out in favor of the principles found in the Kansas-Nebraska Act. The Democratic Convention was held in early June in Cincinnati, and the results pushed Koerner into the Republican camp. The convention nominated James Buchanan for President, John Breckenridge for Vice-President, denounced the Native American Party, supported the political rights of foreign-born citizens and Catholics, and strongly endorsed the principle of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Koerner could support all aspects of his party’s nominations and platform except for the last plank.(4)
After the convention, Koerner issued a letter, which was later published throughout Illinois. The letter stated that Koerner held in “utter abhorrence” the decisions of the State and National Conventions to uphold the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Koerner reported that he could not have deserted the party, which had honored him with high public position until the National Party had arrived at a decision concerning the extension of slavery.
After proclaiming his emancipation from the Democratic Party, Koerner stated that he would willingly join a new party that held the same convictions as him, but he would not join a “mere temporary opposition party.” Koerner felt that such a party would lose its effectiveness as soon as it attained office. Koerner declared: “A new party should meet all the important issues clearly and distinctly, without mental reservations.” Koerner announced through this letter the criteria a new party would need if he were to join it. The party would have to denounce the Kansas-Nebraska Act and further guarantee that slavery would never be extended onto free soil. The new party would have to affirm the Constitutional rights of the southern states. And, of course, any new party would have to protect the rights of all citizens, without distinction of birth or religion.
The letter was soon adopted as the program by which most Anti-Nebraska Democrats would join the Republican Party. Anti-Nebraska leaders in Illinois, such as John Palmer of Carlinville, wrote Koerner expressing compliance with the program outlined in the letter.(6) Koerner, by this declaration, set himself in the forefront of the leadership in the new Republican Party in Illinois.
After issuing the letter, Koerner traveled East with his family. In his memoirs, Koerner leaves the impression that this trip was just a family vacation, and it was just coincidence that he spent a few days at the residence of John C. Fremont. This was shortly before the “Pathfinder” received the Republican Party’s nomination for the Presidency. It was also coincidence that Koerner was in Philadelphia during the Republican Convention. It was coincidence that on the day of Fremont’s nomination, Koerner was on the floor of the convention even though he was not a delegate or officially a Republican. And, it was by coincidence that the man who put Fremont’s name in nomination was Koerner’s good friend, Phillip Dorscheimer, who led the German immigrant delegates.(7)
Northern Democrats controlled the first Republican National Convention even though large groups of Whigs, Abolitionists, and Nativists were at the Convention. The platform adopted at the Convention was almost a replica of Koerner’s manifesto. The platform endorsed the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the rights of the States, but also affirmed that Congress had absolute power to govern the territories and that part of this power was to prohibit the extension of slavery. The party platform concluded with the statement: “Believing that the spirit of our institutions as well as the Constitution of our country guarantee liberty of conscience and equality of rights amongst citizens, we oppose all proscriptive legislation affecting their security.”(8)
The campaign of 1856 saw Koerner in the thick of the fight for the Republican Party. Koerner, in retrospect, described the 1856 campaign in Illinois as:
. . . a contest hitherto unparalleled in bitterness and violence. The young, fresh party, under an attractive leader entered the battle with an enthusiasm only surpassed by the conflict of 1860. The Northern Pro-Slavery Democrats fought under idol, Douglas, the “Little Giant” whose political destiny was at stake; and the southerners were fighting a mortal combat for their domestic institutions, upon which they believed their political and earthly fortune were dependent.(9)
The campaign became further intensified by the presence of many third parties and the switching of political allegiances by individuals. An example was the Native American or Know-Nothing Party. The Native American Party, as its name implies, stood for the disenfranchisement of foreign-born Americans, and it became a power to consider with the failing of the Whig Party. The Native American Party held a convention for the 1856 election and nominated former President Millard Fillmore as its candidate. The party platform confirmed Douglas’ Popular Sovereignty Doctrine. This Doctrine would nullify the Missouri Compromise by allowing settlers in a territory to determine their own domestic institutions withoug the interference of the federal government. The northern contingent of the Native Americans left the party and, on the whole, joined the Republican Party because of this plank. This shifting of parties caused many voters of foreign birth to look askance at the Republican Party. Koerner took it upon himself to attract these foreign-born citizens to his party and to establish policies within the party which would not discriminate against his constituency.
Koerner took to the stump and campaigned in Iowa, Wisconsin, Indiana, Missouri, and throughout Illinois, including every town and precinct of St. Clair County. While speaking in Democratic strongholds, he was threatened with mob violence and in one instance, had a gun aimed at him while at the speaker’s podium. Koerner’s speeches usually were issue oriented, but on occasion, he could become as folksy as Abraham Lincoln. On one instance, in rural St. Clair County, while talking to German farmers, he lauded the virtues of drinking good lager beer and singing and dancing on the Sabbath. This didn’t change any body’s mind about the extension of slavery, but the precinct voted Republican.(10)
Very late in the campaign, Koerner was prevailed upon to run for State Senator; a position, because of Democratic control of Monroe County, no Republican had a chance of winning. It was while running for this office that Koerner was smeared with the accusation of buying a slave. (In 1853, The Logan Black Laws had been passed in Illinois. These laws stated that any Black who entered the State and remained for ten days could be tried and fined fifty dollars. Such an event took place in Waterloo, Illinois. To pay the fine, the County was going to sell the services of the individual at auction. Koerner heard about this event and paid the man’s fine before the auction and had the man set free.) The combination of the smear and Know-Nothing strength in Monroe County contributed to Koerner’s loss.
The results of the 1856 election mirrored the upheaval of the times and the campaign. Buchanan succeeded to the Presidency, receiving one hundred and seventy-two electoral votes to Fremont’s one hundred and fourteen. Pennsylvania and Indiana were carried by Buchanan with very small majorities. Had they gone Republican, Fremont might have been elected. Buchanan gained the Presidency by a plurality. Fillmore and Fremont had a majority of almost four hundred thousand votes over Buchanan.
In Illinois, Buchanan beat Fremont by nine thousand votes. The Governorship went to Republican William Bissel by five thousand votes over the Democratic candidate. In local elections, the Republicans and Democrats broke even.(11)
Even though Koerner lost his own bid for office, he was pleased with the election results. The Republican Party had established itself as a major political force. It was not a mere opposition party but one that rested its case to the public on more than one issue. The new party had a broad power base, and because of men like Koerner, it had not excluded individuals because of nationality, birth, or religion. Koerner worked to consolidate his position as a leader in the Republican Party during 1857 and 1858. He accomplished this by leading the attack on Douglas concerning the Senator’s position on Kansas.
Previously, Douglas by upholding the Dred Scott decision and under his concept of Popular Sovereignty, had justified his pro-slavery stand in Kansas. Now, Douglas in contradiction to his past course, denounced the new Kansas Constitution and lobbied against Kansas becoming a state, putting him firmly with the Republicans on this issue.(12) Koerner felt that this was a political move by Douglas to receive Republican support for his bid to the Senate in 1858.
If Douglas was to receive any consideration as a presidential candidate in 1860, he had to retain his Senate seat. The results of the 1856 election showed that Illinois was not a sure Democratic state, so Douglas decided to extend his power base in the State. Koerner pointed out that Douglas might change his stripes for this election, but that he would be making concessions to the South before the next Presidential nomination.(13) Koerner’s view was adopted as the party line by a majority of Republicans. Douglas’ effort did not gain him Republican support, but it did cost him support in the regular Democratic Party.
Koerner was elected Chairman of the Illinois Republican Convention in 1858. Under his direction, the Convention condemned the Dred Scott decision, maintained the right of Congress to prohibit slavery in the territories, and nominated Abraham Lincoln as the Republican choice for the Senate.(14)
Douglas, by his political maneuvering, had alienated the regular Democratic Party under Buchanan’s leadership. When the Buchanan Democrats held their state convention, they chastised Douglas and did not come out in support of him in the Senate race. Douglas Democrats held their own convention and tried to reconcile their candidate with the regular Democratic Party. Thus, the stage was set for the Lincoln–Douglas debates.
Koerner traversed the state to obtain a majority for Lincoln among Illinois legislators, for those elected officials determined the U.S. Senate delegation, rather than selection by means of a popular vote. Koerner called Douglas’ campaign a “royal road show” with large sums being spent by the candidate. Douglas is said to have spent fifty thousand dollars of his own money. Lincoln stated: “He [Lincoln] was afraid that he spent less than five thousand dollars.”(15)
Lincoln lost the election, but Koerner did not feel it was because of campaign styles or expenses. In his published memoirs, Koerner complains bitterly of the way in which the State had been districted by the Democratic Legislature. He stated: “that by gerrymandering of the state, seven hundred Democratic votes were equal to one thousand Republican votes.”(16) The split in the Democratic Party in Illinois was not a deciding factor since the Buchanan Democrats received very few votes.
Two instances in 1859 occurred which pointed up the divisive elements in the Republican Party: the Know-Nothing Massachusetts Amendment and abolitionist support of the John Brown raid. It was fortunate for the Republican Party that these two events occurred in an off year, since they could have lost the party the 1860 election.
The trouble in Massachusetts revolved around an amendment to the state constitution providing that naturalized citizens would not be allowed to vote or hold office until two years after the date of their naturalization. The legislature was controlled by Republicans, but they were largely ex-Know-Nothings. Of course, the Democratic Party charged the entire national Republican Party with being against foreign-born citizens. German immigrants became particularly excited over the Massachusetts Amendment. A large number of the German press advised their readers to vote Democratic in the next election and others called for the German leadership, particularly Gustave Koerner and fellow German–American Carl Schurz, to quit the Republican Party and form a new party based on “humanity and social reform.”(17)
Koerner felt that this episode of Know-Nothing influence could be countered within the Republican Party, and he and other German leaders worked toward that end. The results of this in-party politicking were that every Northern Republican Convention strongly came out against the Massachusetts Amendment.(18)
The second issue, which shook the Republican Party, was the support a faction of the Party gave to John Brown during the abolitionist’s trial.(19) The Democrats used this as proof that the entire Republican Party stood for insurrection and slave revolt. This attitude, created by the Democrats, did little to alleviate Southern fears should a Republican win the Presidency. The Republican press and party leaders, including Koerner, countered by condemning Brown’s act.
These two issues tended to move the Republican Party closer to those doctrines espoused by the old Anti-Nebraska Democrats. The radical fringes of the Party were either brought into line or drummed out of the Party. The Party entered their national convention in agreement on most policy issues even if they did not agree on their next presidential candidate.
There were a number of candidates who could win at the convention in 1860. Koerner listed the main contenders as William H. Seward, considered the front runner, and Salmon Chase, Simon Cameron, Edward Bates, and Lincoln.(20) Since Lincoln was considered the weakest of the candidates, it was decided by the Illinois Central Committee, of which Koerner was a member, to keep him in the background. The theory was that the other contenders would become so embroiled fighting one another that Lincoln could be brought forward as a compromise candidate.
Koerner was present at Abraham Lincoln’s home when Lincoln was informed of his nomination by a delegation returning from the 1860 Republican Convention. The drawing depicts Lincoln after the election receiving congratulations from visitors in the Governor’s Room of the Illinois statehouse, now the Old State Capitol State Historic Site. (Photo courtesy Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library).The 1860 Chicago Convention showed Koerner in a new light: the master politician. He had helped to arrange for the National Convention to be held in Illinois. He felt “that had the Convention been held any other place, Lincoln would not have been nominated.” (21) He arranged for the convention center, the Wigwam, to be packed everyday with men favorable to Lincoln. Koerner maneuvered to get be placed on the committee that wrote the platform for the Convention. While serving on this committee, he insisted and obtained a plank condemning the Massachusetts Amendment and guaranteeing the rights of foreign born citizens.
Koerner was one of the few Germans who favored Lincoln at the Convention. Schurz was for Seward, as were most Germans. Bates was also popular with the foreign born, even though he had been a Know-Nothing. It is a measure of Koerner’s political activity that he was able to change his countrymen’s mind to support Lincoln. Bates attributed Koerner’s lobbying with the Pennsylvania and Indiana Germans for his loss of those two states at the Convention.(22) Koerner also labored to bring those Germans who had favored Seward into complete support for Lincoln after the nomination. Koerner should have felt satisfied as he rode the train from Chicago to Springfield to inform Lincoln of his nomination. Many policies he supported had been adopted at the Convention. The candidate, for whom Koerner had expressed early support, had received the nomination for the Presidency. Koerner’s old opponent, Douglas, was not faring so well.
Douglas could not muster enough votes to be nominated at the Democratic Convention at Charleston, but neither could any other candidate. The Deep South walked out of the Convention over policy matters. The Democrats decided to meet again in Baltimore. The South refused to attend and Douglas was nominated by the Northern Democrats. The Southern Democrats now broke entirely with the Northern wing and nominated their own candidate, John C. Breckenridge of Kentucky.(23) This split in Democratic ranks almost insured Lincoln’s election to the Presidency.
As usual, Koerner took to the stump, wrote articles, and organized societies to aid in Lincoln’s election. The results were that Illinois and the country went Republican. Lincoln defeated Douglas, but won the national election by a plurality. After the election, Koerner went to Springfield at the request of Lincoln and the new Governor, Richard Yates; both of the men requesting his advice. While in Springfield, Koerner was asked his views concerning certain of Lincoln’s political appointments. Lincoln did not always take Koerner’s council, as when Koerner appealed to Lincoln to not appoint Cameron to his Cabinet.(24)
Koerner’s advice was also sought when the southern states began to secede from the Union. Lincoln was under tremendous pressure to make a conciliatory move toward the South. Koerner advised: “If we could not live together in peace as one nation, we certainly could not live together in peace as two nations. . . even civil war is preferable to the destruction of our Union.” Koerner on another occasion impressed upon Lincoln the lesson that Switzerland had learned when seven of its cantons seceded. The Swiss had raised a huge army immediately and intimidated the rebellious provinces back into union.(25) Whether Lincoln took Koerner’s advice is not known.
After the surrender of Fort Sumter, Koerner set to work recruiting the 43rd Illinois Regiment, made up largely of Germans. Before this regiment was fully organized, Koerner received from Lincoln an appointment as a Colonel of Volunteers and was assigned duty on the staff of General Fremont. He was later transferred to Halleck’s staff. A severe ailment affecting his eyesight terminated Koerner’s military career in March, 1862.(26)
In June, 1862, Koerner was appointed United States Minister to Spain. Koerner’s main achievements at this post were to help maintain the strict neutrality of Spain during the progress of the War and to calm Spain’s fears about any United States movement toward Cuba. He remained at his post in Spain for three years. After his assignment in Spain, Koerner went into semi-retirement. He still controlled the German vote but did not campaign as actively for candidates and did not accept nominations for office.
Gustave Koerner was called out of retirement in 1871 by the Governor of Illinois to sit on the newly created Board of Railroad and Warehouse Commissioners. He eventually became Chairman of the Board and led the fight against the railroad monopoly in Illinois. While on the Board, Koerner became dissatisfied and disgusted with the abuses and corruption of the Republican Party. He stated:
The questions that compelled my severance from the Democratic Party had been settled by the war, and the principles which brought the Republican Party into power and sustained the organization through that trying ordeal, had also been settled by the arbitration of the sword. Its plea for further continuance in power is based upon its record of the past. Its promise of the future is self-reformation.(27)
Koerner, who had worked so hard and for so long to make the Republican Party an organization of principle and a refuge for the immigrant, broke Party ranks and became a Liberal Republican. Koerner accepted the Liberal Republican nomination for Governor in 1872. He did surprisingly well considering the strength of the Democratic Party in Illinois. Within the state, he tallied 16,000 more votes than the Liberal Republican nominee for President.(28)
With the loss, Koerner retired completely from politics. His age, strength, and medical condition would not allow him to fight for another party. He was unable to mold and strengthen the Liberal Republicans as he had done with the Republican Party. In retrospect, Gustave Koerner shines as a man of courage, integrity, and principle. Koerner and the Republican Party in Illinois is the story of a man and a political organization brought together because of these traits, yet who separated for the same reasons.
1. Robert W. Johannsen, Stephen A. Douglas, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973), 452; Mark M. Krug, Lyman Trumbull, (New York: A. S. Barnes and Company, Inc., 1965), 27; and Belleville [Illinois] Daily Advocate, March 8–22, 1854.
2. Thomas J. McCormack, ed., Memoirs of Gustav Koerner, (1809–1896): Life Sketches Written at the Suggestion of His Children, 2 vols., (Cedar Rapids, Ia.: The Torch Press, 1909), [Autobiography] 1.
3. Andrew W. Crandall, Early History of the Republican Party. 1854–1856, (Gloucester, Mass: Peter Smith Press, 1960), 9–16.
4. Koerner, Memoirs, II: 5-10.
5. Koerner, Memoirs, II: 4, 5.
6. Koerner, Memoirs, II: 4, 5.
7. Crandall, Early History of the Republican Party. 1854–1856, 166.
8. Koerner, Memoirs, II: 15.
9. Koerner, Memoirs, II: 18, 19.
10. Koerner, Memoirs, II: 21–27.
11. Koerner, Memoirs, II: 35.
12. Johannsen, Stephen A. Douglas, 639.
13. Koerner, Memoirs, 56.
14. Jay Monaghan, The Man Who Elected Lincoln, (New York: Babbs Merrill Co., 1956), 90.
15. Koerner, Memoirs, II: 65.
16. Koerner, Memoirs, II: 68.
17. Crandall, Early History of the Republican Party. 1854–1856, 32; and Koerner, Memoirs, II: 75.
18. Koerner, Memoirs, II: 76.
19. Koerner, Memoirs, II: 7.
20. Koerner, Memoirs, II: 79.
21. Koerner, Memoirs, II: 80.
22. Koerner, Memoirs, II: 85.
23. Edward Bates, Howard K. Beale, editor, The Diary of Edward Bates, (New York: Da Capo Press, 1971), 131.
24. George F. Milton, The Eve of Conflict, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1934), 487.
25. Koerner, Memoirs, II: 114; and 108.
26. Koerner, Memoirs, II: 108.
27. Brink, McDonough and Company, History of St. Clair County. Illinois: 1686–1881, (Philadelphia: Brink, McDonough & Co., 1881), 203.
28. Brink, History of St. Clair County. Illinois: 1686–1881, 203; and Krug, Lyman Trumbull, 336.
* See “Senate Campaign of 1858” on the Mr. Lincoln and Friends Web site, The Lincoln Institute online, under grant from the Lehrmann Institute; which takes the quote from Don E. Fehrenbacher’s Prelude to Greatness: Lincoln in the 1850s, p. 63.