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Crawfordsville insists on GOP bragging rights

But Ripon, Wis., also says it is birthplace of Republican Party

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Crawfordsville, Iowa (More)
Posted March 14, 1999

By Dave Gosch
Gazette staff writer

This story is part of a yearlong series that looks at the impact that Iowans and Iowa institutions made on the world during the 20th century.

Washington County historian Mike Zahs says there is no room for debate over whether the Republican Party was born in Crawfordsville or in Ripon, Wis.

"I see no controversy at all. Ripon was second," he says.

Not so fast, say folks in Ripon: We were first and we have the papers to prove it.

The dispute centers around meetings in the mid-1800s during which politically minded people organized a new party, which would become the Republican Party.

Crawfordsville lays claim to being the cradle of the GOP because of a Feb. 23, 1854, meeting of abolitionists held there.

According to newspaper accounts of early this century, men debated the platform and nominated candidates for what would become the GOP. The meeting was held in the Seceder Church, which no longer stands.

Sarah Crawford took notes from the meeting. Unfortunately, those documents were burned years later.

"Someone thought they were doing a service and cleaned out a house and burned all that 'junk,' " says Zahs.

But Zahs has no doubt that the documentation once existed.

"What I say is, say it started here and have someone prove it otherwise," he says.

Ironically, one of Ripon's biggest boosters is originally from Crawfordsville. Carolyn Seawell, executive director of the Ripon Area Chamber of Commerce, says she runs into opposition when she visits her hometown.

"It goes over just fine with most people, but not all."

Ripon backs up its claim with documentation that a similar meeting was held Feb. 28, 1854.

The Ripon schoolhouse where the meeting took place has been made into a museum and is on the National Register of Historic Places.

The Republican National Committee mentions Ripon in its history of the party. No mention is made of Crawfordsville.

"We've been recognized by the Republican Convention. It's in the Encyclopedia Brittanica," says Seawell.

Ripon actively promotes its claim as the GOP birthplace. It's mentioned on Chamber of Commerce letterhead and on the uniforms of the town's police officers.

"There's a lot of pride in it," says Seawell.

Crawfordsville promotes its pride through a billboard at the entrance to the town. Other than that, the town hasn't gone to the lengths Ripon has in staking its claim.

"We still think we're the one, but like I say, we're kind of dead down here. We don't pursue it all that much," says Crawfordsville resident Helen Lease.

Lease, a longtime member of the election board, says politics have changed in Crawfordsville over the years.

"At one time, you could count on it that everyone would vote Republican, but those times have changed. It's still predominantly Republican, but these younger people, they don't want to declare a party like some of us did," she says.

Zahs says Crawfordsville was an intensely political and intellectual town in the 1850s.

"It was a place where there was just more than the normal amount of discussion about things. A lot of people who settled there were a little more educated," he says.

Other towns also have been cited as being pivotal to the beginning of the GOP.

A meeting was held July 13, 1854, in Jackson, Mich., in which the GOP formally organized itself, according the Republican National Committee.

Former New Hampshire Gov. Hugh Gregg has insisted that the party started in Exeter, N.H., in October 1853.

"I don't know whether you can say that a political party had a birthplace," says Zahs. "Certainly there were meetings here and at other places. It seems to me that the meetings started here first."

Wherever it started, the Republican Party has left its mark on the country.

Bruce Nesmith, chairman of the Coe College political science department, says the party had a strong anti-slavery element when it was founded. The focus changed after the Civil War.

"They transformed themselves rather rapidly to the party of the middle and upper class," says Nesmith.

Those classes emerged out of the Industrial Revolution. Nesmith says the party became strongly linked to business owners and "the establishment, both economic and social. By the end of the 19th century, it had really emerged as the economically conservative party that we know today."

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