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The Republican Party of Virginia in the Nineteenth Century

The Republican Party of Virginia was founded in 1856 and by the end of the century had become, with the Democratic Party, one of the state's two main political parties. Most of its earliest members lived in western Virginia. While not necessarily opposing slavery itself, these Republicans opposed both its expansion into the western territories and the political and economic advantages it bestowed on Piedmont and Tidewater Virginians. They also opposed secession in 1861. After the American Civil War (1861–1865), most of antebellum Virginia's Republicans lived in West Virginia. The few who were left had been Unionists but were now divided on questions such as African American civil rights and whether to allow former Confederates back into government. Newly enfranchised African Americans also flocked to the party. In 1869, a coalition of Conservative Party members and moderate Republicans—in opposition to radical Republicans—won all statewide offices. In 1881, 300 African American Republicans met in Petersburg and voted to endorse the Readjuster Party, formed in support of lowering, or "readjusting," the state debt in order to protect services such as free public schools. This alliance gave Readjusters control of the General Assembly, the governorship, and a seat in the U.S. Senate. In an environment of racial tensions, and just days after the Danville Riot of 1883, the Democratic Party (formerly the Conservatives) swept to power. No Republican won statewide office again until 1969. MORE...


Elections of 1856 and 1860

The Republican Party of Virginia was founded at a convention in Wheeling on September 18, 1856. Most of the founding members resided in the northern panhandle of Virginia or near the Ohio River. They adopted resolutions endorsing the Republican presidential ticket of John C. Frémont and William L. Dayton as well as the party's platform, which opposed the expansion of slavery into the western territories. The convention nominated a full slate of candidates for presidential elector in Virginia, but in the November general election, the Republicans received fewer than 300 votes, a mere 0.2 percent of the state total. All the votes were cast in the four counties of the northern panhandle except for a few in the counties of Upshur, on the western slope of the Allegheny Mountains, and Shenandoah, in the Shenandoah Valley.

Unable to attract many of Virginia's former Whigs into the new party, the Republicans did not nominate candidates for statewide office in 1859. They held a state convention in Wheeling in May 1860 and sent a delegation to the Republican National Convention that nominated Abraham Lincoln for president instead of William H. Seward, whom most of the Virginia delegates initially supported. At its state convention, the party adopted resolutions opposing the introduction of slavery into the western territories, endorsing passage of a homestead act and a protective tariff, and denouncing the influence that "slave capitalists" in eastern Virginia wielded in the General Assembly that allowed owners of large numbers of slaves to pay a lower tax rate on their slave property than everybody else had to pay on other kinds of taxable property. The resolutions also affirmed the party's support for slavery in Virginia and other states that enacted laws to allow slavery.

In the November 1860 presidential election, Lincoln received 1,929 votes in Virginia, about 1.15 percent of the votes. As in 1856, most of the Republican voters resided in the Ohio Valley counties of Virginia, but several men voted for the Republicans in the Shenandoah Valley and in the upper regions of the Potomac Valley, and 4 men voted for Lincoln in the southeastern city of Portsmouth and 55 in Prince William County, south of Washington, D.C.

During the winter and spring of 1860–1861, most or all Virginia Republicans opposed secession. Beginning in May 1861, they joined other western opponents of secession in restoring part of Virginia to the Union. In June, at one of a series of conventions in Wheeling, the delegates declared that the state's governor had vacated his office, and they elected a Unionist Republican, Francis H. Pierpont, as governor of what came to be called the Restored government of Virginia. Later in 1861, another Wheeling convention called a convention to write a constitution for what in 1863 became the state of West Virginia. Republicans also led the campaign for the establishment of the new state. Pierpont moved the Restored government's capital to Alexandria in the summer of 1863, where with eastern Unionists, some of whom became Republicans after unsuccessfully opposing secession, the loyal government functioned until the end of the war.

The Election of 1869 and a New Constitution

Most of the original Virginia Republicans were West Virginians when the Civil War ended. The small minority of Republicans in Virginia reorganized the party in 1865 around a nucleus of Unionists like Pierpont and the former Whig congressman John Minor Botts. Virginia Republicans were divided during the remainder of the 1860s on some fundamentally important public policy issues. Some of them supported granting the vote to African Americans in hopes of creating a biracial party that could successfully compete for office on election days, while others vigorously opposed suffrage for freed people. Moreover, Pierpont and some Republicans advocated allowing former Confederates and secessionists back into politics as a measure of reconciliation, but many other Republicans feared that allowing them back into politics too soon or at all would not only doom the Republican Party to permanent minority status but also reward and empower the men who had been responsible for the disasters of the 1860s. Republicans were also divided about whether or how much reform of the political culture was necessary after the abolition of slavery and whether to support or oppose radical Republicans in Congress who wished to reconstruct the states of the former Confederacy on a more democratic, northern model.

In the spring of 1867, Congress passed "An Act to provide for the more efficient government of the rebel states," sometimes referred to as the First Reconstruction Act. It required Virginia and most of the other southern states to hold conventions and write new state constitutions, and it also specified that African American men be allowed to vote and run for seats in the conventions. About two dozen African Americans won election to the convention, and they and native Virginia Unionists and Republicans who settled in Virginia or remained in Virginia after the end of the war constituted a majority in the convention. Radical Republican federal judge John C. Underwood was its president, and the convention and the constitution that it wrote were often referred to by his name.

The convention reformed the structures and operation of local governments on a more democratic model with more locally elected officials, created a statewide system of free public schools, guaranteed the vote to African American men, and barred former Confederates from holding office. The state's voters, again including African American men, ratified the constitution in July 1869 under a negotiated plan that allowed the voters to reject the disfranchisement of former Confederates but retain suffrage for African Americans. Soon after the constitutional convention began its work late in 1867, opponents of radical change, including Democrats and former Whigs, founded the Conservative Party of Virginia to unite opponents of the radical Republicans in Congress and the radical proposals then being debated in the convention.

In the statewide election in 1869, the Republican Party adopted a radical platform and nominated a radical slate of candidates. For governor, the party's convention selected Henry H. Wells, who was already governor under a military appointment; for lieutenant governor Joseph D. Harris, an African American physician; and for attorney general the incumbent Unionist Republican, Thomas R. Bowden. Moderate Republicans, convinced that the radical ticket containing an African American would lose, nominated a moderate ticket with Gilbert C. Walker for governor and Unionist Republicans for lieutenant governor and attorney general. The Conservative Party nominated nobody but gave its support to the moderate Walker ticket to present a united opposition to the radical Republicans. The Conservatives won control of the General Assembly, and the Conservative-Republican coalition won all the statewide offices. Wells's radical ticket received 45.9 percent of the vote.

Throughout the 1870s, most African Americans in Virginia supported the Republicans and opposed the Conservatives, although black men disagreed with one another on some of the same issues on which white Republicans had disagreed at the end of the Civil War. One thing on which African Americans did not disagree, though, was support for the new public school system. Within a few years it became obvious that many of the state's white families appreciated and supported the schools as strongly as the black families.

Together, black and white Republicans remained a minority of the state's voters, but in the southeastern region of the state, where African Americans were in the majority in many counties, they elected black men to the General Assembly, as did some electoral districts outside that region. In each of the general elections of 1871, 1873, and 1875, Republicans won between 20 and 25 percent of the seats in the two houses of the General Assembly. African American voters were very important in those elections. In 1869, thirty black men won election to the assembly, and eighteen to twenty won in each of the elections in 1871, 1873, and 1875. Republicans elected three of the state's eight congressmen in 1869 and 1871 and five of its nine congressmen in 1873. In 1872 the Republican candidate for president, Ulysses S. Grant, carried Virginia with about 50.5 percent of the vote. In 1873, however, the Republican candidate for governor, Robert W. Hughes, a former Democrat and secessionist, received only 43.8 percent of the vote.

Conservatives succeeded in amending the state constitution in 1876 to require payment of a poll tax as a prerequisite for voting and to disfranchise men convicted of petty crimes. That suppressed the number of black voters and reduced the number of African Americans and Republicans who won election to the General Assembly.

Debt Crisis and Alliance with the Readjusters

At the same time, questions arising from attempts to pay off the antebellum public debt disrupted the state's politics and divided both the Conservative Party and the Republican Party. Some Republicans and some Conservatives, referred to as Funders, insisted on paying the full interest and principal on the debt even if that meant reducing money for the schools. Other Conservatives and Republicans, referred to as Readjusters, proposed to reduce the cost of paying the debt and refinance it—readjust was the word they used—to reduce both the rate of interest and the amount of the principal to be paid in order to restore funding to the public schools. The public debt controversy and its consequences for the public schools reshaped Virginia's politics. Because the devotion of African Americans to the public schools was strong, that drew many of them back into politics in spite of the burdensome poll tax, and it also drew away from the Conservatives many white voters who favored Readjustment.

Without proper leadership and divided about the debt issue, among other things, the Republican Party did not even nominate candidates for governor and the other statewide offices in 1877, allowing a Conservative Funder to win the governorship. The Readjuster movement led to a revival of the Republican Party in Virginia. When the Readjuster Party formally established itself in 1879, it welcomed African American voters, and two years later a large majority of a convention of Republicans, all of them African American, affiliated with the Readjuster Party prior to the important statewide election of 1881. The coalition of Readjusters and Republicans won substantial majorities in both houses of the General Assembly and elected a Readjuster governor, William E. Cameron. Of equal importance in that year, the Readjuster Party's founder and leader, former Confederate general William Mahone, who was also the creator of what became the Norfolk and Western Railroad, entered the U.S. Senate, where he joined the Republicans. That enabled him to cooperate with the Republican president and a slim majority of Republicans in the Senate to begin filling federal jobs in Virginia with black and white Republicans and Readjusters to create a strong new biracial political party.

In the 1881–1882 session of the General Assembly, the Readjuster-Republican coalition refinanced the public debt, reduced taxes on farmers, raised taxes on railroads and some other businesses, and increased appropriations for the public schools. The new Readjuster superintendent of public instruction replaced nearly all of the county and city school superintendents with men who gave better support to the teachers and schools for African Americans but also increased the number of schools and teachers for white students. The assembly also made many important changes to the state's colleges and universities and created the Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute (later Virginia State University), the South's first public college for educating African American teachers, and founded the state's first asylum for African Americans with mental illness. In short, the coalition of Readjusters and Republicans made reforms to state government almost as dramatic and important as the reforms imposed on the state during Congressional Reconstruction.

Statewide Eclipse

Many Readjuster leaders, such as Governor Cameron and Harrison H. Riddleberger, the party's legislative leader who joined William Mahone in the U.S. Senate in 1883, embraced a more egalitarian political ideology while appealing for the votes of white and black farmers and working men, but that led to a reaction that brought a quick end to the Readjuster Party and the brief period of reform. The revived state Democratic Party, devoted to white supremacy, charged that the alliance of Readjusters and Virginia Republicans with Republicans in Congress would bring black rule to Virginia, which attracted many white voters who had supported refinancing the debt but who did not approve of the other reforming measures that the coalition adopted. In 1883, the Democrats won majorities in both houses of the General Assembly and the following year began a campaign that required almost twenty years to reduce African American participation in politics and government to a virtual nullity and in the process destroy the chances of white Republicans to win elections in most parts of the state.

During the following decade, African Americans faced increased difficulties in voting and winning elections, which significantly reduced the number of Republicans who won seats in the General Assembly or in local offices throughout much of Virginia. Nevertheless, a core of white men remained Republicans, and even though the numbers of Republican officeholders in Virginia declined during the 1880s and 1890s, Republican presidential candidates usually won more than 40 percent of the vote and in 1888 almost carried the state. Republican candidates for governor and the other statewide offices did less well. When Mahone ran for governor on the Republican ticket in 1889, he received about 42.5 percent of the vote in spite of deep divisions within the party between men who ardently supported him and men who rebelled against his domineering style of leadership. Even some African Americans opposed Mahone then, perhaps in part because he opposed allowing ambitious black men to rise to leadership positions within the party.

No Republican won a statewide office between the Readjuster-Republican coalition victory in 1881 and 1969. Even in the southeastern portion of Virginia where the number and percentage of African Americans was greatest, Republicans only occasionally won congressional elections. In the most dramatic of them, in 1888, John M. Langston, the African American former superintendent of Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute, ran for the House of Representatives as a Republican against a Democrat and a white Republican whom Mahone supported. Langston successfully challenged the Democrat's narrow victory and claimed his seat mid-way through the term. Thereafter, Republicans rarely elected congressmen or legislators anywhere in Virginia east of the mountains, but in the mountains and valleys of the West, numerous white voters who had supported the Readjusters moved into the Republican Party and won some seats in the assembly and in Congress. They provided a significant portion of the Republican votes in presidential and statewide races during the 1880s and 1890s.

By 1901, the Democratic Party's campaign to drive African Americans out of public office had almost completely succeeded, and that further weakened Virginia Republicans' chances of winning elections. Republicans in Congress had abandoned their Reconstruction commitment to protecting the political rights of black southerners, and although Virginia's white Republicans received most of the votes of the state's remaining black voters, members of the party gradually resigned themselves to being a minority party, and it became increasingly a white man's party. The Constitution of 1902 completed the process of disfranchising African Americans and also disfranchised a substantial portion of the state's white voters, which reduced the Republican base even further. Only in the Shenandoah Valley and in the southwestern portion of the states—known as the Ninth District, or the Fighting Ninth—did the Republican Party remain vigorous and successful. Campbell Slemp (the Readjuster candidate for lieutenant governor in 1885) became a Republican, and he and his son, Campbell Bascom Slemp, served in the House of Representatives from the Ninth District from 1903 to 1923. From his reliable base of power in southwestern Virginia, Bascom Slemp was one of the most politically powerful southern Republicans early in the twentieth century.

Election Results

Republican Vote in Presidential Elections

Year Candidate Votes Percentage
1856 John C. Frémont 291 0.2
1860 Abraham Lincoln 1,929 1.15
1864 No election in Virginia -- --
1868 No election in Virginia -- --
1872 Ulysses S. Grant 93,463 50.5
1876 Rutherford B. Hayes 95,518 40.4
1880 James A. Garfield 83,634 39.3
1884 James G. Blaine 139,356 48.9
1888 Benjamin Harrison 150,399 49.5
1892 Benjamin Harrison 113,098 38.7
1896 William McKinley 135,379 45.9
1900 William McKinley 115,769 43.8

Republican Vote in Gubernatorial Elections

Year Candidate Votes Percentage
1869 Henry H. Wells 101,204 45.9
1873 Robert W. Hughes 93,413 43.8
1877 No candidate -- --
1881 William E. Cameron* 113,464 53.0
1885 John S. Wise* 136,508 47.2
1889 William Mahone 121,240 42.5
1893 Edmund R. Cocke** 79,653 37.1
1897 Patrick H. McCaull 56,739 33.2
1901 J. Hampton Hoge 81,366 40.6

Republican Membership in the General Assembly

Session House of Delegates Senate of Virginia
1869–1871 41 of 138 13 of 43
1871–1873 33 of 132 10 of 43
1873–1875 32 of 132 9 of 43
1875–1877 25 of 132 6 of 43
1877–1878 9* of 132 4 of 43
1879–1881 17 of 100 9 of 40
1881–1883 58**of 100 23** of 40
1883–1885 37** of 100 12** of 40
1885–1887 30 of 100 10 of 40
1887–1889 38 of 100 14 of 40
1889–1891 14 of 100 10 of 40
1891–1893 3 of 100 1 of 40
1893–1895 10 of 100 2 of 40
1895–1897 17 of 100 3 of 40
1897–1899 4 of 100 4 of 40
1901–1903 7 of 100 2 of 40

Republicans in Congress

Session House of Representatives Senate
41st Congress (1869–1871) 3 of 8 1 of 2
42nd Congress (1871–1873) 3 of 8 1 of 2
43nd Congress (1873–1875) 5 of 9 1 of 2
44th Congress (1875–1879) 1 of 9 0 of 2
45th Congress (1879–1881) 1 of 9 0 of 2
46th Congress (1875–1881) 1 of 9 0 of 2
47th Congress (1881–1883) 5 of 9* 1 of 2
48th Congress (1883–1885) 0 of 9* 1 of 2
49th Congress (1885–1887) 0 of 10* 1 of 2†
50th Congress (1887–1889) 6 of 10 1 of 2†
51st Congress (1889–1891) 4 of 10 0 of 2
52nd Congress (1891–1893) 0 of 10 0 of 2
53rd Congress (1893–1895) 0 of 10 0 of 2
54th Congress (1895–1897) 2 of 10 0 of 2
55th Congress (1897–1899) 4 of 10 0 of 2
56th Congress (1899–1901) 0 of 10 0 of 2
57th Congress (1901–1903) 0 of 10 0 of 2

* Readjuster-Republican coalition candidate.

** Peoples' (Populist) Party candidate with strong Republican support.

* plus 21 identified as Independent, probably Readjusters

** Republican-Readjuster coalition

* 3 Readjusters

** 2 Readjusters

† 1 Readjuster

Time Line

  • September 18, 1856 - The Republican Party of Virginia is founded at a convention in Wheeling. Delegates endorse the presidential ticket of John C. Frémont and William L. Dayton as well as the party's platform, which opposes the expansion of slavery into the western territories.
  • November 1856 - In the general election, Republican candidates for presidential elector in Virginia receive fewer than 300 votes, or 0.2 percent of the state total. All come from the western part of the state.
  • 1859 - Virginia's Republican Party nominates no candidates for statewide office.
  • May 1860 - Virginia Republicans meet in Wheeling and adopt resolutions opposing slavery in the western territories, endorsing a homestead act and a protective tariff, and denouncing eastern Virginia's "slave capitalists."
  • November 6, 1860 - Abraham Lincoln, a Republican from Illinois, is elected U.S. president. He wins 1 percent of the vote in Virginia. While John Bell of the Constitutional Union Party wins the state overall, the Southern Democrat John C. Breckinridge wins the trans-Allegheny counties of western Virginia.
  • May 13–15, 1861 - During the First Wheeling Convention, representing the still-Unionist western portion of Virginia, Francis Harrison Pierpont promotes the reorganization of state government.
  • June 20, 1861 - During the Second Wheeling Convention, Francis Harrison Pierpont is unanimously elected governor of the reorganized Virginia government still loyal to the Union.
  • 1865 - After the Civil War, the Republican Party of Virginia reorganizes around a nucleus of Unionists such as Francis Harrison Pierpont and the former Whig congressman John Minor Botts.
  • March 2, 1867 - The U.S. Congress passes "An Act to provide for the more efficient government of the rebel states," also known as the First Reconstruction Act.
  • December 11–12, 1867 - Convening in Richmond, a group of former Democrats, former Whigs, and moderate Republicans, led by Alexander H. H. Stuart, forms the Conservative Party.
  • May 1868 - James H. Clements is elected president of the Republican Party's state nominating convention. Henry Horatio Wells and James H. Clements are chosen as the Republican candidates for governor and lieutenant governor, respectively, but the statewide elections of 1868 are canceled.
  • 1869 - John C. Underwood, a Republican judge who dominated the year's constitutional convention in the absence of boycotting Democrats, helps to draft a constitution for Virginia that includes full suffrage for all males twenty-one years or older, including African Americans.
  • March 9, 1869 - A Republican Party convention nominates Henry Horatio Wells for governor, J. D. Harris, an African American, for lieutenant governor, and Thomas R. Bowden for attorney general.
  • November 1869 - The Conservative Party wins majorities in both houses of the General Assembly. It ran no candidates for statewide office, instead endorsing moderate Republicans.
  • 1872 - The Republican candidate for president, Ulysses S. Grant, carries Virginia with about 50.5 percent of the vote.
  • 1876 - Virginia's Conservative Party (which soon becomes the Democratic Party) succeeds in amending the state constitution, for the first time denying the right to vote to men who had not paid the state poll tax.
  • 1877 - The Republican Party fails to nominate candidates for statewide office, allowing the Conservative Party ticket to run and win unopposed.
  • February 25–26, 1879 - The Readjuster Party is founded at a convention in Richmond with the goal of "readjusting," or reducing the amount the principal of and the rate of interest on the state debt.
  • March 14, 1881 - Almost 300 African American Republicans convene in Petersburg and decide to endorse the Readjuster Party in the important 1881 general election.
  • November 1881 - Under William Mahone's guidance, William E. Cameron, of the Readjuster Party, is elected governor.
  • 1882 - The Readjusters (a coalition of disgruntled Democrats, Republicans, and African Americans committed to refinancing the state's public debt and preserving the new public school system) amend the Virginia state constitution to remove payment of the poll tax as a prerequisite to voting.
  • February 14, 1882 - The governor signs the Riddleberger Act, named after Harrison H. Riddleberger. It provides for fifty-year, 3-percent bonds on the debt, reduces the principal by about a third, and prohibits the payment of taxes with coupons.
  • 1883 - Virginia's Conservative Party changes its name to the Democratic Party and chooses a new leader, John S. Barbour Jr., who organizes the party down to the precinct level. Barbour's leadership marks the beginning of a long era of Democratic domination.
  • November 3, 1883 - Racial and political tensions erupt in an election-eve street fight in Danville that leaves at least one white and four black men dead.
  • November 1885 - The Democratic Party sweeps to power, winning all statewide elected offices. The Readjuster Party dissolves, with many of its members becoming Republicans.
  • 1889 - William Mahone runs for governor as a Republican and is defeated by Democrat Philip W. McKinney.
  • 1902 - Virginia's dominant conservative Democrats promulgate a new state constitution that equips local election officials with devices for disfranchising political opponents, including most African Americans and many Republicans. Voting participation in Virginia plummets.


Further Reading
Lowe, Richard G. "The Republican Party in Antebellum Virginia, 1856–1860," Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 81, no. 3 (July 1973): 259–297.
Lowe, Richard G. Republicans and Reconstruction in Virginia, 1856–70. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1991.
Moger, Allen W. Virginia: Bourbonism to Byrd, 1870–1925. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1968.
Maddex, Jack P. Jr. The Virginia Conservatives, 1867–1879: A Study in Reconstruction Politics. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1970.
Moore, James Tice. Two Paths to the New South: The Virginia Debt Controversy, 1870–1883. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1974.
Tarter, Brent. A Saga of the New South: Race, Law, and Public Debt in Virginia. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2016.
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First published: December 18, 2014 | Last modified: July 19, 2016

Contributed by Brent Tarter, founding editor of the Dictionary of Virginia Biography.