Part III – It Happened First In …

A House divided against itself cannot stand”

Abraham Lincoln,
quoting Jesus of Nazareth,
June 1858 speech accepting his party’s nomination for Senator of Illinois, 1958

Lincoln, pre-           beard

Set within a glacially-crafted landscape, as is Part 2’s Waubeka (which is a scant 50 miles southeast) one finds our third and final small community of this trilogy: the hamlet of Ripon.  As with the communities of Parts I and II of this trilogy, Ripon sits alongside a trustworthy clean source of flowing water: Silver Creek.

Driving to Ripon from any direction, whatever the season, one is mesmerized by the views of fields reaching to the horizon, over subtle ground bulges that pass as rolling hills.

Such drives can be exercises in boredom or awe, depending on point of view.  The country-side landscape surrounding Ripon certainly looks bucolic; that’s deceptive: whether it’s crops, livestock or dairy, Ag life is hard.
In mid- to late summer the fertile expanse stretches ever onward, bedecked with maturing crops, interrupted only by the occasional farmhouse, an array of grain silos or a dairy farm.  Trees are sporadic, and usually betray some feature of the land.

Betrayal: A woven garland of trees, sidling and twisting along, betrays a creek in a hidden draw.  A hedge of trees: a property or acreage boundary.  A sparse grove scattered across a small area: a farmhouse.

Most acreage is corn, but there’s also plenty of soybean and cattle fodder, such as the legume, alfalfa, and hay bearing grasses.

The landscape can be equally mesmerizing the rest of the year, too. In winter some crop rotation is needed for soil health and protection; that’s mostly winter wheat, planted in early fall so that germination happens before the first deep freeze. But many of the endless fields simply lie in slumber, carpeted under innumerable 6-sided crystals of white moisture through the weeks, as calendars are flipped from November to March. [1]

The first white settlers arrived in the area in 1844, from New York, via Sheboygan. Inspired by the writings of French philosopher Charles Fourier, they intended to build a utopian agrarian socialist commune, withdrawing from the developing American dog-eat-dog culture. They chose well: glacially blessed fertile and moist prairie land, at the confluence of the smaller Crystal Creek with Silver Creek. These idealists called their settlement Ceresco, after Ceres, the Roman goddess of agriculture.

There are few secrets when it comes to great places to settle. Soon after the Ceresco settlement, David Mapes, also originally from New York, arrived.  Finding the setting as a potentially commercially attractive site, he envisioned a community adjacent to Ceresco, just spitting distance to its east (especially with the prevailing westerlies).

Mapes soon entered into an agreement with the owner of this large swath of land along Spring Creek – a chap named John Horner – for the development of a city there. Horner decided the new community should be named Ripon, after his ancestors’ hometown, Ripon, in England’s North Yorkshire County. As Mapes also had ancestry from England, there was no objection.


Before long Mapes had completed a dam on Silver Creek. This was significant. The dam enabled the creek to power a mill. The dam also formed a large pond. Both the mill and the pond promoted commercial and community development. The mill would grind grist into meal. By virtue of Ripon’s trustworthy long, deep, cold winters, the pond provided ice. The ice was harvested in early spring. Thence it was stored in ice houses and cellars, insulated under layers of hay and sawdust. Through the warmer months it was used to chill and preserve foodstuffs, dairy products, and beer. Such was life before refrigeration. At least there was cold beer.

Within a very few years Ripon was thriving. It was growing. Over those same few years, many in the Ceresco commune began struggling with the idealistic concepts and practices required for total collectivism. As land values increased many wished to sell out.  Some found a way to do that.  Many became Forty-niners and drifted away to follow the Siren call of gold and fortune.  Ceresco was absorbed into Ripon.

“[The Confederacy’s] foundations are laid, and its cornerstone rests upon the great truth: that the negro is not equal to the white man; and that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth” 

Alexander Stephens,
Vice-President CSA,
Cornerstone Speech, 1861

Alexander Hamilton Stephens, VP of the Confederate States of America

Things were neither mesmerizing, nor beautiful, nor bucolic in America in these, the fledgling years for Ripon and much of America’s heartland. The issue of slavery was about to rend the nation asunder. [edited later: OK Lee Webb, and cotton tariffs].

In the supposed “two-party system” America sorely lacked a strong second party. The Democrats had held sway from Jefferson (1800) until 1840. In the ‘30s a new party, the Whigs, coalesced around a single notion: presidents (as exemplified by Andy Jackson, often described as a jackass — a label he gladly accepted) were too powerful. Beyond that notion — that Jackson was a jackass (which later became the Democratic symbol, a donkey) and too powerful as an executive — the Whigs were little more than a loosely cobbled-together coalition.

In 1840, with William Henry Harrison, the Whigs finally wrested the White House from the Democrats. But WHH promptly died, only a month in office, leaving the office to Tyler (“too!”). Sadly, he had strong “states’ rights” leanings, and, thus, implicitly, pro-slavery inclinations. Harrison’s only major policy initiative was to re-create a national bank (which had been scuttled by Jackson); but when it passed Congress it was vetoed by Tyler. The US financial system would remain fragile.

Thus, with Harrison’s passing and Tyler’s ascendence, the Whig fracture began – which soon led to their demise. They did win one more presidential election, in 1848, with Zach Taylor (probably a good general and poor politician), but he also died in office. Fillmore inherited the presidency. He was in practice pro-slavery (signing the horrific Fugitive Slave Act and denying that the government had any power to end slavery). He was, of course hated by northern Whigs. The party’s factions drifted irreversibly apart. Totally useless, it soon died.

In the 1850s the Democrats, were also split over slavery; the significant factions all favored maintaining slavery. Oversimplified? Sure. Some wanted to expand it to new territories, and others wanted the new territories (which would inevitably become states) to decide for themselves. Across the factions they agreed with the Whig, Fillmore: the federal government had no authority to end the awful institution. Whatever the national policy: slavery should remain forever in the South.

It was dire times for both abolitionists and those who wanted to stop the expansion of slavery. In 1853, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, powered by a Democrat coalition, was thundering down the pike. To Anti-Slavers and Abolitionists alike, the Act effectively promoted slavery, allowing new territories and states to decide the slavery issue themselves (of course, just white males could decide).

It was awful legislation – literally atrocious – and it was surely going to pass. It was in blatant defiance of the Missouri Compromise (1820) which allowed the eponymous state to enter the nation as a “slave state” provided Maine could enter as a “free state”, and that no state west of the Mississippi and north of 36.5 degrees could ever be a slave state (the border between Oklahoma! and Kansas is 36.5 degrees). [2] The Kansas-Nebraska Act tore that compromise to shreds.

Motivated by the distress of this approaching human rights disaster, groups began to coalesce around anti-slavery and abolitionist points of view – from limiting slavery, to upholding the Missouri Compromise, to totally abolishing slavery. These people were remnants of the former Whig party, dispirited members of other parties, and various abolitionist groups. The groups started meeting informally across America’s upper Midwest. A nationwide strategy was needed. A new political party was needed.

Ripon’s Little White Schoolhouse

At one such meeting, on March 20, 1854, in a little white schoolhouse in the modest, small and new settlement of Ripon, 34 such representatives declared themselves a new political party, committed to ending slavery, beginning with fighting its expansion into western territories and states, and ultimately to the universal abolition of the ghastly institution of slavery.  That day, the Republican Party had its first meeting, and it came into existence.  It happened first in Ripon.

Note: several Mid-west cities also claim to be the birthplace of the Republican Party, including Jackson, Michigan. Ripon is widely accepted by historians as the site of its founding and first meeting.

The fledgling party lacked sufficient firepower to successfully contest the 1856 presidential election, selecting John Frémont as their nominee. Frémont finished a respectable second, ahead of Millard Fillmore (a candidate in ’52, heir to Taylor, and last of the Whigs) who nicked off a few electoral votes and finished third. The Electoral College winner was the feckless James Buchanan (who won despite capturing only 45% of the popular vote, but more than any other candidate). Buchanan, a Pennsylvanian, had pro-southern and pro-slavery sympathies. Thus, he led both the nation and his Democratic party to cataclysmic and complete fracture.

The rest is history, as they say. In 1860 the Republicans, at a very contentious national convention in Chicago, eventually nominated a self-educated railroad lawyer as their presidential candidate. That man was Abraham “Honest Abe” Lincoln. Their political opponents, the Democratic party, split over how to handle the “issue” of slavery – although, as stated, all favored keeping slavery – and nominated two candidates.

Lincoln defeated the fractured Democrats, represented by Douglas and Breckenridge [3], as well as a fourth candidate, Bell [4]. Lincoln won the presidency, even though fewer than 40% of all voters chose him (this time: thank you, Electoral College).

[It’s worth noting that Lincoln won the party nomination and presidency on a modest non-provocative platform of keeping the country united and preventing the expansion of slavery — but not ending slavery.  That final position was forced upon him (see Stephens’ quote, above). A position he gladly and openly accepted after the 1862 battle at Antietam, when he crafted the Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln’s positions in the 1860 election campaign were nearly identical to Douglas’.  However, Lincoln had no known a priori southern or slavery sympathies: see quote atop this essay.]

Splitting the party and the nation was so devastating to Democrats that only one person from that party won a presidential election from 1856 to 1912 — that was Grover Cleveland (albeit, elected twice). His party ran him out on a rail in 1896, in no small part because he believed that a sustainable healthy economy depended on a strong currency. (See W.J. Bryan’s Cross of Gold speech, 1896). He was the last of the successful Bourbon Democrats.*

*[It was a Republican split, in 1912, that finally led to this reversal of fates]

Stephen Douglas, representing the northern Democrat faction for president in 1860, had recently defeated Lincoln in 1858 for the Illinois Senate seat after the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates. Breckinridge of Kentucky, very pro-slavery, represented the southern Democrats. Bell, from Tennessee, was of the new and short-lived Constitution Party, which, although pro-slavery, was unwilling to leave the Union over the issue. All 4 candidates received electoral votes.


… a nation conceived in Liberty and dedicated to proposition that all men are created equal.”

Abraham Lincoln, 16th President of the United States,
quoting The Declaration of Independence,
November 1864 speech
dedicating the Gettysburg battlefield and cemetery

One of last photos, perhaps last, of Lincoln


And here I risk losing some readers. So be it. Like many others, I see parallels to the 1850s. The country and one major party stand on the precipice of complete rupture. Many talk openly of armed conflict. The fracture lines are evident. The Republican Party, born in honor and strife in a little white schoolhouse in Ripon nearly 170 years ago, has brought itself to the brink of its own fracture, and contributed plenty to the current widening fissures in this country.

God bless us all.

“Real peace comes from learning to understand the perspective of others. When that opportunity comes, harden not your hearts.” – my mash up of several different quotes.

Final Epilog

Three important firsts. You readers have probably noticed a few similarities across these three stories of “firsts.”

  1. The setting of small towns and small schoolhouses.
  2. The importance of water to early US settlements
  3. I have, heretofore, omitted which of the 50 United States in which each of these three communities lie — Hudson, Waubeka and Ripon.  But with a bit of geography knowledge, you’ve figured out that the three “firsts” happened in the verdant and Great State of Wisconsin, land of my youth — as fertile for my mind as it is to its splendid agriculture production, from crops to dairy.
  4. The lay of the land and development of commerce for each community was explored.  As was how each place received its name.
  5. Finally, despite good starts and good intentions, each of these three significant “firsts” have ended up in our contemporary times with controversy and contentiousness.

Be well. Be the person your mother would want you to be.


Joe Girard © 2022

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[1] I was sorely tempted to contrive a few twisted lines as a Hat Tip to Robert Frost’s classic and timeless composition. Joe-twisted they follow:
“Whose woods and fields these are, I do not know.
His house is prob’ly in Ripon though.
I don’t think it would be so queer,
to stop without a farmhouse near,
to watch his woods (and fields) fill up with snow,
the darkest evening of the year.”
I’m wondering who among my erudite readers might respond to this poetic tangent.  Alas, I left it all out, for “I have promises to keep, and miles to go, before I sleep… and miles to go before I sleep.”

Thomas Nast, prolific cartoonist, born in Landau, Germany, gave us cartoon versions of the Rep Elephant, the Dem Donkey as well as the jolly round Santa Clause

[2] technically: any new state that came from the Louisiana Purchase, not new states west of the Mississippi River.

[3] the city of Breckenridge Colorado was named for Breckinridge. A spelling tweak was made when it became clear that he was very pro-slavery. The “i” was simply switched to “e”; same pronunciation. “Breck” had once been US Vice-president.

[4] Bell represented a party that was mostly constitutionally conservative and southern

[5] NAST: ELECTION, 1876 “The Elephant Walks Around” – And the “Still Hunt” is Nearly Over. ‘ Cartoon by Thomas Nast, 1876, showing the Republican party trampling the Democratic candidates Samuel J. Tilden (right) and Thomas Hendricks (left), while John Morrissey walks away.  Nast gave us our current versions of the elephant and donkey as political mascots.  As well as the big fat jolly Santa Claus dressed in red.

Good start on history of Ripon:

And the demise of Ceresco:


3 thoughts on “Part III – It Happened First In …”

  1. Lee Webb

    Great, as usual, Joe! However, I saw no mention of the Southern split resulting from the lucrative cotton trade the South had with England, and the North wanted to tax it. According to what I recall, it was a greater reason for the war than slavery. No?

    1. Joe Post Author

      Good one Lee, and I will nominally concede this well-used and old point [see here: HOWEVER, I did not include it here for a few reasons. Would this have led to a 4-year civil war that killed or maimed 6 percent of the male population? Would it have ruined all political parties? #1 reason: Would it have led to the formation of a new political party, which soon became THE major party in the country for over 5 decades? Would it have caused the unleashing of cannon fire upon Ft Sumter? You have to say yes to all of these if it was cotton tariffs and NOT slavery. I am against tariffs in general as well. That’s my starting position. Now tell me why, in any particular and narrow instance, a tariff might be good. Sometimes I switch. That was a rhetorical question. That’s toward those who support tariffs.

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