The radical abolitionists and socialist immigrants who founded the Republican Party at Ripon enjoyed an almost instant success, as they forged a party that opposed not just the sin of slavery but the corruption of politics and the economy by those who would monopolize wealth and power.
Alvan Bovay, who called the meeting that gave birth to the Grand Old Party, had previously organized a militant movement that urged the landless to use their superior numbers to force a redistribution of the land. Their slogan was an expression of radical faith in the power of the ballot to transform not just politics but economics: “Vote Yourself a Farm.”
Bovay and his compatriots believed in democracy with a passion that terrified the elites of their day, and that terrifies the elites of this day. When all those Texas oilmen and New York speculators wrote checks to try to buy a Wisconsin election, they did not do so out of hope. They did so out of fear that Wisconsin might reject the economic fantasy that is austerity.
The battle lines had been defined in 1873 by Edward Ryan, the fiery chief justice of the Wisconsin Supreme Court, who warned: “There is looming up a new and dark power. ... The enterprises of the country are aggregating vast corporate combinations of unexampled capital, boldly marching, not for economical conquests only, but for political power. ... The question will arise and arise in your day, though perhaps not fully in mine: ‘Which shall rule, wealth or man? Which shall lead, money or intellect? Who shall fill public stations, educated and patriotic freemen, or the feudal serfs of corporate capital?’ ”