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GOP Birth Obscured by Countering Claims

Their claims are cast on metal plaques, humming in cyberspace and printed in obscure history books, Chamber of Commerce (search) fliers and the Congressional Record. And not one of the four self-proclaimed birthplaces of the Republican Party is about to back down.

The Republican National Committee's (search) online party history says the GOP held its first informal meeting in Ripon, Wis. — without specifying a date. It also states flatly, "The first official Republican meeting took place on July 6th, 1854 in Jackson, Michigan."

It does not mention competing claims by Exeter, N.H., or Crawfordsville, Iowa.

Nevertheless, the debate has heated up as the GOP observes its 150th anniversary, give or take a few months. The next sesquicentennial celebration is set for early July in Jackson.

The "birthplace" claim by the city of 35,500 located 80 miles west of Detroit is unimpeachable, said Susan Milhoan, president of the Greater Jackson Chamber of Commerce.

"Absolutely. End of story," Milhoan said.

Artists have been invited to paint or decorate 5-foot-long polyurethane elephants that will occupy sponsored locations around the city for three months. The elephant is the GOP's symbol.

A parade of real elephants is tentatively scheduled for July 2. Jackson officials have invited Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm and President Bush to visit on July 4 and July 6, respectively.

"Michigan is the birthplace of many 'firsts' — first automobile, first cereal flakes, first hockey player to score career 700 goals (Gordie Howe) — and, yes, first place the Republican Party convened," said Granholm, a Democrat. "I only wish it were the birthplace of the Democratic Party as well, but the Democrats here have since caught up."

To Ripon partisans, not even the ghost of Abraham Lincoln could validate Jackson's claim.

Last month in Ripon, Rep. Tom Petri, R-Wis., proclaimed: "If anyone doubts this is the birthplace, just appear on 'Jeopardy!' and if you answer any question about the founding of the Republican Party with anything else than Ripon, you'll lose."

Milhoan countered: "Ripon did have an initial meeting, but there were a half-dozen individuals (present) ... There were 3,000 to 5,000 people converging on Jackson July 6, 1854, and they actually selected the name of the party."

The late New Hampshire Gov. Hugh Gregg (search) insisted the GOP was organized Oct. 12, 1853, at Blake's hotel in Exeter. An annual observance is staged by the Amos Tuck Society, named for the Exeter congressman credited with calling that meeting.

"These other places are after the fact, so they're just getting around to it," said Tracy McGrail, president of the Exeter Chamber of Commerce. "Exeter was, and is, the birthplace of the Republican Party."

The claim by Crawfordsville, population 265, is based on reports of a Feb. 23, 1854, meeting of abolitionists who debated a platform and nominated candidates for what would become the GOP. However, notes taken by a Sarah Crawford were burned years later.

George Miller, a Ripon College emeritus professor of history, said Riponians "acknowledge Jackson's claim" to the first formal Republican meeting and even allow that the first informal meeting was held in Exeter.

Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wis., went further on March 8 — introducing a Senate resolution "commemorating the 150th anniversary of the first meeting of the Republican Party in Ripon, Wisconsin."

The resolution was approved unanimously, to the dismay of New Hampshire Republican Sens. John Sununu and Judd Gregg. The son of the Exeter-endorsing governor said he and Sununu were not present for the voice vote.

"We were not aware that (Feingold) was going to do it," Miller said. "But we're glad he did."