On July 4, 1854, a group whose members called themselves "friends of freedom" gathered for the first time in the Minnesota territorial village of St. Anthony.

They were Whigs and Democrats who were opposed to slavery and corruption in government and believed that only a new political party could accomplish their aims.

They founded our Republican Party of Minnesota.

Derided by the Democrats for an antislavery platform, Republicans held their first convention in 1855, and in 1856 the first Republicans were elected in Minnesota in a wave.

A few years later, the First Minnesota Volunteer Regiment found itself on the battlefield at Gettysburg, and the order came to make a charge across an open field against vastly superior Confederate forces — to hold a line or the battle could be lost.

They did, with the highest casualty rate of the war. The line held. The battle was won. Picture it.

So here we are as Republicans 160 years later, friends of freedom like our forebears and equally committed to our original causes, and owning the heritage of the First Minnesota Regiment.

Yet Republicans are said to be at a crossroads. We are emerging from a hard-fought primary. The political class still derides conservatives. And in a recent opinion piece ("Sink to swim," June 5), Tom Horner proposes a Republican future based on a tactic of intentional failure and fracturing in response to Donald Trump's presidential candidacy.

But the Republican Party is so much bigger than any one candidate and any one election, and our future is not to be found in a fancy tactical political retreat.

Remember, the First Minnesota Regiment didn't back down. No deals, no political survival strategies, but a bold act born of conviction.

Republicans face a similar test in 2016. Not the life-taking sacrifice of the First Minnesota, certainly, but for bold leadership in the direction of our party and our state and country.

Our legacy lights a clear path. The Republican Party's future is to be found in the same simple powerful fact it always has been: We stand on the side of freedom and on the side of the people.

Our task is large. Filled with false hope seven years ago that smarter planners, more compassionate bureaucrats and an inspirational leader would solve our problems, today we see the results. Incomes are stunted, families are strained, the racial divide has worsened, people are pitted against one another, the rule of law is ignored by our leaders and even our constitutional republic seems at risk.

Yet the presumptive Democrat nominee, Hillary Clinton, is doubling down — adding an unprecedented dose of corruption and offering once again an imperial presidency, a collectivist worldview and massive government to sustain it. All of it against every example in history that this threatens liberty, never produces prosperity nor lasting stewardship, and almost always devolves to despotism.

For the good of our country Republicans can't retreat, and we won't back down.

We will lead and, yes, we will make America great again. Donald Trump's unique opportunity is to help make it happen.

But this election is not just about big government, bad deals, open borders, leading from behind and debt — those are symptoms of a broader decay in our institutions and in the personal virtue necessary to sustain a civil society.

We also need America to be decent again.

Republicans share the tried-and-true ethic of everyday folks — family and faith, enterprise and hard work, loving our neighbor and giving back.

Simply put, we care.

The party of Lincoln believes every Minnesotan is invaluable, and we trust Minnesotans — not more government — for our future.

The party of Reagan's principles of liberty and justice for all, and free enterprise, have proved to lift everyone, and our policies advance them.

Our ideas work.

From our beginning, the Republican Party has found unity in these ideals and purposes, and we will again. Not out of fear or a calculated political retreat, never out of blind fealty to a candidate, but in bold leadership.

That is our real future. What a message we have! What an opportunity we have!

Keith Downey is chairman of the Republican Party of Minnesota.