History of the Republican Party

The Republican Party is one of the two main political parties currently active in the United States. Founded by anti-slavery activists, economic modernizers, and liberal Whigs and Democrats in 1854, the Republicans dominated politics nationally and was the majority political party in the Northeast, Midwest, and Great Plains for most of the period between 1854 and 1932. The Republican party has won 24 of the last 40 U.S. presidential elections, and there has been a total of 19 Republican Presidents between 1860 and 2016, the most from any political party.

Liberal Republicans & The  Civil War

The Republican Party was founded in Ripon, Wisconsin in 1854 and soon became the main anti-slavery political party within the US.

The Republican Party was officially formed in the small town of Ripon, Wisconsin on March 20, 1854, as a coalition of anti-slavery Whigs and Democrats opposed to the Kansas–Nebraska Act, which opened Kansas Territory and Nebraska Territory to slavery and future admission as slave states, thus repealing the 34-year prohibition on slavery in territories north of the Mason–Dixon line. This change was viewed anti-slavery members of Congress as an aggressive, expansionist maneuver by the slave-owning South. In addition to supporting an anti-slavery platform, the Republican Party followed a platform based on economic modernization, a more open interpretation of the constitution, expanded banking, openness to new immigrants, and giving free western land to farmers as a way to discourage the spread of slavery to the Western territories. Most of the support for the new political party came from New England (particularly Vermont, Maine, and parts of Upstate New York),  the Midwest, and certain areas in the Upper South such as Eastern Tennessee, Southeastern Kentucky, and Western Virginia (regions where slavery was non-existent).

The Republican Party almost immediately made a mark on American politics and soon superseded the Whig Party as the chief opposition party. The first Republican Presidential nominee was John Frémont, a former general during the Mexican-American War and a strong opponent of the spread slavery. In the 1856 Presidential Election, Frémont scored 33% of the vote and came very close to defeating Democratic candidate James Buchanan in the Electoral College. The strong performance of the Republican Party was an impressive feat despite the fact that the party lacked a strong organizational structure and was not on the ballot in all states. The Republican Party built upon their successes by winning control of both House of Congress in the 1858 midterm elections.

The election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 and the subsequent start of the Civil War led to the first era of Republican domination of the American political system.

The election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 and the subsequent start of the Civil War opened a new era of Republican dominance at the federal level known as the Third-Party System. President Lincoln proved brilliantly successful in uniting the factions of his party to fight for the Union. Most of the remaining Democrats at first were War Democrats and supportive of the Union war effort until late 1862. When in the Fall of 1862 Lincoln added the abolition of slavery as one of the leading war goals, many War Democrats became “Peace Democrats” and thus became more sympathetic to the cause of the Confederacy. The Republicans condemned the peace-oriented Democrats as disloyal and won enough War Democrats to maintain their Congressional majority in 1862. In 1864, the Republicans formed a coalition with many War Democrats (such as Tennessee military governor Andrew Johnson) as the National Union Party which reelected Lincoln in a landslide.

Nearly all of the state Republican parties accepted the idea of the abolition of slavery except Kentucky. In Congress, the Republicans established legislation to promote rapid modernization, the creation of national banking system, high tariffs, the first income tax, paper money issued without backing (“greenbacks”), a large national debt, homestead laws, federal infrastructure spending (particularly on the railroads and industries), and federal aid for education and agriculture. These legislative efforts added to the perception that the Republican Party was the more liberal of the two main political parties.

Post Civil-War Republicans

After the successful conclusion of the Civil War in 1865, the Republican Party leadership was faced with the challenge of Reconstruction. The Republican Party soon became split between the moderates (who favored a lenient approach to Reconstruction) and the Radical Republicans (who demanded aggressive action against slavery and vengeance toward former Confederates). By 1864, a majority of Republicans in Congress were part of the Radical branch of the party. These tensions reached their boiling point after President Lincoln’s assassination in April of 1865. The Radical Republicans at first welcomed President Andrew Johnson (Lincoln’s second Vice President and a Southern Democrat who supported the Union), believing that he would take a hard line in punishing the South and enforce the rights of former slaves. However, Johnson denounced the Radicals and attempted to ally with moderate Republicans and Democrats. The showdown came in the Congressional elections of 1866, in which the Radicals won a sweeping victory and took full control of Reconstruction, passing laws over President Johnson’s veto. President Johnson was impeached by the House of Representatives in 1868 but was acquitted by the Senate by only one vote.

The Republican Party of the 1870s sought to establish a viable political coalition based on the ideas of racial equality and progressive public policy.

With the election of Ulysses S. Grant in 1868, the Radicals had control of Congress, the party structure, and the army and sought to build a Republican base in the South using the votes of Freedmen, Scalawags, and Carpetbaggers, supported directly by the US army. Republicans all throughout the South formed clubs called Union Leagues that mobilized the voters, discussed policy issues and fought off white supremacist attacks. President Grant strongly supported radical reconstruction programs in the South, the Fourteenth Amendment and equal civil and voting rights for the freedmen. Despite President Grant’s popularity and devotion to the cause of racial and social equality, his tolerance for corruption led to increased factionalism in the Republican Party. The economic depression of 1873 energized the Democrats at the Congressional level. The Democrats won control of the House of Representatives in 1874 and formed “Redeemer” coalitions which recaptured control of each southern state. Reconstruction came to an end when an electoral commission awarded the contested election of 1876 to Republican Rutherford B. Hayes, who promised through the unofficial Compromise of 1877 to withdraw federal troops from the control of the last three southern states (Mississippi, South Carolina, and Louisiana). The South then became known as the Solid South, giving overwhelming majorities of its electoral votes and Congressional seats to the Democrats for the next century.

Economic Conservatism

The Republican Party by and large remained the dominant political party at the Presidential level for the next five decades, with the Democrats only winning the Presidency in 1884, 1892, 1912, and 1916.  Starting in the mid-1890s, both of the political parties began to shift on economic policy due to events such as the 1893-1897 economic depression. During the 1896 Presidential Election, the Democrats nominated former Congressman William Jennings Bryan of Nebraska, whereas the Republicans nominated Governor William McKinley of Ohio. In contrast to previous Democratic nominees, Bryan followed a platform aligned with modern liberalism. Some of the main components of Bryan’s platform included increased federal aid to farmers and factory workers, opposition to the gold standard, a federal income tax, opposition to the wealthy elite, and economic populism. In contrast, Republican William McKinley took an entirely opposite position, arguing that the application of classically liberal economic policies, the continuation of the gold standard, and protectionism would lead to widespread prosperity. Ultimately, McKinley defeated Bryan by a comfortable margin, but the political shifts from this election would have ramifications moving forward. Even though the Republican Party moved towards the left-wing of the political spectrum once more under the Presidencies of Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, the conservative branch would win out by 1920 with the nomination and subsequent election of Warren Harding to the Presidency.

A Party in Decline & Flux

Senator Robert Taft of Ohio led the conservative wing of the Republican Party from the late 1930s to the early 1950s and advocated for the party to support fiscally conservative principles.

The initial era of Republican domination at the Presidential level would come to an end with the start of the Great Depression in 1929. President Hoover attempted to alleviate the widespread suffering caused by the Depression, but his strict adherence to Republican principles precluded him from establishing relief directly from the federal government. The Depression cost Hoover the presidency with the 1932 landslide election of Franklin D. Roosevelt and allowed the Democrats to gain a substantial Congressional majority for the first time since the 1850s. The Roosevelt Administration implemented a legislative program known as the “New Deal,” which expanded the role of the federal government in the economy as a way to alleviate the suffering caused by the economic decline and to prevent another economic decline on the scale of the Great Depression from occurring again. Additionally, President Roosevelt sought to gain the support of voter groups that typically voted Republican such as African-Americans, ethnic minorities, and rural farmers. Roosevelt’s efforts were ultimately successful and led to strong victories for the Democratic Party at the ballot box for the next three decades. During this period, the Democratic Party retained control of Congress for every year except 1946 and 1952 and controlled the Presidency in all elections except 1952 and 1956, when Dwight Eisenhower, a liberal Republican, defeated a fractured Democratic Party.

In response to the New Deal and the policies of the national Democratic Party, the Republicans split into two factions. The first wing was the liberal faction, which favored expanding the New Deal social programs, but felt that such programs would be managed better by Republican administrations. Additionally, the liberal faction of the Republican Party firmly favored civil rights legislation and worked closely with Northern Democrats to push forward positive legislative changes in that arena. The other group was the conservative faction, which advocated a return to laissez-faire economics and fiscal conservatism. Even though the conservative faction of the Republican Party also supported civil rights reforms, they started to form alliances with conservative Southern Democrats in the late 1930s as a way to prevent progressive laws from passing. After the 1938 midterm election, the “Conservative Coalition” formed a majority in Congress and prevented successive Democratic administrations from expanding the New Deal and other associated social programs. It can be argued that the “Conservative Coalition” controlled Congress until the early 1960s.

The Southern Strategy & The Republican Resurgence

The political parties began to shift again in the 1960s due to policy changes within the Democratic Party. The main split in the Democratic Party came about due to the struggle for civil rights. Since the late 1930s, the Democratic Party experienced a major split between the liberal and moderate factions, which favored civil rights, and the Southern faction, which was steadfast in its opposition to federal civil rights legislation. These tensions came to a head when Lyndon Johnson became President after John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. Despite being a Southerner, Johnson had a record in support of civil rights since the mid-1950s and felt that civil rights represented a major political opportunity for the Democratic Party. Over the course of his Presidency, major civil rights legislation was passed in 1964, 1965, and 1968 and the Democrats soon became associated with civil rights reform. In response to these changes, the Republican Party began to appeal to white Southerners opposed to the changes to their way of life. These appeals first became apparent in the 1962 Alabama Senate Election between Democrat Lister Hill and Republican James Martin. Despite being a supporter of segregation, Hill was targeted relentlessly by Martin as a covert supporter of federal civil rights legislation. Ultimately Hill won the race, but by only a 1% margin. The Hill-Martin Senate race served as a prelude to the 1964 Presidential Election, in which Republican Barry Goldwater lost in every region of the country except the Deep South due to his opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Modern Republicans look up to President Ronald Reagan (1981-89) as the main political leader to emulate.

The Republican Party began to see a resurgence at the federal level during the late 1960s that continue to this day. As a result of the aforementioned civil rights reform, the ongoing Vietnam War, and the failure of the Democratic Party leadership to reform the party structure, the Republican Party regained control of the Presidency in 1968 and retained control of this office in each election except 1976, 1992, 1996, 2008, and 2012. On the other hand, the Republican Party did not regain control of the Senate until 1980 and the House of Representatives until 1994. The growth of the Republican Party over the past 50 years can be attributed to the implementation of a conservative platform on both economics and foreign policy as well as the rise of the Christian Right political movement in the late 1970s. The modern Republican Party considers President Ronald Reagan (1981-89) as the political leader to look up to, much like how Democrats view Franklin Roosevelt as their political idol. During his Presidency, Reagan implemented neoliberal economic policies, expressed strong support for socially conservative values, increased defense spending and advocated an internationalist foreign policy that some credit with contributing to the end the Cold War.

Contemporary Republican Party

Today, the Republican Party is at its highest level of support since the late 1920s. The Republicans control both House of Congress and have gained total control over historically Democratic areas such as the Appalachian and Ozark regions of the South since 2010 and are increasingly becoming competitive in the industrial Midwest. On the other hand, the Republican Party has lost nearly all of their historic support in the Northeast and West Coast due to their adopting of a socially conservative and xenophobic platform over the past decade.

In the 2016 Presidential Election, Republican Donald Trump defeated Democrat Hillary Clinton with 304 Electoral Votes but lost the popular vote by 3 million. Trump performed strongly in the Midwest, Appalachia, Ozarks, and some states in the Northeast such as Maine, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire. Additionally, Trump performed very poorly in several typically Republican states such as Texas, Georgia, Arizona, North Carolina, and Utah. Perhaps the 2016 Presidential Election signals a new realignment for both political parties. Future elections may see the Republican Party cementing their gains in the Midwest, Appalachia, and Ozarks, and the Democratic Party continuing to grow in support along both coasts of the US and picking up parts of the cosmopolitan Southern states and the Southwest.

the author

Matt is a graduate of Monmouth University. Matt has been studying and analyzing politics at all levels since the 2004 Presidential Election. He writes about political trends and demographics, the role of the media in politics, comparative politics, political theory, and the domestic and international political economy. Matt is also interested in history, philosophy, comparative religion, and record collecting.

No comments yet.

HAVE SOMETHING TO SAY?