A History of the Republican Party — The National Story

 

Republican Beginnings

Thomas Jefferson creator of the Republican Party
Thomas Jefferson created the Republican Party while Washington's Secretary of State

Contrary to conventional wisdom, which states that the modern Republican Party was created on 6 July 1854, the state convention held on that day in Jackson, Michigan (as well as the informal gathering days before in Ripon, Wisconsin) signaled the RE-birth of the Republican Party first created by Thomas Jefferson in 1792. That party, often referred to by historians as the Democratic-Republican Party (since both terms were frequently used interchangeably by contemporaries), but known popularly as the Republican Party, opposed the Federalist Party that had coalesced around the ideas advanced by Alexander Hamilton promoting a strong central government and "loose" interpretation of the Constitution.

Known as the Principles of 1798, the Republican Party emphasized a strict interpretation of the Constitution, states' rights, opposition to a strong national government, distrust of the federal courts, and opposition to a Navy (projection of national power) and a national bank. Key to their foreign policy was their strong support of France, at least until Napoleon Bonaparte assumed dictatorial power in 1799, especially when at war with Britain.

Because of its strength in the states and in Congress, the Republican Party prevailed against the Federalist Party; the latter dieing slowly after John Adams lost his bid for re-election to Thomas Jefferson in 1800. The Federalists disappeared from the national scene by 1814.

Ante-bellum Disintegration

James Madison - 4th president of the U.S.
James Monroe - 5th president of the U.S.
Presidents James Madison (above) and James Monroe served during a time of virtual one-party rule

During the administrations of Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe, Republican dominance was unquestioned and after 1814, the Republican Party was the only one of national reach. But the source of the party's strength, the states, became its greatest weakness as factions grew and split the party by the end of Monroe's second term in 1824.

Henry Clay - Speaker of the House and maker of presidents
Henry Clay fought Andrew Jackson to keep the Republican ideals alive

The presidential election of 1824 came down to a contest between two strong personalities from the West — Henry Clay (Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives) of Kentucky and U.S. Senator Andrew Jackson of Tennessee — leaders of the National Republicans and the Democratic-Republicans, respectively. When the election was thrown into the House of Representatives, the deciding vote was cast by Clay for John Quincy Adams. Adams, son of the second president, had become a Republican after 1814 and was Monroe's Secretary of State. Although Adams was not part of either faction, Clay cast his vote for him rather than Jackson, who had won a plurality of the electoral vote, because Clay despised and distrusted Jackson.

The factions continued to fight each other, more or less morphing into a two-party system (Have you ever heard it said that there is really no difference between the two major parties?). But the Republican Party of Jefferson was truly no more. When Jackson defeated Adams in 1828, his party was simply called the Democrats. Even though he referred to his 1832 nominating convention as a Republican convention, all references to that term soon dropped out of use. In 1844, the common became the official name of the party.

Andrew Jackson - 7th president of the U.S.
Andrew Jackson built the modern Democrat Party to oppose Republican nationalism

The National Republican Party was short-lived, soon melding into the Whig Party, a coalition of Jackson opponents, the name hearkening back to the name applied to those colonists who had resisted the authority of the British Crown. The Whigs carried on Jefferson's principles of strict interpretation of the Constitution, states' rights, and limited national government (yet adopting Clay's push for nationalizing infrastructure improvements in the name of modernization) but dropping his opposition to a national bank. They also championed a higher tariff, both for revenue and for protecting nascent manufacturing.

From the 1830s until its revival at the 1854 Jackson, Michigan convention, the brand "Republican" fell into disuse. By calling themselves the Republican Party, the coalition of Northern Whigs, abolitionists, and "Free Soilers" was doing much more than paying homage to Thomas Jefferson. They were invoking his Principles in opposition to a government that needed severe correction. Abraham Lincoln raised perhaps the strongest voice against the Democrats, proclaiming that with their profound devotion to slavery and the rule of money, Democrats falsely posed as heirs of Thomas Jefferson and his legacy of liberty as expressed in the Declaration of Independence.

Due to intensifying sectionalism, the country was on the brink of dissolution, with every branch of the federal government grappling to be in the pilot's seat. By its horrific decision in Dred Scott v Sandford in 1857, the Supreme Court made itself, once again, an institution to be distrusted. With the passage and signing into law of the Kansas-Nebraska Act three years earlier, Congress and President Franklin Pierce had already crushed the last vestiges of balance between northern and southern interests.

Republican and National Revival

1856 Republican capaign poster
This campaign poster promotes the Republican ticket of Frémont and Dayton

The Republican Party quickly rose to the challenge of being a national party. State chapters appeared almost overnight in every northern state and, despite suppression by the powerful slave plantation owners in the South, was popular. Only two years after its formation, the party became the majority party in a number of state legislatures, reflected in its twenty seats in the U.S. Senate, won three governorships in 1855, held thirteen seats in the U.S. House, while it fielded John C. Frémont for president in 1856.

Its 1856 campaign slogan, "Free Labor, Free Soil, Free Men, Frémont", strengthened the party's identity promoting nationalism and opposing the institution of slavery. Frémont won 33% of the popular vote, despite not appearing on the ballot in any southern state, and 114 electoral votes. Republican leaders recognized that with the addition of a mere two more states such as Illinois and Pennsylvania a Republican candidate could win the presidency in 1860 without winning a southern state.

In Congress, Republicans added 77 seats in the House to total 90 — Democrats from both North and South held 132 — while in the Senate Republicans gained six seats for a total of 26 to the Democrats' 38.

The 1858 campaign for Senate in Illinois gained national attention as incumbent and favorite (if for no other reason than the state legislature, which would select the senator, was controlled by Democrats) Democrat Stephen Douglas debated the rapidly rising star Republican Abraham Lincoln.

Lincoln successfully framed the debates around the moral superiority of the abolitionists' position (although he was not one himself), charging that Douglas' "popular sovereignty" was morally indefensible. When forced by Lincoln at the debate in Freeport to justify his position in light of the Supreme Court's ruling in Dred Scott, Douglas concocted what became known as the Freeport Doctrine. It so alienated Southern Democrats, driving a wedge between northern and southern factions of the party, that it destroyed his (and Democrats') chances of winning the presidency in 1860.

President Lincoln reads to his son
The election of Lincoln as the 16th president marked a revival of the Republican Party that lasted seventy years

Lincoln, chosen to be the presidential candidate instead of William Seward, did indeed take both Pennsylvania and his "home" state of Illinois, along with the new states of Minnesota and Oregon to win the 1860 election. Republicans also swept to majorities in both chambers of Congress. For the next seventy years Republicans lost the White House to only two Democrats for a total of sixteen years and lost their majority in both chambers of Congress simultaneously only three times for a total of eight years.

Following the war, Republicans led the nation through Reconstruction and crafted the policies that enabled the United States to become a great industrial and political power. During the war, against the advice of his cabinet, Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation that freed the slaves. The Republicans of the day worked to pass the Thirteenth Amendment, which outlawed slavery, the Fourteenth, which guaranteed equal protection under the laws, and the Fifteenth, which helped secure voting rights for African-Americans. Also during the war, work was started on the first transcontinental railroad line; the line was completed in 1869 with the driving of the Golden Spike near Ogden, Utah. In the ensuing years additional lines snaked their way across the plains and mountains of the West to pave the way for population and industrial expansion.

Progressive President Theodore Roosevelt
Theodore Roosevelt led the Republican Party in a lurch leftward

The Republican Party also played a leading role in securing women the right to vote. In 1896, Republicans were the first major party to favor women's suffrage. When the 19th Amendment finally was added to the Constitution, 26 of 36 state legislatures that voted to ratify it were under Republican control. The first woman elected to Congress was a Republican, Jeanette Rankin from Montana in 1917.

The Modern Era & Realignment

Beginning with President Theodore Roosevelt, the Republican Party lurched leftward as it embraced Progressivism. With only a brief interlude during the presidency of Calvin Coolidge the liberal faction of the party was ascendant. At least coincidentally, so were the Democrats. From 1932, with the election of Franklin Roosevelt, the coalition that developed around his New Deal policies dominated national politics for the next fifty years.

Although Republicans led the way in some significant policies — particularly the Interstate Highway System initiated by President Eisenhower and the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965, which passed Congress only because 80% of the Republican members supported them — Republicans were primarily in either a supporting or opposition role. About the only way Republicans could differentiate themselves was by taking a harder stand against Communism than Democrats. At least it seemed to work for Richard Nixon, who defeated a popular Hubert Humphrey in 1968 by the narrowest margin in history.

President Richard Nixon
Nixon's "Southern Strategy" was the first step in a national realignment

But there was another factor at work in Nixon's victory and his re-election in 1972:  he was the first national Republican to break into the "solid" Democrat South that had existed since the close of Reconstruction in 1877. While Democrats could counter the trend toward Republicans in presidential contests, which they successfully did with Jimmy Carter in 1976 and Bill Clinton in 1992, Nixon's breakthrough led to the election of Republicans at all levels; Georgia, in 2002, was the last to elect a Republican governor.

President Ronald Reagan
President Reagan won re-election in 1984 with 49 of the 50 states

In 1969 political analyst and author Kevin Phillips wrote in his book, The Emerging Republican Majority, that support by conservative Southern whites and rapid population growth in the Sun Belt of the Southeast and Southwest regions of the country with corresponding out-migration from the Northeast and upper Midwest, along with other factors, were driving an enduring Republican electoral realignment. He urged Republicans to cast off their historical Northeastern base, which has been notoriously liberal, to cultivate this new base in the South. This certainly bore fruit in 2004 when George W. Bush won re-election with no electoral votes from the Northeast — in 2000 he had won only New Hampshire — the first Republican presidential candidate to do so.

With the elections of 2006 and 2008 serving as stark reminders, the Republican Party nationally is finally realizing that the American people want the party to stand firm for its conservative, limited-government ideals inherited from its founder Thomas Jefferson. With the infusion of conservative independents from the new tea party-affiliated groups to keep the leadership in line, the Republican Party is well-positioned to once again assume its deserved position of prominence on the American political stage.

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