republican party

From Encyclopedia Americana

Republican Party, the younger of the two major political parties in the United States. Organized in 1854 to oppose the extension of slavery into the territories, it first captured the presidency in 1860 under the leadership of Abraham Lincoln. His election was followed by the Civil War, during which the Republican Party became the majority party.

Despite the persistent antagonism of the South, the Republicans retained control of the White House for all but 16 years between 1860 and 1932. During this period the successors of Lincoln were Ulysses S. Grant, Rutherford B. Hayes, James A. Garfield, Chester A. Arthur, Benjamin Harrison, William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, Warren G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Herbert Hoover. After an interval of 20 years, the Republicans regained the presidency with the election of Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952. Since then they have placed in the White House Richard M. Nixon, Gerald R. Ford (as a result of Nixon's resignation), Ronald Reagan, George Bush, and George W. Bush.

Until 1929 the success of the Republican Party was based on an alliance between eastern businesspeople and midwestern farmers. Most laborers and blacks also supported the party with regularity. In the wake of the Depression of the 1930s, the party lost most of its urban supporters with the exception of businesspeople. After World War II the party gained a following in the suburbs and in the South.


The roots of the Republican Party lay in the opposition to slavery, which took a variety of forms in the pre–Civil War era. Some opponents of slavery looked to political methods as a way of attacking the institution. Unable to find sufficient support in the dominant Democratic or Whig parties, antislavery men launched the Liberty party in 1840. Soon thereafter, antislavery forces fixed on a specific issue—opposition to the extension of slavery into U.S. territories. In 1848 this led to the formation of the Free Soil party. Although both these third parties quickly faded away, they helped crystallize attitudes on the issue of slavery. As the political climate heated up in the 1850s, the existing two-party system collapsed with the disappearance of the Whig party and the splintering of the Democratic Party. Out of this political upheaval emerged the Republican Party.

The Republican Party was born in an outburst of protest against the Kansas-Nebraska bill in 1854. The bill provided that the question of slavery in the proposed territories of Kansas and Nebraska would be left to the residents of each territory. This enraged opponents of slavery because it repealed the Compromise of 1820, which banned slavery in that area. Northerners committed to the principle of free soil held the first anti-Nebraska gatherings in February 1854. After passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in the spring, opponents of the measure held a series of conventions that led to the formation of the Republican Party.

These two rounds of meetings in opposition to the measure mark the start of the Republican Party, but people at the time, and historians since then, have disagreed over which meeting deserves credit for founding the Republican Party. The principal claimants were Ripon, Wis., and Jackson, Mich. In Ripon, A. E. Bovay headed an anti-Nebraska meeting on Feb. 28, 1854, which led to a state convention in Madison on July 13, 1854. However, a similar meeting had occurred a week earlier in Jackson, Mich. Both groups described themselves as "Republicans," the old label formerly used by followers of Thomas Jefferson.


The new party got off to a shaky start. It faced opposition not only from the Democrats but also from the so-called "Know Nothings," who formed yet another party. Out of this political chaos came a new party system, dominated by the issue of slavery, which most benefited the young Republican Party. Building on a base of former Free-Soilers, anti-Nebraska Democrats, and antislavery Whigs, the Republican Party stood primarily for a ban on slavery in the territories. In the presidential campaign of 1856 the Republicans heralded their candidate, John C. Frémont, with the chant, "Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Speech, Free Men, Frémont." In a losing effort Frémont captured 33% of the popular vote.

By 1860, Republicans were in a strong position. The Whig party had disappeared, the Know-Nothing party had faded, and the Democratic Party was deeply divided over the issue of slavery. In 1860 a four-way presidential race brought victory to the Republican candidate, Abraham Lincoln, who won a decisive majority of the electoral votes. However, the Republican victory was a narrow sectional one. Outside of the North the party carried only California and Oregon. Nevertheless, the Republican Party was the first and thus far the only third party in American history to succeed in becoming one of the two major parties.

Lincoln's victory led to secession by slave-holding Southern states. The ultimate withdrawal of 11 states gave the Republicans control of the federal government. In the course of the Civil War, Republicans abolished slavery. They also adopted a far-reaching economic program as promised in their 1860 platform. The leading measures were 1) the Homestead Act, 2) the Morrill Land Grant Act, 3) higher tariff duties, 4) federal aid for a transcontinental railroad, 5) encouragement of a national banking system., and

The long and costly Civil War forced the Republican Party to broaden its appeal in the 1864 election. Temporarily forsaking the label "Republican," Lincoln ran under the banner of the Union party with Andrew Johnson, a War Democrat, as his running mate. This temporary expedient helped assure Lincoln's reelection, but it created an explosive situation when Andrew Johnson became president as a result of Lincoln's assassination just after the end of the Civil War in 1865.


Republicans at first were deeply divided over the policy to follow in reconstructing the South. The so-called Radicals insisted on far-reaching changes, particularly to elevate freed slaves, but they were opposed by more moderate Republicans. President Johnson's unwillingness to support any changes in the South, other than emancipation, soon united Republicans in a common front that produced a congressional program providing blacks with citizenship, equal rights, and the vote. Congressional Reconstruction brought Republican control of Southern state governments, but this political dominance was short-lived. By 1877, white Democrats had recaptured control of the South. The legacy of the Civil War and Reconstruction was the creation of a solidly Democratic South.

In the 1870s, new sources of factionalism arose in the Republican Party. Chief among these was the corruption associated with the administration of Ulysses S. Grant, who won the White House for Republicans in 1868. Anti-Grant Republicans organized the Liberal Republican Party and nominated Horace Greeley to run against Grant in 1872. The Democrats also nominated Greeley, but he went down to defeat. Although the Liberal Republican Party immediately disappeared, Republicans continued to fight among themselves. During the Gilded Age (1865–1873) the quest for spoils, not principles, sparked battles within the party.

The campaigns against Democrats were closely fought, but they too rarely involved significant issues during the years 1876–1892. In a period of political stability, Republicans held sway in New England and the Upper Mississippi Valley, where they could count on the loyalty of manufacturers and farmers, particularly evangelical Protestants. Manufacturers were attracted by the party's identification with the protective tariff. The Republicanism of Midwestern farmers dated from the Civil War, and Republican candidates reinforced this sectional loyalty by "waving the bloody shirt" to keep alive the Civil War antagonisms.

With most states strongly committed to one major party or the other, four out of the five presidential elections during the period 1876–1892 were decided by the vote in the three swing states of New York, New Jersey, and Indiana. In 1876 the Republican candidate, Rutherford B. Hayes, lost these three states, but he won the election by taking all the disputed electoral votes of three Southern states. In 1880 and 1888 the Republican candidates, James A. Garfield and Benjamin Harrison, captured New York and Indiana, which assured them victory. In the elections of 1884 and 1892 the Republican nominees lost the three swing states and went down to defeat.


The year 1896 marked a turning point in Republican fortunes. After five closely fought elections in which they failed to gain a majority of the popular vote, Republicans established themselves as the majority party in 1896. The breakthrough came during an economic depression when Americans hotly debated the nation's currency system. In 1896, champions of free silver captured control of the Democratic Party, and Republicans went to the defense of the gold standard. Despite a number of splinter parties, the Republican nominee, William McKinley, won a majority of the presidential votes, and Republicans captured control of both houses of Congress. In addition to taking most of the Midwest, the Republican Party swept New England and the Mid-Atlantic states of New York and New Jersey by dominating urban, industrial areas. The party also made inroads in the Border states.

Republicans quickly consolidated these gains as a result of the rapid economic recovery that followed McKinley's victory. Grateful Americans dubbed the Republicans the "Grand Old Party," and the nickname GOP became a symbol of prosperity. Under McKinley, Republicans pursued an expansionist foreign policy that also proved popular and that helped to reelect him in 1900.


McKinley's assassination in 1901 put Theodore Roosevelt in the White House. Roosevelt quickly broke with McKinley's domestic policies and supported progressive reforms that became known as the "Square Deal." Avoiding an open battle with conservative Republicans who controlled Congress, Roosevelt initially relied on executive action to establish his reputation for reform. The president revived the Sherman Anti-Trust Act and started a popular conservation program. After winning election in 1904, Roosevelt found greater support among congressional Republicans, who helped enact a Pure Food and Drug Act and a Meat Inspection Act.

Roosevelt selected William Howard Taft as his successor. Once elected in 1908, the inexperienced Taft angered both progressives and conservatives in his party. In 1912, progressive insurgents organized the Progressive party and ran Theodore Roosevelt for president. As a result of this division in Republican ranks, the party lost control of both the White House and Congress. Progressive insurgents returned to the fold in 1916, but the Republican candidate, Charles Evans Hughes, lost a close race against incumbent Woodrow Wilson.


The entry of the United States into World War I raised new issues that again divided Republicans. Although most Republicans in Congress supported Wilson's war measures, they split over the president's plan for a postwar League of Nations, which was incorporated into the Treaty of Versailles. In the complicated Senate struggle that ensued, only 12 Republican isolationists took an uncompromising stand against the League. The remaining 37 Republicans insisted on various amendments or reservations in the treaty's provisions on the League. Wilson ultimately refused to accept any changes, and the treaty went down to defeat in the Senate.

The waning of progressivism and war-related issues enabled Republicans to reassert their position as majority party. The 1920 GOP platform pledged the party to serve as guardian of prosperity by raising the tariff, restricting immigration, and aiding farmers. The presidential nomination went to a dark horse, Sen. Warren G. Harding of Ohio, who won the election with a record 61% of the popular vote. The GOP swept every region outside the South.

Although the Harding administration is commonly associated with corruption, people at the time scarcely noticed it. The president himself was not implicated in any of the scandals, and he died in 1923 before the exposure of corrupt activities sent several of his appointees to jail. By then Calvin Coolidge, an upright Puritan, had become president.

As the party of prosperity, the GOP benefited from the boom of the 1920s. Both Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover won decisive victories in 1924 and 1928, and Republicans controlled both houses of Congress for the entire decade. Republican policies harked back to the pro-business tradition of McKinley. Tariffs steadily rose to an all-time high. Lax enforcement of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act encouraged the concentration of big business. Reductions in high wartime taxes benefited the rich. Opposition to these policies came from western Republicans, who formed a farm bloc in Congress.


The Great Depression destroyed the Republican majority. After years of taking credit for prosperity, the GOP found itself branded as the party of depression after the economic collapse in 1929. In 1932, at the depth of the Depression, dispirited Republicans renominated Hoover. To the surprise of no one, the majority of Americans voted against Hoover, who took less than 40% of the popular vote and carried only six states. The GOP's loss of power was even clearer in Congress, where Republicans were outnumbered by Democrats 313 to 117 in the House and 60 to 35 in the Senate (Farmer-Labor winners accounted for the rest). Under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Democrats adopted the enormously popular New Deal, which further weakened the Republican Party.

In the wake of election defeats, Republicans disagreed on the course to take. One faction coalesced behind Hoover, who issued blanket indictments of the New Deal. Eastern businessmen agreed with this anti-New Deal approach, but they hoped to find new faces to deliver the message. Recognizing the popularity of the New Deal and having voted for some New Deal measures, Republicans in Congress sought new leaders and new principles. This group got its way in 1936 when the party nominated Gov. Alfred M. Landon of Kansas for president. Both Landon and the GOP platform endorsed New Deal objectives but condemned some of its methods, especially deficit spending. However, the voters showed an overwhelming desire to stick with Roosevelt, who took every state but Maine and Vermont. In Congress the GOP was reduced to 89 of 435 House seats and 16 of 96 Senate seats.

As the 1930s drew to a close, Republicans in Congress sided with those who hoped to avoid involvement in any future European war. Most Republicans were isolationists who supported the neutrality laws and voted against increased defense appropriations. However, in 1940 the party nominated Wendell Willkie, an internationalist whose statements clashed with the record of most Republicans in Congress. Nevertheless, Willkie ran better than any GOP candidate since 1928, garnering 22,334,000 popular votes to 27,243,000 for Roosevelt. The bulk of Willkie's 82 electoral votes came from states in the upper Midwest, where farmers returned to the GOP in large numbers.


When the United States entered World War II in 1941, Republicans closed ranks behind the president in support of mobilization measures. The wartime atmosphere made it difficult for the GOP to stage a political comeback. Several Republicans even served in Roosevelt's cabinet. In 1944 the Republican Party's presidential nominee, Gov. Thomas E. Dewey of New York, criticized the New Deal but avoided war issues. Roosevelt won a fourth term. By the end of World War II most Senate Republicans, led by Arthur H. Vandenberg of Michigan, had repudiated isolationism.

In 1946, Republicans won control of both houses of Congress, but they failed to reap any permanent advantage from this feat. Pursuing a bipartisan foreign policy, Republicans voted for increased spending, as requested by Pres. Harry S. Truman, for foreign aid and armaments for the Cold War. Republicans disagreed on domestic policy. Most Republicans in Congress wanted an all-out fight against the New Deal. Another group believed that only a more moderate posture could win the presidency. As the party's nominee in 1948, Dewey ran on a platform that endorsed many of the reform measures that had been blocked by Congress. He was defeated by Truman in a stunning upset.

The 1948 election again showed how desperately Republicans needed fresh issues. They soon found one in the charge that Communists had infiltrated the federal government. In 1950 Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy of Wisconsin charged that the State Department was infested with Communists. Although McCarthy failed to prove his accusations, subsequent investigations into the charges gave Republicans their best issue since the pre-Depression era.


However, a split still remained between conservative and moderate Republicans. The former, led by Sen. Robert A. Taft of Ohio, continued to oppose the New Deal. Moderates still questioned whether this appeal could win the presidency, and they looked to Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower to carry their standard in 1952. After a hotly contested fight over convention delegates, the enormously popular Eisenhower captured the nomination on the first ballot. In a smashing victory he defeated Adlai Stevenson by taking 39 states. Republicans also won control of Congress by a narrow margin.

Eisenhower's personal popularity did not carry over to the GOP as a whole. Disliking political management, Eisenhower did little to build up the party. He continued Truman's foreign policy of containment; domestically he tried to hold the line on expenditures, which satisfied neither GOP conservatives who wanted sharp cutbacks nor interest groups that wanted more aid. In 1956 he won a rematch against Stevenson, taking 58% of the popular vote. But the Democrats won control of both houses of Congress.

The 1960 election was extremely close. Democratic senator John F. Kennedy defeated his opponent, Republican vice president Richard M. Nixon, by a margin of only 113,000 votes out of the nearly 69 million cast.


A split between conservatives and liberals once again weakened the GOP during the 1960s. Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller of New York emerged as the spokesman for party liberals and Sen. Barry M. Goldwater of Arizona as leader of the conservatives. A narrowly based presidential campaign by Goldwater produced a stunning defeat for the GOP in 1964. Goldwater took only six states and 38% of the popular vote.

When new leaders failed to bridge the gulf between conservatives and liberals in the GOP, Richard Nixon led a unified party to a narrow victory in the 1968 race against Hubert H. Humphrey (Democrat) and George C. Wallace (American Independent). Taking only 43% of the popular vote, Nixon was the first new president since 1848 to take office with both houses of Congress controlled by the opposition party. Nixon won reelection by a lopsided margin in 1972, but he resigned in 1974 in the wake of the Watergate affair. Republicans lost control of the White House in 1976, when Pres. Gerald R. Ford was defeated by Democrat Jimmy Carter.


Mounting economic woes under Carter and troublesome problems in foreign affairs, including the holding of American hostages by Iran, led to a Republican landslide in 1980. Promising to reduce federal spending, cut taxes, and strengthen defense, the Republican team of Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush won 51% of the popular vote and 489 electoral votes. The Republicans gained 12 seats in the Senate, giving them control of that body for the first time since 1954. The party had found new support in the suburbs, in the South, and among the young on the basis of Reagan's neoconservative message and strong personality.

In the 1984 presidential elections, the Reagan-Bush ticket won overwhelmingly, carrying all the states except Democratic candidate Walter Mondale's home state of Minnesota and the District of Columbia, while amassing 59% of the popular vote and 523 electoral votes. The Republicans retained control of the Senate but did not gain a majority in the House. In the midterm elections of 1986, the Republicans lost not only control of the Senate but also more ground in the House. This pattern was repeated in 1988. Although Vice Pres. George Bush and his running mate, Sen. Dan Quayle of Indiana, won the presidential election for the Republicans with 53% of the popular vote, the party lost ground in both houses of Congress. While Bush took 40 states and scored a 426-to-11 win in electoral votes, the Republicans lost five seats in the House and one in the Senate.

In 1992 the election became a referendum on the economy, and voters expressed their concerns in a stunning defeat of incumbent George Bush by Democrat Bill Clinton of Arkansas. The gradual erosion in Republican Party strength in Congress was matched by a loss at the head of the ticket, and for the first time in 12 years, Democrats controlled both branches of government. Bush won 38% of the popular vote and 155 electoral votes. The Republicans retained the same number of seats in the Senate and gained nine seats in the House. The 1994 elections brought an equally dramatic reversal as the Republican Party gained control over both houses of Congress for the first time since 1954. Most congressional Republican candidates had signed on to Rep. Newt Gingrich's "Contract with America," a list of conservative proposals that shaped the congressional agenda under Republican leadership. The 1996 election was regarded by many as evidence that a number of the Republican agenda items had been too far to the right, the Republican leadership of Speaker Newt Gingrich too abrasive, and Robert Dole, the Republican candidate for president, too negative and lackluster. The voters did, however, entrust the Republican Party with continued control over Congress, apparently to keep the Democratic White House in check.

Texas governor George W. Bush, the son of Pres. George H. W. Bush, defeated Vice Pres. Al Gore for the presidency in 2000. The race was so tight that it ultimately was decided by the U.S. Supreme Court. In the end, Bush won the electoral vote but lost the popular vote. In another close race, Bush and his vice president, Dick Cheney, won a second term in 2004. They defeated the Democratic ticket of Massachusetts senator John Kerry and North Carolina senator John Edwards with 51% of the popular vote. The electoral vote was 286 for the Republicans and 252 for the Democrats. Concerns over terrorism and moral values were seen as the key issues in Bush's victory.

Meanwhile, except for the period from June 6, 2001, through Jan. 3, 2003, the GOP controlled both houses of Congress from January 1995 until January 2007. However, the November 2006 elections turned out to be disastrous for the Republicans, with dissatisfaction with the war in Iraq and a series of Republican scandals hurting the GOP. The party lost control of both the House and the Senate as well as several governorships.

The 2008 elections were similarly problematic for the GOP. The Republican presidential candidate, Sen. John McCain, and his running mate, Alaska's Gov. Sarah Palin, were trounced by Democratic senator Barack Obama and his running mate, Sen. Joseph Biden. Obama won 53% of the popular vote, defeating McCain by a margin of 365 votes to 173 in the electoral college. The Democrats added to their leads in the House and Senate and also added a governorship. The struggling U.S. economy was considered the most important issue in the election. The Democrats lost that one-seat gain in governorships when Janet Napolitano, a Democrat, resigned as governor of Arizona to become Obama's secretary of homeland security. She was succeeded by Arizona’s Republican secretary of state, Jan Brewer.

The Obama administration took advantage of its majority in both houses of Congress to pass an ambitious legislative program. Key legislation enacted with virtually no Republican support included a $787 billion stimulus bill, heath-care reform, and financial regulatory reform. As the 2010 midterm elections approached, Republican Party candidates charged that government had become too big and that the Obama administration was too liberal. The grassroots Tea Party movement that emerged in opposition to government spending and taxation helped the GOP. With the unemployment rate stalled at 9.6%, Republicans made a strong showing on Nov. 2, 2010. The Republican Party retook control of the House of Representatives, cut the Democratic majority in the Senate by six seats, and picked up several governorships. Republican minority leader John Boehner of Ohio succeeded Nancy Pelosi as House Speaker. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky remained Senate minority leader.


The Republican Party originally built its political majority on state organizations in the Northeast and Midwest. The two bases of power in these areas were New York and Ohio. Twentieth-century GOP leaders have included Theodore Roosevelt, Charles Evans Hughes, Thomas E. Dewey, and Nelson A. Rockefeller, all noted liberal governors of New York. Ohio produced five Republican presidents: Rutherford B. Hayes, James A. Garfield, William McKinley, William Howard Taft, and Warren G. Harding.

After being reduced to minority status in the 1930s, the Republican Party controlled a small number of largely rural states, such as Maine and Vermont in New England and North Dakota, Kansas, and Nebraska in the West. On the local level the strongest Republican organizations have been in rural and suburban areas. Republican control of the nation's big cities is far less common.

The backbone of the Republican Party was originally composed of eastern businesspeople and midwestern farmers. The former were attracted by the party's pro-business policies and the latter by Lincoln's successful effort to preserve the Union. Emancipation and congressional Reconstruction also brought black voters into the party. By 1896 the GOP had a large following among industrial workers in the nation's growing urban centers. During the 1930s Republicans lost their grip on urban, industrial states.

After World War II the Republican Party found a new base of support in the middle-class suburbs that surrounded the country's metropolitan areas. This enabled the GOP to elect governors and U.S. senators in states such as New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, and California. As a result of the Second Reconstruction, which began in the 1950s, the Republican Party has made increasing headway in the once Solid South. Opposition to civil rights for blacks led a number of southern whites to bolt the Democratic Party, especially in presidential elections.

The Republican Party enjoyed much success in the late 20th and the early 21st century, winning seven of the ten presidential elections from 1968 through 2004 and having opportunities to control one or both houses of Congress. The anti-big-government philosophy of the GOP contributed to the party's revival. In the early years of the 21st century, the once Solid South had joined the states of the Great Plains and the intermontane West in becoming known as "red states," or states that regularly vote Republican. The 2006 and 2008 elections were marked by reversals in this trend, with the Democrats winning several Senate and House races in traditional Republican strongholds, to take control of both bodies, as well as winning the presidency in 2008. Following the Republicans’ overwhelming defeat in the 2008 elections, there was debate over what direction the party should take. Some, such as former vice president Cheney and political commentator Rush Limbaugh, argued that the party should move toward its conservative base. Others, including former secretary of state Colin Powell, thought that the party should try to appeal to moderates.

The 2010 midterm victory by the Republicans seemed to indicate a conservative trend for the party. The unanswered question was, to what extent would the new Congress and the Obama administration work together or against one another during the next two years?

George H. Mayer
University of South Florida 
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