A Brief History of the Republican Party
by William P. Meyers
Outline of Sections
Prelude: Whigs, Abolitionists, Know-Nothings, and Free Soilers
Steps to Civil War
The elections of 1856 and 1858
The Negro Wing of the Republican Party
Wall Street Republicans
Sugar, Hanna, McKinley and War
Teddy Roosevelt and the Progressives
Roaring Back in the 20's
The Great Depression and a Half-century in the Minority
Nixon and Revival
Reagan and Resurgence
The Christian Right and Newt Gingrich
W. Bush and Dominance
Prelude: Whigs, Abolitionists, Know-Nothings, and Free Soilers
The Whig Party candidate, Zachary Taylor, won the presidential election of 1848. The Democratic candidate, Lewis Cass, is forgotten. Martin Van Buren, a former president and the Free Soil Party candidate, placed third.
The Republican Party did not exist in 1848. There had been a different party called “Republican” or “Democratic-Republican” from about 1790 to about 1836, but that party’s story will be covered separately.
The exact founding of the Republican Party is disputed, but aspects of the party were in existence around 1852 and its founding convention was on July 6, 1854 at Jackson, Michigan., In the fall of 1854 it elected 40 members to the U.S. House of Representatives (more if you count representatives co-nominated by the American and Republican parties). By the elections of 1856 it had gone from third party status to being the main rival of the Democrats.
What happened between 1848 and 1854 that could create a full-blown political party in so short a time? There were two main causes: the slavery issue and the rise and fall of the American Party, mistakenly called the Know-Nothing Party. Like the Republican Party, the American Party came into existence quickly and elected a large number of officials; it had the most members of any political party in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1854.
The Whigs, the number 2 party since the 1820's, had been formed in opposition to the Democrats as led by Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren. The party was not formed around any particular principles. Led originally by Henry Clay, it was a loose coalition of men who sought office for any of a number of reason. In the north it included abolitionists and people opposed to the expansion of slave territories, and those favoring protective, high tariffs (customs duties); in the south it favored slavery and lower tariffs. This worked fine until about 1850, but the renewed struggle over extending slavery to new western states and territories demanded that men chose sides. The southern Whigs deserted the party to join the Democrats, who were clearly the party of slavery. The northern Whigs mostly hopped on the American Party on their way to becoming Republicans.
But the core of the Republican Party appears to have evolved from the Free Soil Party. It had grown out of the free soil movement, which stood against extensions of slavery. The failure of the Whigs to take a stand, as a national party, against extending slavery left a political opening which the Free Soil Party filled. They also attracted anti-slavery northern Democrats. An important part of their platform was free homesteads for settlers from federal lands. Their slogan was “Free soil, free speech, free labor, and free men.” Though they did not, as a party, advocate abolishing slavery in the southern states, their party was closest to an abolitionist view. In 1848 their presidential candidate, Martin Van Buren, ran a distant third but received 291,623 votes. They sent two Senators and fourteen Representatives to Congress. In 1852 they ran John P. Hale for president, but received only 155,825 votes. Around 1852 they merged into the Republican Party.
The American Party was formed primarily as an anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic group. Its recruits came mostly from the Whig Party, though many Democrats joined as well. Founded as a secret organization, so secret they came to be called “Know Nothings,” they did not come out as the American Party until after their great successes in local and congressional elections of 1854. In 1856 Millard Filmore was their presidential candidate, gaining 8974,534 votes, one of the best third-party showings in U.S. history. But they were divided by the slavery issue, and by 1858 most American Party adherents in the north merged into the Republican Party, while in the south they rejoined the Democrats.
Though not a separate party, the abolitionists were an important component in creating the Republican Party. The idea of abolishing slavery was old; it had been declared abolished in Great Britain by the Somerset Decision of 1771, which helped precipitate the American Revolution. The abolition of slavery in all British colonies in 1833 also put Americans on a low moral footing. The debates about extending slavery to the western territories and new states made everyone in America aware of the abolitionist stance.
Steps to Civil War
Five great events mark the U.S.’s progress towards the Civil War: the Missouri Compromise, the Compromise of 1850, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the Dred Scott Decision, and the election of the first Republican President.
The Missouri Compromise of 1820 allowed Maine to be admitted to the union as a free state and Missouri to be admitted as a slave state. Most of the remaining Louisiana Territory - actually the land of sovereign native Indian nations - that the nation’s leaders planned to annex was declared to be free. It seemed that this would stop the spread of slavery. But the annexation of Texas in 1845 and then northern Mexico (now the U.S.’s southwestern states) in 1848 changed the political equation.
California was the most populous of the conquered lands and applied in 1849 to become a free state. That would give free states a majority in the Senate as well as the House; slavers feared it was the first step to political defeat. A fierce debate ensued in Congress in 1850, with compromise as the result. California was admitted as a free state, but New Mexico and Utah were to decide for themselves if they wanted to allow slavery. In the District of Columbia the slave trade, but not slavery itself, was outlawed. And the most stringent Fugitive Slave Act ever was enacted.
The Fugitive Slave Act was very offensive to citizens in free states. Many people in the northern states who were not set on abolishing slavery in the south felt that if a slave escaped to a free state, they became free. It was a matter of states’ rights and people’s rights. Many of these citizens were driven into the abolitionist camp by the sight of escaped slaves being re-captured and by the prosecution of those who ran the Underground Railroad. They also lost interest in the Whig Party, which endorsed the Act along with the Democratic Party. This lead to the creation of the Free Soil Party, and eventually to the creation of the Republican Party
Kansas and Nebraska were the next Indian lands to be turned into states; they were to be free states under the Compromise of 1850. But in 1854 Stephen A. Douglas, a leading Democrat, proposed that instead the citizens in those territories be allowed to choose for themselves whether to be free or slave states. The pro-slavery Democrats had the votes to put the plan, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, through. The Whigs and the new American Party did nothing to stop it.
The abolitionists, free soilers, and those who wanted no extensions to slave territories (though they were willing, for the sake of keeping southern states in the Union, to allow slavery to continue where it already existed), needed a new party. They chose not to try to reform the Democrats, Whigs, or American Party. The Republican Party was born alive and kicking in 1854.
But, like the American Party and the Whigs, the Republican Party might have disappeared quickly if it had not been for the ongoing debate (and in Kansas, what amounted to a civil war) over slavery. The final straw that tipped the northern states against the long tradition of Democratic Party power was the Dred Scott Decision. It is important to recall that the American Constitution legalized slavery at the time the British Parliament was debating abolishing the slave trade. It was individual states that outlawed slavery. Since state-rights was an accepted political doctrine until the Civil War, for the most part this going-against the pro-slavery Constitution had been tolerated by the slavers who controlled southern state governments.
Dred Scott hoped that the result of his case would be like the Somerset decision had been in England. It would make clear that stepping onto free soil made you a free man. But the Supreme Court, dominated by Democratic Party appointees, declared that Dred Scott remained the private property of his owners. They went further, implying that no state had the right to deny a citizen the right to put his private property, including slaves, anywhere he saw fit. The Dred Scott decision was handed down in 1857. Republican Party candidates for local office and the House of Representatives dominated the elections in northern states in 1858.
Presidential Elections of 1856 and 1860
In 1856 the Republican Party overtook the Whig Party to become the great rival of the Democratic Party. But it was not simply a reformed and renamed Whig Party. The Whigs had been a national party; the Republicans were almost all in the non-slave states. The Whig Party had been political largely in the sense that it was a grouping of people who sought government offices; the Republican Party was a party of principles, a party that took positions on a variety of issues and promised to change the laws of the land in fundamental ways.
The Democrats nominated James Buchanan for president in 1856. The Republicans nominated John C. Fremont, who used the “free soil, free labor, free speech, free men” slogan for his campaign. The American Party and the Whigs both nominated ex-president Millard Fillmore. Buchanan won well less than half the popular vote, but took a large majority in the Electoral Collage (1,838,169 and 174). Fremont received the second largest number of citizen votes and votes in the Electoral College (1,341, 264 and 114). Fillmore placed third with a substantial number of popular votes but won only Maryland (874,534 and 8).
The congressional elections of 1858 were heavily influenced by popular reaction to the Dred Scott decision. The American Party and Whigs continued their declines. The Democrats, though still a national party, were increasingly identified with slavery. The Republicans continued to strengthen their role in free-state politics.
The presidential election of 1860 is one of the most interesting in American history. The Whig-American-Republican grouping had lost the presidency in 1856 because their vote was divided. Yet the Democrats divided their vote in 1860. The reason was simple: the voters had become passionate about the issue of slavery. In fact, with slavers fighting anti-slavery militias in Kansas, and John Brown having conducted his anti-slavery raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859, they were doing more than just voting about the issue. The Republicans were all against slavery, though a large majority of the party were willing to allow it to continue to exist in the southern slave states if its expansion was stopped and slaves became free when they stepped on free state soil (reversing the Dred Scott decision). The Democrats divided into two factions, basically southern and northern factions. Stephen Douglas was the mainstream, northern Democrat; his position was to let each state decide whether to allow slavery or not. That was not good enough for the more radical slave masters, who nominated John Breckinridge on a platform of extending slavery. The remnants of the southern Whig and American parties merged into yet another party, the Constitutional Union Party. Nominating John Bell, they emphasized the need to preserve the union, going to great lengths to take no stand on slavery or its extension.
While the Constitutional Union Party candidate split off some votes that might otherwise have gone to Lincoln, the Democrat vote was much more closely divided. As a result, though he only received 40% of the popular vote (1,866,452), Abraham Lincoln received 180 Electoral College votes, compared to 123 total for the other 3 candidates. All of Lincoln’s Electoral College votes came from free states, that is, from northern states plus California and Oregon.
Passion often makes for bad judgment, and the slavers proceeded to make a series of mistakes that forced Lincoln and the Republicans to abolish slavery.
When 1861 dawned, with Lincoln soon to be inaugurated, the slavers actually still held the political upper hand. The majority of Supreme Court justices were pro-slavery. Republicans did not have a majority in either house of Congress. To abolish slavery would require a constitutional amendment, which could be blocked by one-quarter of the states; slavers controlled almost one half of the states.
Yet before Abraham Lincoln had been inaugurated on March 4, 1861, 7 states announced they had seceded from the U.S. They joined together as the Confederate States of America, under the leadership of a leading member of the Democratic Party, Jefferson Davis.
Aside from the slavery issue, leading southern businessmen and politicians feared the Republicans for another reason. Some Republican politicians, including Lincoln, a former lawyer for the railroads, were backed by northern businessmen, in particular the owners of railroad and manufacturing corporations. Cotton growers feared higher protective tariffs on imported manufactured goods; the south was already deeply indebted to northern bankers and merchants.
Another mistake of the southerners was not taking the matter to the Supreme Court. It is very possible that the Supreme Court, with 5 southern members on it, would have ruled that states have a right to secede. But to admit that the Supreme Court had any jurisdiction over them was as galling to the southern secessionists as it was to the northern abolitionists who evaded the Fugitive Slave laws and Dred Scott ruling.
Not content to rule over a greatly diminished United States, the Republican Party and others who opposed secession (many northern Democrats were pro-slavery but anti-secession) forced a civil war upon the nation. There were two important effects of the Civil War upon the Republican Party (aside from the lasting effects of winning the war).
First, it became the party of Big Government and high taxes. It favored a centralized national government over state and local governance. The Republican war effort required high taxes to pay for men and their supplies, and that supported the industrialization process that went along with war. It became closely tied to northern manufacturing interests, which included a greatly enlarged class of millionaires created by war profiteering. Second, it took on the virtuous role of favoring the abolition of slavery and the improvement of the lives of economically deprived citizens, both Negro and those of European descent. This role is highlighted by the Homestead Act of 1862, which provided free land to western settlers.
These two roles corresponded to two ‘wings” of the party, the moderate wing and the Radical Republicans.
It was the Radical Republicans who supported the Confiscation Act (freeing the slaves of soldiers fighting the union), the Emancipation Proclamation, which was intended to abolish slavery in the confederate states, and the 13th Amendment, which did abolish slavery in the re-united states. They also pushed for the established the Freedmen’s Bureau.
The Negro Wing of the Republican Party
In order to remain President in a war-weary nation, in the 1864 contest the Republicans had combined with pro-union, pro-war Democrats into the Union Party. Lincoln had taken Andrew Johnson, a Democrat, as his Vice-Presidential running mate. When Lincoln was assassinated the country suddenly had a Democrat for president and a Republican Congress led by the Radical Republicans. They denied the now-defeated southern former-slavers the right to sit in Congress; set up the Committee on Reconstruction to rule the southern states; and fought with President Johnson to the point of attempting to impeach him.
In 1866 and 1868 Negro voters helped elect Republican congresses and a new Republican President, Ulysses S. Grant. Radical Republican control of Congress resulted in all male Americans, regardless of their origins or skin color, receiving the right to vote upon passage of the 15th Amendment in 1870. The former slave states also remained under military occupation until new state constitutions, written to the liking of Radical Republicans, were in place.
White southerners, with few exceptions, became even more solidly identified with the Democratic Party. Many could not run for office or vote because of their records as traitors. Freed slaves, with few exceptions, joined the Republican Party, giving it a presence in the south for the first time. Many Negroes were elected to local and state offices. For the ex-slavers the situation was intolerable, and the solution was terrorism.
The Ku Klux Klan was the terrorist wing of the southern Democratic Party. In locality after locality, then state after state, former slaves were scared away from voting, and then from even being registered to vote. Until the Great Depression most black Americans would be Republicans; in the South they would constitute most of the Republican Party. However, after 1876 few black Americans were able to vote in the southern states. As a result black politicians could not be elected to office; in the South no Republicans could be elected to office at all; and the influence of blacks within the national party was minimal.
Wall Street Republicans
Starting with the civil war and accelerating into the 20th century the United States economy was rapidly industrialized. Even the agricultural economy was being mechanized, so that fewer people’s labor sufficed to grow and harvest bountiful crops of wheat and corn. Displaced farmers migrated to the towns and cities. Even food came to be processed in great factories. Corporations were the main form of organization of the large-scale business that grew during this period. Much of politics of the era consisted of struggles between the wealthy, who owned stock in the corporations, and those who labored for wages, ran smaller businesses, or continued to farm on a small scale. Since the Republican Party both dominated the national government and dominated the northern state governments where manufacturing was concentrated, controlling the party was important to the men of great wealth. By using their wealth to support the campaigns of politicians, who in turn used all their power to help their donors, wealthy Americans came to dominate the Republican Party. Radical Republicans lost elections to business-sponsored candidates, and the business of the Republican Party came to be protecting corporate interests. After this point we may refer to the controlling elite of the Republican Party as Wall Street Republicans.
In 1872 a group of anti-corruption minded Republicans formed the Liberal Republican party and nominated newspaper editor Horace Greeley as their presidential candidate. The Democrats, eager to rebuild their party, decided to nominate Greeley as well. But with Grant still a war hero, the Democrats still the party of treason, and many black Americans still able to vote, it was any easy victory for Grant. Two demands of the Liberal Republicans were adopted by the mainstream Republicans. Except for 500 ex-confederate leaders, former rebels had their voting rights, and their right to run for office, restored. Civil service reform was also attempted.
The Presidential election of 1876 provides a good view of the changing social and political landscape. The Democrats nominated Samuel J. Tilden, the Republicans Rutherford B. Hayes. The Klan had done its job: the Democrats swept the southern states excepting two remaining under military governance, South Carolina and Louisiana, plus Florida, then a sparsely populated state with only 4 electoral votes. The winner was disputed in those three states. After much bargaining Hayes was given the Presidency, but only after he promised to pull the remaining federal troops out of the South and, effectively, to do nothing about the disenfranchisement of black voters by the Democratic Party.
Despite more charges of corruption and economic hard times, the Republicans were able to hold onto majorities in Congress until the mid-term elections of 1882. The Democrat’s combination of having a Protestant, white-racist wing in the south and a Catholic, immigrant-based, urban wing in the North, was proving to be too powerful for the Republicans. In 1884 the Republican presidential candidate James G. Blaine lost to Democrat Grover Cleveland in another close election. But for wealthy men and their corporations, this was not a problem; they controlled both parties quite effectively. The Supreme Court was filled with former corporate lawyers; it could be relied on to overrule state legislature or even a Congress that went against corporate wishes. With both parties dominated by business, a new movement arose. The Farmers Alliance, the Populist Party, labor unions, anarchism, and socialism all were important components of American politics in the late 1880's.
It is important to note that the average Republican voter of the era was not rich, corrupt, or mean-spirited. Most Republicans were farmers, tradesmen, or factory workers who had fought with the Union during the Civil War. They believed in hard work and honest business dealings; they were assets to their communities. Often they voted Republican because the only other choice was to vote Democrat. When offered an honest politician to vote for, or a Progressive Republican candidate, they usually availed themselves to the opportunity. Corporate domination of the Republican Party was carried out in backrooms and by creating a party machine that would see that corporate-friendly candidates were nominated.
Sugar, Hanna, McKinley and War
Many businessmen had great influence in politics at the end of the 19th century, but most were content with high tariffs (customs taxes on imported manufactured goods) and freedom from regulations. The Sugar Trust, however, took control of United States politics for profit to a new level: it required war, and it got war.
A prelude to the main show was provided by Hawaii, where a treaty had granted U.S. rights to a naval base in Pearl harbor in 1887. In 1893, aided by U.S. troops, American sugar cane growers overthrew the native government and asked for Hawaii to be annexed to the United States. But by the time a bill for that was ready in the U.S. Senate, Grover Cleveland had been elected President. He sent a commission to Hawaii that found most Hawaiians wanted to remain independent. No further action was taken until after a much bigger sugar fight.
Sugar magnate Henry Havemeyer had a few problems even after he became fabulously rich and the controlling person in the Sugar Trust. His factories turned raw cane sugar into the crystal white powder that had been a mainstay of world trade for centuries. Not only was very little sugar cane grown in the U.S. (mostly in Louisiana), but some U.S. farmers wanted to grow and refine sugar beets to compete with cane. What the Sugar Trust needed was cheap, untaxed imports of raw sugar, but very high tariffs on competing imported refined sugar. Congress was willing to go along (Havemeyer had perfected the stock-tip bribe: Senators could get rich quick by simply buying and selling sugar trust stock on Havemeyer’s instructions) on the high tariffs for imported refined sugar, but Louisiana Senators vigorously opposed low tariffs on raw sugar.
Various interests in the U.S. had long coveted Cuba and other islands in Spain’s American empire. Havemeyer determined to buy himself a President and a war. While it is well known that Mark Hanna raised vast sums of money to insure William McKinley triumphed over Democrat William Jennings Bryan in the 1896 Presidential election, the role of the Sugar Trust in that election has been overlooked. McKinley owed Havemeyer a war; many American expansionists like Theodore Roosevelt wanted a war anyway. Delay was necessary only because Havemeyer needed to have Citibank buy up sugar plantations in Cuba and Puerto Rico that would become vastly more valuable after the war. Forget the explosion of the Maine: America was going to war regardless. McKinley made demands of the Spanish, had them met fully, and then made even more aggressive demands that no nation would find acceptable.
On April 11, 1898 McKinley asked Congress to declare war, and Democrats and Republicans alike were happy to do it. Spain had already lost the Philippines, excepting Manila, to native rebels, and was barely holding its own against Cuban rebels. On August 12, 1998, the Spanish signed an armistice. 500 Americans had died in battle, while 5000 had died of tropical diseases.
In the Philippines the defeat of the Spanish started an even greater war: one against the Filipino people themselves. They fought guerrilla style; probably 1,000,000 died, many of them civilians; and 4,324 American soldiers were killed. In 1901 the Filipino leader, Emilio Aguinaldo, was captured. Most sugar plantations had new American owners. In 1942 the Japanese “liberated” the Philippines from the United States; in 1946, after driving out the Japanese, the U.S. finally allowed the Philippines to become an independent nation.
Teddy Roosevelt and the Progressives
The heritage of the Radical and Liberal Republicans was partly buried by the rise of the powerful, corporate and increasingly conservative business wing of the party. But the same economic, technical and cultural changes that affected the entire nation affected the ordinary Republican citizens who often had much input into local politics even when corrupt men occupied higher office.
As the 20th century dawned the reform movement became a tidal wave. A number of streams of citizens’ demands came together and fed into each other. Even some demands of socialists gained an audience among Republicans who had felt the brunt of the predatory tactics of the gigantic business corporations. Writers, including the muckrakers, novelists writing books like Frank Norris’s The Octopus about Republican farmers being crushed by Republican railroad barons, and non-fiction like Thorstein Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure Class, had a notable influence on the Republican faithful. The financial panic of 1907 also undermined people’s belief in the infallibility of the free market.
Anger at the patent drug industry, the alcohol industry, and the food industry was widespread. Theodore Roosevelt, a Republican, had become President in 1901 when President McKinley was assassinated. Though he had been a promoter of the Spanish-American and then the Philippine-American wars, and was from a very wealthy family, Roosevelt had shown concern for the plight of the poor when serving as New York police commissioner. During Roosevelt’s presidency the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act were passed in 1906. The conservation on national forests had started under Republican President Harrison in 1891; but Roosevelt pushed hard on this issue. He placed some 125 million acres in federal reserves, about 3 times the total of all of his predecessors.
While the reformers, known as the Progressive Movement, could be found in both political parties (and in third parties), they had more influence, during this period, in the Republican Party. In addition to Roosevelt, well-known Progressive Republicans included governor Robert (“Fighting Bob”) La Follette of Wisconsin, California’s governor Hiram Johnson, and governor Charles Evans Hughs of New York State. Issues like getting the right of women to vote cut across party lines, with suffragettes in Republican states working within the Republican Party.
In 1911 the National Progressive Republican league was formed to oust President Taft and get a progressive in the White House. Roosevelt decided to head the progressives and won most of the Republican primaries in 1912. But Taft controlled a majority of delegates to the nominating convention and received the nomination.
The Progressives thought Teddy could beat both the Republicans and the Democrats, so they split and formed the Progressive Party. The Democrats nominated the racist, but otherwise posing as progressive, Woodrow Wilson. Of course Wilson won and the Republicans would not regain the Presidency until 1920.
Roaring Back in the 20's
The 1920's were a critical period for the Republican Party. While the party would contain a progressive or liberal wing until the 1970's, during the 1920's the Wall Street wing gained an ascendency which it never lost. Partly this was because of President Wilson’s performance in office, which led to a landslide in 1920 for Republican presidential candidate Warren G. Harding over Democrat nominee James M. Cox. It was the first presidential election in which women could vote, and they voted Republican.
After a postwar recession the American economy continued the process of rapid industrialization. The European industrial powers had worn themselves out, but America had entered the war only after selling them vast amounts of arms and food. Because the U.S. had spent relatively little on the war, its taxes were relatively low, and manufacturers had a global competitive advantage. Harding appointed men who believed businesses needed no regulation to the agencies that were supposed to regulate business. An ardent anti-conservationist, Albert Fall, was appointed Secretary of Interior.
At the same time businessmen were terrified of the Communist revolution that had taken place in Russia (with failed attempts in several other countries). Conservative groups labeled anyone demanding any reform a communist. Of course there were actual communists, belonging to the American Communist Party, which took orders from Moscow, but most progressives wanted reforms through democratic change, not a dictatorship created by a bloody revolution.
While the economy grew, the stock market ran wild. Taxes on the rich were reduced by two-thirds by the sympathetic Republican Congress. Tariff’s on imported goods were greatly increased, supporting prices American manufacturers could charge at the expense of farmers and consumers. Scandals were plentiful, notably the Teapot Dome scandal. Meanwhile organized businessmen made black-market profits selling alcohol to the thirsty, a business made possible by the passage of the Prohibition amendment in 1919.
Harding died in office of natural causes and was succeeded by Calvin Coolidge. Republicans had another fling with Progressive ideas in the 1924 election, when some split again from the main party and nominated Bob La Follette for President. Calvin Coolidge led the main party ticket. The Democrats nominated a conservative Wall Street lawyer, John W. Davis. This time the Republican split did not prevent a Republican landslide. But Cal only served one term. The Republican nominee in 1928 was Herbert Hoover.
It is difficult to imagine now how popular Herbert Hoover was in 1928. He and the Republicans were so popular it looked as if the Democratic Party might cease to exist. He had become famous during World War I for getting food to the starving in Belgium. He had a good record as Secretary of Commerce; a little too good for the crooked politicians and their businessmen friends. The Democrats nominated Al Smith, who was devoted to making alcohol legal again. That and his Catholicism made him unpopular even in the “solid South” where the Klan, the backbone of the Democratic Party, was almost as anti-Catholic as it was anti-Negro.
Hoover received 21,391,381 votes to Smith’s 15,016,443. Smith carried only the 5 solidest states of the Solid South. Hoover was sworn in as President on March 4, 1929. No one knew it then, but the stock market had already peaked.
The Great Depression and a Half-century in the Minority
The exodus of farmers, especially tenant farmers and laborers, for factory jobs continued during the 1920s. Agriculture had not prospered with the rest of the economy during the 1920's. Hoover tried to help by signing the Agricultural Marketing Act in June of 1929. It established a Farm Board that hoped to raise prices of agricultural products. But farmer’s unsold surpluses were so large that it never achieved its goals.
By October of 1929 the stock market was down noticeably, though the economy itself was still going strong. Savvy investors like Joseph Kennedy were selling their stocks for cash. Confidence in quick paper stock profits began to wain, and then everyone wanted the paper profits they had accumulated in the 1920's converted to cash on the same day, October 29, 1929. Many speculators had borrowed money to play the market; they were forced to sell their stocks to cover the debts in their margin accounts.
The beloved free-market religion of the most ardent business Republican’s had failed (the truest believers blamed the failure on government meddling, the very Devil in their world view). Suddenly realizing they were much poorer, stock speculators cut back on spending. Banks, panicking, called in loans. Demand for goods and services fell, businesses laid off workers, and consumption fell even further.
Herbert Hoover was President when it happened, and Herbert Hoover continued as President until the beginning of 1933. Though Hoover tried various measures, often Congress failed to support him (Republicans because they did not believe in government meddling in business, Democrats because they were delighted to see the nation blame Republicans for the problems). Among the measures tried by Hoover were public projects like the Boulder Dam, creation of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, and the Norris-La Guardia Act that essentially legalized organizing labor unions.
The Democrats won the Congressional (and state and local) elections of 1930, then the Presidency in 1932. In a few short years the Republicans had gone from being the majority party to the minority party.
It is important to note that progressive “liberal” Republicans gained many important positions, notably in Congress, during the Depression years. Many of the acts that are now associated with the Democratic Party, such as Social Security, were in fact passed with broad support from both parties.
Not only would the “business” wing of the Republican Party need decades to see their party have an equal footing with the Democrats, but they would have to work together with a liberal/Progressive wing that had far more influence inside the party.
Towards the end of World War II and during Truman’s presidency in particular the Republican Party gained mainly through some voters’ irritation at the party in power. In 1946, for instance, the Republicans briefly had a majority in Congress. This success was capped with the election of Dwight D. Eisenhower as President in 1952. But the former WWII commander was much more popular than the party he headed. Eisenhower won by a landslide, but the Republicans barely managed majorities in Congress. An important change took place in the South, however. Florida, Texas and Tennessee went for Eisenhower; the Republican Party began to acquire the southern constituency it would turn to for success after the 1960's.
Eisenhower’s Republicans were content to undo what they saw as the most excessive New Deal legacies, such as wage and price controls, but left such programs as Social Security intact. They favored less government-held electricity creation and allowed corporations to begin building nuclear power plants. The economy was again expanding of its own accord, pumped up by a rising birth rate (the baby boom), exports (again, Europe lay prostrate), and pent-up demand from WWII and Korean War era rationing. America still liked Ike in 1956, but the Democrats still held their own in Congress.
Richard Nixon was Ike’s Vice-Presidential running mate in 1956 and played an important role within the administration. He was fiercely patriotic and anti-communist, but also adamant that black Americans in the South should be treated as full citizens. In 1954 the Supreme Court, mainly appointed during the New Deal years, declared segregated (by race) schools to be illegal, even if the schools were truly “separate but equal.” Southern Democrats and the Klan opposed, sometimes with violence, the integration of southern public schools. In one incident Eisenhower, at Nixon’s urging, had to send federal troops to Little Rock, Arkansas, where Democratic governor Faubus tried to prevent the enrollment of “Negro” (the term used in that era) children. The Civil Rights bill of 1957, the first since Reconstruction, was passed with support from Republicans and northern Democrats.
In 1960, allegedly using massive fraud in Illinois, the Democrats won back the presidency by a hair. During the 1960's the Republicans struggled to remain relevant. Blacks enrolling to vote in the formerly segregated southern states forgot that the Republicans were the party of Lincoln and the Democrats were the party of Lynching. African-Americans would be the most reliable component of the Democratic party for the remaining decades of the 20th century, and they tipped the scales strongly against the Republicans.
Nixon and Revival
After Vice-President Richard Nixon lost his bid for the Presidency in 1960, what then passed as the ultra-conservative wing gained control of the party. They nominated Barry Goldwater for President in 1964; Lyndon Johnson, who had become President after Kennedy was assassinated, crushed Goldwater in the polls. But Johnson had fabricated the Gulf of Tonkin incident and involved the U.S. in a new land war in Asia, in Vietnam. He lost the support of anti-war Democrats, then decided not to run in 1968.
The Republicans next moved back to a centrist, Richard M. Nixon, for their Presidential nominee. The Democrats nominated another centrist, Hubert Humphrey, Johnson’s Vice-President. The Democrats under Johnson had extended the New Deal to include what were called Great Society social welfare programs, also known as the War on Poverty. Nixon held to the traditional Republican belief that the only viable way out of poverty was hard work; programs appropriate in a Great Depression were not needed in the booming economy of 1960's America. Enough working class and middle class Americans agreed with him to elect him President. But the country was still Democratic; both houses of Congress had Democratic majorities, so Nixon had to gain some votes from Democratic congressmen to get his ideas enacted.
Richard Nixon had several remarkable achievements in office. In foreign policy Nixon recognized that Communism was not monolithic. By forging an alliance with Communist China he accelerated the breakup of the communist block countries and helped China regain its status as a great civilization. In domestic policy Nixon realized that the world had changed and that certain reforms had to be put into place to deal with those changes. Notably he signed into law the creation of an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In politics Nixon was able to see how the Republican Party might become a majority party again. As the more conservative of the two parties, and in particular the party favoring more individual initiative and less taxes, it was natural that it should find a way to break up the Democratic Party’s monopoly in the southern states. The 1972 presidential election would demonstrate that strategy could work.
The War in Vietnam was the biggest issue in the 1972 election. The Democrats nominated George McGovern, who wished to withdraw from Vietnam and was very much in favor of extending New Deal and Great Society programs. The more conservative Democratic Party bosses, though temporarily unable to boss the grassroots around, nevertheless undermined McGovern’s campaign. The new black voters for McGovern were counter-weighted by white, conservative, working and middle-class voters, especially in the south, voting Republican for the first time. Nixon won every state but Massachusetts, but the Democrats still held control of Congress.
There may have been an element of racism in the South when white voters began voting for Republican candidates, and later even changed their party registration. After all, blacks were now Democrats. But the main reason white voters switched was because most had little desire, themselves, for social welfare programs. Religion played a role too; the Republican Party was traditionally Protestant, as were white southern voters. These southern voters were also very anti-communist; the Democrats, and McGovern in particular, appeared to be soft on Communism.
But Richard Nixon had made a serious error in judgment on two points. Despite his great achievements, Watergate and the Vietnam War would destroy his reputation. In Vietnam he underestimated how badly the Vietnamese wanted to be free from American domination. No matter how much he threatened, no matter what horrible weapons he unleashed on the people of Vietnam, they continued to fight. Expanding the war into Cambodia backfired, strengthening the Cambodian Communists. Finally Nixon had to negotiate a withdrawal of American troops; after a face-saving period of time, the Communists took control of all of Vietnam. As a result Nixon lost the support of the militarists, who blamed him for losing a war, and of the pacifists, who blamed him for prosecuting it before losing it.
His second great error was unleashing his “dirty tricks” team on the Democrats. In retrospect he would have won the 1972 election easily by simply running an honest campaign. But the dirty-tricks gang was caught burglering the offices of the Democrats in the Watergate Hotel. Nixon tried to cover up his role in the affair, but a committee of Congress kept investigating until Nixon was compelled to resign to avoid impeachment. Since Vice-President Agnew had resigned due to a scandal in 1973, the new Vice-President, Gerald Ford, became the new President of the United States.
The Watergate scandal and disillusionment after the loss of the war in Vietnam temporarily stopped the Republican party’s growth. Gerald Ford gave Richard Nixon a pardon, but the voters would not pardon Gerald when he ran for President in 1976. The Democrats, worried about their eroding base in the South, nominated a moderate Georgia former governor, Jimmy Carter, and regained the White House.
Reagan and Resurgence
But in the 1976, 1978, and 1980 elections the tendency of the country to realign around the parties on a new basis continued, with the results most visible in the south, where many formerly Democratic voters and elected politicians switched to being Republicans. The conservative wing of the Democratic party was weakened by these defections to the Republicans.
Since the Great Depression the only way the Republicans had been able to get a President elected was by choosing a moderate candidate like Eisenhower or Nixon. That was about to change. The Goldwater Republicans had never given up. As memories of the Depression evaporated, and the results of the 60's drug culture became apparent, their appeal to conservative values and free-market ideology gained ground in the party and with voters. Republicans nominated ultra-conservative former movie actor (and former Governor of California) Ronald Reagan for President in 1980. Jimmy Carter ran for a second term. His defeat is usually attributed to an economic recession, post-Vietnam bad feelings, and the fall of an American puppet, the Shaw of Iran. During the election campaign the revolutionaries in Iran held U.S. consulate members hostage. Carter appeared to be weak and ineffective in dealing with the situation.
From 1932 until 1980 American politics were dominated by the Democratic Party and the idea that the main purpose of government is social welfare and economic expansion through increasing the incomes (and spending) of the working class. Since 1980 (up until this essay is being written in 2005) politics has been dominated by the Republican Party and the idea that the main purposes of government is providing order and economic expansion through increasing the profits of business enterprises. Generally, voters have been happy with economic expansion no matter what the cause (and unhappy with stagnation or decline).
It was called the Reagan Revolution but in fact the Reagan era kept most of the New Deal and Great Society programs, though some were scaled back. It was in foreign policy that Reagan made the most dramatic changes. He escalated the cold war, not by an actual attack, but by increasing military spending to a degree that the Communist block countries could not match. He also found methods, some of them of questionable legality, to undermine socialist and left wing governments, in particular that of Nicaragua. These strategies cumulated (after Reagan left office) in the breaking away of the Eastern European states from Soviet dominance starting with Poland. A regime change in Russia and the breakup of the Soviet union followed.
While domestic policies ended the Reagan era little changed, the positive experience of having an expanding economy and victory over communism greatly strengthened not only the credibility of the Republican Party with American voters, but also the dominance of the conservative wing within the Republican Party.
The Christian Right and Newt Gingrich
In 1988 in the Republican presidential primaries television evangelist Pat Robertson began as a strong contender but withdrew from the race after his claim to have been in combat as a marine in the Korean War was shown to be false. George Bush, Reagan’s Vice-President, became the Republican nominee and then President of the United States. He one-term presidency was characterized by a war against Iraq following the Iraq invasion of Kuwait, an oil-rich kingdom on the Persian Gulf.
Despite its Presidential victories in 1980, 1984, and 1988, the Republican Party was still far behind the Democrats in registered voters. To the extent that the two parties were a reflection of economic classes (with a majority of welfare and working class families registered Democrat, a majority of upper-middle and upper class families registered Republican, and the lower-middle to middle-middle class up for grabs), the Republicans were in a corner. Pressing policies like deregulation, lower corporate taxes, and a lower inheritance tax, all highly desired by the dominant Wall Street clique within the party, might have eroded what support they did have among the less wealthy voters.
It was clear to party strategists, which is to say Wall Street Republicans, that they needed to find a way to get votes from people whose economic needs they did not serve. Their success in breaking up the Solid South, the bastion of the Democratic Party until the 1970s, pointed the way. They would take advantage of non-economic, cultural issues to bring into the Party a huge group of voters who were not motivated, or not very motivated, by Republican economic policies.
The target group was fundamentalist and evangelical Christians. Though found everywhere in the nation, these individuals were most prevalent in the former Confederate states. They included some, but not all, Southern Baptists. Politically they had often been apathetic, with low voter turn outs for elections. But that was changing. A set of issues was chosen that would appeal to them, and with the financial backing of Wall Street republicans, a new set of political and religious leaders emerged. Pat Robertson has already been mentioned; other leaders included Reverend Jerry Falwell, founder of Moral Majority, and Ralph Reed of the Christian Coalition. The issues that mobilized this movement were demands to make abortions (and even birth control) illegal; to allow or enforce prayer in public schools; and to make the Bible a basis for law.
While this new Religious Right, as it was called, helped elect President Bush in 1988, the alliance was insufficient to give him a victory in 1992. For eight years Democrat Bill Clinton would sit in the White House, but he was under siege from the Republicans, who gained majorities in the House of Representatives starting in 1994. This was the heyday of radio commentator Rush Limbaugh, who managed to direct people’s anger against Bill Clinton, his first lady, Hillary, and all things “Liberal.” Rush’s show, spiked with humor at Democrats’ expense, was the most popular show on radio. The Republican representatives in Congress were led by Newt Gingrich, who in the 1994 campaigns introduced the Contract with America. This avoided some big, divisive issues like school prayer and gun control. Instead it focused on reforming how Congress operated, tax cuts, tort (lawsuit) reform, and welfare reform (decreasing payments and eligibility).
Moments of Triumph: George W. Bush and the 2000 and 2004 elections
Despite having, or perhaps because of having, Bill Clinton in the White House, the period between 1992 and 2000 saw solid gains for the Republicans in Congress and at the local level. Focusing on cultural issues and promises to cut taxes was paying off.
The Democrats nominated Bill Clinton’s Vice-President, Al Gore, for the Presidency in 2000. After a fierce primary struggle George W. Bush, one of the sons of former President George Bush and recently governor of Texas, won the Republican nomination. The Bush family had ties to Wall Street and in particular the petrochemical industry, but so did the Gore family. With little to distinguish the two candidates, and with the Christian Right as campaign foot soldiers, George W. Bush squeaked to a victory. The election was so close that a dispute arose over who had won in the state of Florida, where Jeb Bush, George’s brother, was governor. Whoever won in the state would receive its Electoral College votes and win the Presidency. After a lengthy legal dispute the Supreme Court of the United States, voting 5 to 4 on strictly partisan lines, decided in Bush’s favor.
With many American’s wondering if George W. Bush had fairly won the election, Bush set about his agenda. The Republicans controlled both houses of Congress and the Supreme Court; it was the first time since 1928 that Republicans controlled all the branches of government. Before President Bush could do much to implement his agenda, however, the Al Quada attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon took place on September 1, 2001. The stock market, overheated because the Federal Reserve had kept interest rates too low during the boom (sometimes called the Internet Bubble) of the late 1990's, plummeted, and the rest of the economy quickly followed.
The Republicans had come to be in charge just in time for another disaster that might make them look like Herbert Hoovers and lead to decades of Democratic Party rule. But George W. Bush was no Hoover. He responded vigorously to the Al Quada attack by invading Afghanistan. He secured a future supply of oil for the United States by invading Iraq after falsely claiming Iraq was attempting to develop nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. Rather than increasing social programs to help the country out of the recession, he pushed through tax cuts (that had been planned by Republicans for decades) that favored large businesses, heirs to fortunes, upper-middle class and upper class Americans. While this created a huge federal deficit, it did help revive the economy when combined with the Federal Reserve’s lowering of interest rates.
The American voters rewarded George W. Bush and the Republicans by returning them to office in the 2004 elections (Bush’s own victory was narrow; he received 62 million votes to Democrat John Kerry’s 59 million). This is particularly remarkable given the both the poor performance of the American economy during his first term and the deterioration of employee and small business incomes. Many of the better paying jobs were moved overseas, and the destruction of small, independently owned retailers was particularly fast in this period.
At the time of the writing of this pamphlet, George W. Bush is President of the United States, the Republicans control a majority of the states, both Houses of Congress, and the Supreme Court. Agree with them or not, that is a major accomplishment for a political party.
At the same time, the Wall Street Republicans appear to be losing control of the party to the religious Republicans. So far the religious Republicans have supported the Wall Street program of reducing taxes on the rich (the capital gains tax, dividend tax, estate tax, and upper-income bracket taxes). But the anger of lower-class Republican voters is fueled as much by economic failure as by cultural values. There is a great potential for backlash against Wall Street, which was given its wish-list. In contrast the promises to make the cultural changes that motivated lower-class citizens to vote with the Republicans have not been met.
The triumph of the religious Republicans within the party might jeopardize the allegiance of the moderate Republicans who are not homosexual bashers or believers in the rapture; who might actually believe that women have a right to contraceptives, abortion, and divorce; or who realize that the same science that makes NASCAR racers run and allows people to watch the races on TV also is absolutely certain that species evolved through mutations and natural selection. Just as American’s demanded Prohibition and then revolted against it when they got it, actually banning abortion, contraception, and divorce; forcing every child in America to pray in school from the Evangelical prayer-book; and returning the TV to a 1950's-style sexual innocence, would almost certainly drive voters to elect less puritanical politicians. Which party might come out ahead in that backlash would depend on how the various parties position themselves.