Republican G.O.P. History

What are the roots of the Grand Old Party, and how have they changed through the decades? And how did the elephant find his way in there?

Thomas Jefferson was elected President in 1800 (and re-elected in 1804) on the Republican ticket. His Republican Party was the party of liberalism, of slashing the national debt and national defense expenditures and the end of the National Bank. Jefferson was denounced as being un-Christian by the opposition, who cited his belief in deism as proof enough that he shouldn't be elected. Not the picture of the Republican Party that we have today, by a long shot.

These Republicans, upholders of the liberal tradition, elected in James Madison (1808 and 1812), James Monroe (1816 and 1820). In 1824, however, the party destroyed itself. This was the first presidential election in which most states chose electors (for the electoral college) by popular vote, and that the popular vote was recorded. As a result of these changes, groups in each state nominated their own best hope for President, disregarding party affiliation in favor of 'homegrown' status. By the time of the actual election, the field had been narrowed down to four, with none winning a majority, forcing the election to be decided in the House of Representatives. Since Henry Clay was not only House Speaker, but also a candidate, he recused himself, and gave the votes he had earned to John Quincy Adams, assuring him the victory.

For the next thirty years the two primary parties would become the Democrat-Republicans (soon shortened to just Democrats) and the Whig party. It was with the dissolution of the Whig party that the Republicans were reborn, albeit in new form.

The modern Republican Party was born on March 20, 1854 in Ripon, Wisconsin as an outgrowth of the dissolved Whig party, choosing the name to recall to mind the founders; no matter that the aims were now different. The Whig party had dissolved due to internal disputes following the Kansas-Nebraska Act. (The Kansas-Nebraska Act involved the admittance of those two territories into the Union and whether or not the Missouri Compromise, which held that states above the 36'30 line would not be slaveholding states, should be repealed as a result.) In the beginning largely a regional party of the Midwest states, the Republican Party's major issue was opposition to the spread of slavery to the western states. Their influence quickly spread throughout the Midwest and north, and they offered their first presidential candidate in 1856. John C. Fremont was a Western explorer who had earned the nickname "Pathfinder" due to his exploits.

During this election, the Know-Nothing Party, known for their strong anti-immigrant (and anti-Catholic) stance endorsed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, forcing the northern members to abandon the party. The Southern members nominated Millard Fillmore for President as the now candidate-less northerners gave lukewarm support to the Republican nominee, Fremont. Fremont's efforts to distance himself with the nativist sentiments of this group did little to help his chances of winning the Presidency. James Buchanan, the Democratic candidate, benefited from all the in fighting that plagued the other parties. Although Fremont lost the election, he did carry eleven of the sixteen northern states, a respectable finish for a new party.

The 1860 election also featured in fighting, but this time among the Democrats, and Republican candidate Abraham Lincoln won the election. (The Democratic Party had split into Northern and Southern factions and offered two different presidential candidates-Stephen Douglas from Illinois and John Breckenridge of Kentucky.) The third party candidate, John Bell, was the choice of the Constitutional Union Party, made of the disgruntled members of the now non-existent Know Nothing and Whig parties that had not found a home with the Republicans or Democrats.



The Republicans therefore became strongly identified as the party of Lincoln, the party that freed the slaves, and the party that won the war. As a result, few Southerners joined the Republicans for over a hundred years-the memory of losing the war provided a strong impetus to remain with the Democrats.

The post-war years introduced tensions into the Republican Party that would remain. The Whig policies of high tariffs on imported goods and support of laissez-faire capitalism were adopted by the "Wall Street" members, but disliked by the "Main Street" supporters who had agreed with the anti-slavery issue but had little connection to the corporate emphasis the party was now taking. The nickname GOP, or Grand Old Party, came into being at this time. Some referred to it as the Gallant Old Party-either way, someone was being a little disingenuous here, since the Democrats were actually the older party.

The Republican Party had a stranglehold on the Presidency, electing Ulysses S. Grant in 1868 and 1872. In 1872, cartoonist Thomas Nast provided them with the symbol of the elephant in a political cartoon. The elephant depicted the voters of the Republican Party as being foolishly frightened of voting for Grant, fearing that he would become a Caesar, i.e. run for numerous terms, and make himself into a dictator. The issue faded, but the image stuck. In 1876, the contest between Rutherford B. Hayes (Republican) and Samuel Tilden (Democrat) was very tight, with Tilden ahead in the popular vote, and the electoral college was in dispute, with two sets of electoral returns (one Democratic, one Republican) to look at. An allegedly non-partisan group made up of 8 Republicans and 7 Democrats was created that accepted the Republican vote in each of the disputed states-South Carolina, Louisiana, and Florida. Interestingly, Radical Reconstruction in the South was revoked and interest in black civil rights faded in exchange for these electoral votes. The Republicans stayed the dominant party in politics, with a brief break coinciding with World War I when the Democrats took control, until 1932 and the election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

During their roughly 60 years in power, they became synonymous with laissez-faire economics, which held that non-interference with business practices ensured a healthy economy for all. As well, they maintained an anti-immigrant stance that led to a sense of isolationism in the country-wars in Europe and the rest of the world were perceived as being not the concern of the United States. Both of these platforms also contributed to the lack of active support of black civil right believing that a healthy economy eradicating poverty should be enough, especially with a decrease in immigration.

During the Depression and World War II, the nation ceased to support these ideas. Government intervention was welcomed as a way of preventing life-ending poverty and struggle. In 1936 the GOP reached its low point, with a Democrat in the White House, and only 17 senators and 89 representatives from the Republican Party in the Congress.

At the end of World War II, however, the country took another turn with Republicanism and elected General Dwight Eisenhower President in 1952, and gave control of the Congress back to the Republicans as well. At a time when they might have been expected to be at their strongest, in fighting destroyed the sense of peacefulness the GOP might have enjoyed. Senator Joseph McCarthy, despite alienating many with his rabid anti-Communist diatribes, won over some members of the Party, and won new followers, especially among Catholics who had before been stalwart Democrats. The New Right was greatly disappointed in Eisenhower-he had not reversed the New Deal that had been Roosevelt's hallmark, and neither had he utterly defeated Communism (intervention in foreign affairs was now held as a virtue by the Party). As well, Eisenhower's support of the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954, permitting black students to attend white schools angered many that saw 'separate but equal' as good if only because it was what had always been. The party of Lincoln was far from its founding beliefs at this point.

And with strife came the re-election of the Democrats, with John F. Kennedy followed by Lyndon B. Johnson taking the Presidency. Richard Nixon's election in 1968 was not so much a support of Republican ideas as it was the hope that he could end the war in Vietnam. His resignation from the office, in disgrace, damaged the Republican Party more than his progress in ending the war had helped it. The nation once again turned to the Democrats, electing the soft-spoken Jimmy Carter in 1976. His perceived failure in the arena of foreign affairs, combined with a recession at home, directly led to the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980.

Reagan embodied many qualities that the New Right faction of the GOP admired-strongly anti-Communist, willingness to be intervene in foreign disputes, and economic policies that effectively rendered null the remnants of the New Deal. Additionally, this administration was committed to opposing what they perceived as overly liberal steps taken by the courts in the direction of abortion, civil rights, and school prayer. The economic boom of the 1980s helped gain re-election for Reagan, and in 1988 for George Bush; however, when the economy entered a downturn in the early 90s, this was seen as being indicative of a failure of the GOP economic policies and led to the election of Democrat Bill Clinton in 1992. Ironically, the other factor that hurt the Republicans was the dissolution of the Soviet Union; anti-Communist rhetoric lost its appeal when the Communists became capitalists.

In recent years, the party has again struggled to define itself. The New Right, still powerful within the Party, can be unattractive to voters, especially the young. The more moderate branches of the party have made inroads in an attempt to reach out to a greater number of Americans.

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