7 minute read

Republican Party

The Republican Party In The New Millennium

The Republican Party was founded in 1854 by a group of renegade Democrats, Whigs, and political independents who opposed the expansion of SLAVERY into new U.S. territories and states. What began as a single-issue, independent party became a major political force in the United States. Six years after the new party was formed, Republican nominee ABRAHAM LINCOLN won the U.S. presidential election. The Republican Party and its counterpart, the DEMOCRATIC PARTY, became the mainstays of the nation's de facto two-party system.

Lincoln's victory in 1860 signaled the demise of the WHIG PARTY and the ascendance of Republican politics. From 1860 to 1931, the Republicans dominated U.S. presidential elections. Only two Democrats were elected to the White House during the 70-year period of Republican preeminence.

The early Republican Party was shaped by political conscience and regionalism. Throughout the early and mid-nineteenth century, states in the North and South were bitterly divided over the issues of slavery and state sovereignty. In 1854 the enactment of the KANSAS-NEBRASKA ACT inflamed political passions. Under the act residents of the new territories of Kansas and Nebraska could decide whether to permit slavery in their regions. In effect, the act invalidated the MISSOURI COMPROMISE OF 1820, which prohibited the extension of slavery in new areas of the United States. Opponents of slavery condemned the measure, and violence erupted in Kansas.

Antislavery parties had already sprung up in the United States. The abolitionist Liberty Party began in 1840, and the FREE SOIL PARTY was formed in 1848. In much the same spirit, the Republican Party arose to protest the Nebraska-Kansas Act. The new group drew support from third parties and disaffected Democrats and Whigs. After organizational meetings in 1854 in Ripon, Wisconsin, and Jackson, Michigan, the Republican Party was born.

In 1856 the Republicans nominated their first presidential candidate, John C. Frémont, a former explorer who opposed the expansion of slavery in new U.S. territories and states. Although defeated in the national election by Democrat JAMES BUCHANAN, Frémont received one-third of the popular vote.

In 1860 Abraham Lincoln from Illinois was the Republican presidential nominee. Lincoln appealed not only to antislavery voters but to business owners in the East and farmers in the Midwest. The Democratic Party was in turmoil over slavery. The northern Democrats nominated STEPHEN A. DOUGLAS, who tried to sidestep the issue, and the southern Democrats backed John C. Breckinridge, who denounced government efforts to prohibit slavery. Lincoln defeated both candidates.

Although Lincoln's election was a triumph for the Republicans, his support was concentrated primarily in the North. Shortly after Lincoln's victory, several southern states seceded from the Union, and the bloody U.S. CIVIL WAR began.

Throughout the war Lincoln and his policies took a drubbing from the press and public. When Lincoln ran for reelection, the Republican Party temporarily switched its name to the Union Party. Lincoln sought a second term with Democrat ANDREW JOHNSON as his running mate in order to deflect criticism of the Republican Party. Johnson, from Tennessee, was one of the few southerners to support the preservation of the Union. Despite his critics Lincoln defeated the Democratic nominee, George B. McClellan, who ran on a peace platform.

After the North's victory in 1865, the Republicans oversaw Reconstruction, a period of rebuilding for the vanquished South. Lincoln favored a more conciliatory attitude toward the defeated Confederacy. Radical Republicans, however, sought a complete overhaul of the South's economic and social system. After Lincoln's assassination in 1865, the Republicans' Reconstruction policies—such as conferring citizenship and VOTING RIGHTS to former slaves—created long-lasting resentment among many southern whites.

Republicans depended upon the support of northern voters and courted the vote of emancipated slaves. The party fanned hostility by reminding northern voters of the South's disloyalty during the war. The Republicans were the dominant party in the United States from 1860 to 1931, and the party's base among southern whites began to grow in the 1950s, when political loyalties began to shift.

The Republican Party nominated Abraham Lincoln and Hannibal Hamlin as candidates for president and vice president in the 1860 election.

During their long period of political dominance, Republicans sent the following candidates to the White House: ULYSSES S. GRANT, RUTHERFORD B. HAYES, JAMES GARFIELD (died in office), CHESTER A. ARTHUR (vice president who succeeded Garfield), BENJAMIN HARRISON, WILLIAM MCKINLEY (died in office), THEODORE ROOSEVELT (vice president who succeeded McKinley and was later elected on his own), WILLIAM HOWARD TAFT, WARREN G. HARDING, CALVIN COOLIDGE, and HERBERT HOOVER.

During the 1880s and 1890s, there was an important shift in party affiliation. Struggling Republican farmers throughout the Midwest, South, and West switched their political allegiance to the Democrats who promised them government assistance. The financially strapped farmers were concerned about the depressed national economy. Many turned to the populist movement headed by Democrat WILLIAM JENNINGS BRYAN. A brilliant orator, Bryan called for the free coinage of silver currency, whereas the Republicans favored the gold standard.

Despite his popularity Bryan was defeated by Republican William McKinley in the 1896 presidential election. The Democrats appealed to farmers, but the Republicans had captured the business and urban vote. After the U.S. economy improved during the McKinley administration, supporters dubbed the Republican Party "the Grand Old Party," or the GOP, a nickname that endured.

After President McKinley was assassinated in 1901, Vice President Theodore Roosevelt assumed the presidency. He pursued ambitious social reforms such as stricter ANTITRUST LAWS, tougher meat and drug regulations, and new environmental measures. In 1912 Roosevelt and his followers broke off from the Republicans to form the Bull Moose Party. The third party split helped Democrat WOODROW WILSON defeat Republican candidate William Howard Taft.

After eight years of Democratic power, during which the U.S. fought in WORLD WAR I, the Republicans returned to the White House in 1920 with Warren G. Harding. Unable to stave off or reverse the Great Depression, the Republicans lost control of the Oval Office in 1932.

During the Great Depression, the public became impatient with the ineffectual economic policies of Republican President Herbert

Hoover. Democrat FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT swept into the White House with a promise of a NEW DEAL for all Americans. From 1932 to 1945, Roosevelt lifted the nation from its economic collapse and guided it through WORLD WAR II. During Roosevelt's administration the Republican Party lost its traditional constituency of African Americans and urban workers. HARRY S. TRUMAN followed Roosevelt in office and in 1948 withstood a strong challenge from Republican THOMAS E. DEWEY.

Republican DWIGHT D. EISENHOWER won the presidency in 1952 and 1956. A popular World War II hero, Eisenhower oversaw a good economy and a swift end to the KOREAN WAR. Eisenhower was succeeded in 1960 by Democrat JOHN F. KENNEDY who defeated Eisenhower's vice president, Republican nominee RICHARD M. NIXON. In 1964 Republicans nominated ultra-conservative BARRY M. GOLDWATER who was trounced at the polls by Democrat LYNDON B. JOHNSON, the incumbent. Johnson, Kennedy's vice president, had assumed the presidency after Kennedy's assassination in 1963.

When Republican Richard M. Nixon was elected president in 1968, he began the reduction of U.S. military troops in Southeast Asia. Nixon opened trade with China and improved foreign relations through a policy of detente with the former Soviet Union. During his term the shift of southern Democrats to the Republican Party accelerated. (In fact, from 1972 to 1988, the South was the most Republican region of the United States.)

The nadir for the Republican Party occurred in 1974 when Nixon left office in the midst of the WATERGATE scandal, a botched attempt to burglarize and wiretap the Democratic National Committee headquarters. Implicated in the scandal's cover-up, Nixon became the only president in U.S. history to resign from office. He was succeeded by Vice President GERALD R. FORD of Michigan who served the remainder of Nixon's term and pardoned the disgraced president.

Ford lost the 1976 presidential election to Democrat JIMMY CARTER of Georgia. A sour economy and the bungling of foreign affairs (most notably the Iran hostage crisis) led to Carter's defeat in 1980 by Republican challenger RONALD REAGAN and his running mate, GEORGE HERBERT WALKER BUSH.

The Republicans controlled the White House for twelve years, with Reagan serving two terms and Bush one. During Reagan's tenure, southern Democrats turned in droves to the Republican Party, embracing Reagan's politically conservative message. Pointing to widespread ticket-splitting, many analysts believe voters embraced the charismatic Reagan, not the party. Bush became president in 1988 but was defeated in 1992, by Democrat BILL CLINTON of Arkansas.

Although considered the party of business and the suburbs, the GOP has made significant inroads in traditionally Democratic areas such as labor and the South. An extremely conservative element dominated the Republican Party in the 1980s, but a more moderate wing began to exert influence in the late 1990s. Many of these moderates were elected to Congress in 1994, giving the Republicans control of both houses for the first time in more than 40 years.


Boller, Paul F., Jr. 2004. Presidential Campaigns. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

Gould, Lewis L. 2003. Grand Old Party: A History of the Republicans. New York: Random House.

Moos, Malcolm. 1956. The Republicans: A History of Their Party. New York: Random House.

Wilson, James Q. 2003. American Government. 6th ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationFree Legal Encyclopedia: Recovered memory to Repugnancy