The history of the Republican Party is of interest to readers of Faith and Heritage because the Republican Party is the establishment of mainstream conservatism in contemporary American politics. Many of our readers, including myself, have likely had a history of voting for the Republican Party, or perhaps even being a registered Republican. Many mainstream American conservatives remember with fondness the “Reagan revolution” that swept Ronald Reagan into office and supposedly saved American greatness from riding off into the sunset. Apart from the modest embellishment that undergirds the Reagan legend, the Republican Party’s origins are shrouded in mystery to many of its adherents.
The Republican Party is the younger of the two major extant American political parties, the older being the Democratic Party. The Republicans have come to dominate the political opinions of conservative, mostly evangelical Christians. This is particularly ironic when we consider the circumstances of the formations of the Republican Party and the principles it stood for at the time of its formation. The Republican Party was nothing more than the product of unique opportunities that presented themselves to the opportunists of the mid-nineteenth century. In order to comprehend the circumstances that permitted the emergence of the Republican Party as one of the premier power brokers in American politics, today, on the 157th anniversary of the founding of the GOP, let us take an in-depth look at the founding philosophy and early history of the Republican Party.
Historical Background and the Foundations of Anglo-American Political Parties
American politics has retained a traditional similarity to British legal tradition and precedent due to the common law basis in American law we inherited from our British forebears. Political parties were essentially unheard of in British politics until the middle of the seventeenth century, when the prospect of a Roman Catholic king in the person of James, Duke of York, divided British statesmen on the issue of exclusion of Catholics (specifically, James) from the throne. This controversy went back further still to the revolution of Oliver Cromwell and the temporary conquest of Britain. We certainly can see the importance of how exclusion would impact British politics, but it is exceedingly unfortunate that this issue was allowed to degenerate into electioneering and politicking that we associate with modern elections.
Barone writes concerning the Cromwell Revolution, and the consequent shift from classical parliamentary politics to modern democratic electioneering, “In the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries there were seldom contests in any county or borough. Rather, service in Parliament was seen as a privilege or a duty, devolving on those who were due recognition as leaders in their communities.”1 The historian Mark Kishlansky writes of this period, “Personal attributes, prestige, standing, godliness were all implicit in office-holding. Their presence qualified individuals for place, their absence disqualified them. Individuals represented communities by virtue of the possession of these qualities, not by reflecting the special interests or ideals of particular groups of constituents. In all but a handful of instances, most of which are exceptionally well-documented, before 1640 ideology was absent from the process of parliamentary selection.”2
Barone continues, “This began to change with the coming of the Civil War and the Restoration. Political issues were clear, and choices between rival candidates were made for political reasons.”3 With the parliamentary revolution under Cromwell and the exclusion crisis in England, the traditional statesman was set on the road to extinction, and the modern career politician was slowly being erected. This process did not transpire overnight, but it did set the eventual corruption of parliamentary politics in motion.
Shortly after the resolution of the American Revolutionary War, Americans became divided on many different political and economic issues. One of the major issues that caused division in public opinion was over how the states should be politically unified. The states had been loosely bound together by a union called the Articles of Confederation. The Articles had served the states well, but some felt that issues such as debt incurred by the war required a stronger federal union than existed under the Articles. These men became known as the Federalists. Those who opposed them and wanted to retain the existing Articles while making necessary revisions became known as the anti-Federalists. Ultimately, the Federalists won out and convinced enough states to ratify the proposed Constitution. The ratification of the Constitution is another issue for another article, but the issue of ratification became the earliest instance of the emergence of political parties in post-Revolutionary America. The Anti-Federalists lost their bid to prevent the ratification of the Constitution, but they were successful in seeing that the first ten amendments, known as the Bill of Rights was added to the Constitution with the hopes that it would restrain federal power.
After the Constitution was ratified, the political parties re-aligned under the auspices of the Federalist Party and the Democratic-Republican Party. America’s two political parties at this time reflected the political differences in British society at the time. George Washington was well aware of the problems that electioneering and partisan bickering had caused in Britain, and tried to remain as non-partisan as he possibly could during his presidency. In his Farewell Address, Washington counseled that “the alternate domination of one faction over another…natural to party dissension…is itself a frightful despotism.”4 The Federalist Party was the closest party in terms of philosophy to the Tory Party in England. According to the historian Samuel Eliot Morison, “They (the Federalists) believed that liberty is inseparable from union, that men are essentially unequal, that vox populi [voice of the people] is seldom if ever vox Dei [the voice of God], and that sinister outside influences are busy undermining American integrity.”5
The Tory Party in England, in my humble opinion, was the better and more traditional of the two parties in British politics, but they were also flawed in some of their policies, namely that they were actually not conservative enough when it came to the issue of standing armies and a centralized bank, and the American Federalists followed their Tory counterparts in this error. The Democratic-Republican Party became known as Republicans for short, which is confusing since they are the direct ancestors of the modern Democratic Party. The Democratic-Republican Party was more closely aligned with the Whigs of British politics, and this included the British Whigs’ conservative tendencies. One of the early issues that the two parties clashed over was how to respond to France and the French Revolution. The Federalist Party was opposed to the French Revolution, noting that the Revolution harmed the very aristocrats and monarch who had backed the Americans during our Revolution. Although reviewing basic party tenets helps us to sort out principle to a certain degree, it is clear that no political party has ever commanded a monopoly on truth or virtue, since the very nature of electioneering tends to allow partisan loyalties to trump philosophical scruples. Exceptions to the general rules above are also obvious in the examples of traditionalist Edmund Burke’s membership in the slightly more left-leaning Whig Party in Britain, and the membership of John Randolph of Roanoke and John C. Calhoun in the Democratic Party in America. In fact, it seems that the Democratic Party had a genuinely venerable populist platform until the 1960s.
The Federalist Party ended up fracturing into rival factions under Alexander Hamilton and John Adams respectively, and this ultimately wounded the party beyond recovery. Many ex-Federalists reorganized under the auspices of the newly-formed Whig Party, which should not be confused with the British Whig Party. The Whig Party was vaguely conservative in many ways, but lacked the intellectual rigor of her Federalist predecessors. The Whigs committed themselves to a domestic policy called the “American System.”6 The American System was a policy of high tariffs to protect domestic industry, federally-financed internal improvements, and a centralized national Bank of the United States. Of course, some of these policies were problematic and were carryovers from the policies of the Federalist Party, which were in turn largely carryovers from the policies of the Tory Party in Britain. The most obviously problematic policy that the American Whigs pursued was centralized banking. Centralized banking was a relatively new concept in Europe at the time, and, unfortunately, it was an error that found its way into American politics and was defended as though it were critical to the success of a traditional European society.
The Shift in American Politics in the Early to Mid-Nineteenth Century
From the time of the ratification of the Constitution until the 1840s, American politics achieved a relatively stable equilibrium. The issue of slavery, which had by this time become a regional issue, was skillfully managed with compromises authored by the Great Triumvirate in the U.S. Senate comprised of Senators Daniel Webster of Maryland, Henry Clay of Kentucky, and John C. Calhoun of South Carolina. Two factors contributed to the decline of this equilibrium. First, radical abolitionists were enjoying increasingly greater success in pushing their agenda through whatever means they could in order to achieve the immediate end of slavery and full Negro political equality. Earlier in the nineteenth century, many anti-slavery advocates were willing to wait the issue of slavery out. Slavery had passed peacefully in the North as it had become unsustainable and unprofitable. The American Colonization Society7 was also a major and prominent charitable organization which aimed at gradually and legally manumitting slaves and returning them to Africa. Liberia was the realization in part of the American Colonization Society’s goal. Abolitionists had become especially energized, since the invention of the cotton gin by Eli Whitney had seemingly extended the profitability of slavery indefinitely in the South. The other factor was that the Democratic Party was achieving success approaching a monopoly in national elections. The success of the Democratic Party was cause for friction with abolitionist sentiments in the North, since, by this time, the Democratic Party had become thoroughly entrenched in the South and was far more sympathetic to the South’s peculiar institution than the abolitionists could tolerate. This led to the decline of restrained and fair-minded Whigs who were moderate and practical on the issue of slavery, since they were torn between Democrats on the one hand and radicals on the other. The Whig Party would end up fragmenting into smaller third parties that represented different elements of Whig policy.
One party became known as the Free Soil Party,8 which was dedicated to preventing the expansion of slavery into the Western territories. The American Order of the Star-Spangled Banner, more commonly known as the Know Nothing Party,9 was dedicated to immigration restriction, and was characterized by a strong nativist and nationalist sentiment. The most radical agenda that was advanced during this time was by the fledgling Republican Party. The Republican Party represented a contingent of Whigs who were attempting to give legitimacy to the political aims of the radical abolitionists. The Republican Party was founded in 1854 and fielded John C. Fremont as its first presidential candidate in the general election of 1856. Fremont’s campaign jingle was the beginning of meaningless though clever election slogans: “Free soil, free labor, free speech, free men, Fremont.”10 Fremont lost handily in the presidential election, but the election also served to consolidate most of the vagrant Whigs under a coherent political umbrella in order to be a force in American politics since this time.
Honest Abe of Illinois
The story of Lincoln’s meteoric rise to the top of American politics is truly amazing. Even in retrospect, it seems to challenge the credulity of any red-blooded American reader to suggest that there was ever a time when Lincoln’s political views seemed untenable. Abraham Lincoln was a former Whig whose political career was based upon his ability to successfully avoid taking concrete positions on many issues and taking different sides of controversial issues, depending upon which audience he was addressing. Lincoln served several times in the Illinois state legislature in the 1830s and 1840s, and one term in the United States Congress. During his one term in Congress, Lincoln became extremely unpopular due to his belief that the American war with Mexico was unconstitutional. This seems especially odd considering the Constitutional gymnastics that Lincoln would employ a decade later as president to justify war with the South.
After his abysmal one-term career in the House of Representatives, Lincoln made two unsuccessful bids for the U.S. Senate. The most famous of these is his unsuccessful campaign against Stephen Douglas in 1858. Sam Dickson provides an especially succinct summary of Lincoln’s debating tactics during the campaign of 1858.
“Lincoln in the Lincoln-Douglas debates was his characteristic demagogic and unprincipled self. In northern Illinois, in which the German and other non-Anglo-Saxon immigrants now were playing a major and perhaps decisive role, Lincoln declared himself dramatically for Negro equality, raising his hands to the heavens and declaring: ‘In the right to eat the bread his own hands have earned he is the equal of Judge Douglas, or of myself, or any living man.’ However, in southern Illinois, where conservative and Southern sympathies ran strong, Lincoln declared himself opposed to granting Negroes civil rights and stated that they were in fact an inferior race.”11
After losing the senatorial election in Illinois in 1858, Lincoln was poised as a potential Republican front runner. Lincoln managed to earn the Republican nomination in spite of his eleven year hiatus from elected office and experience in the federal government that amounted to two undistinguished years in the U.S. House of Representatives. Lincoln is so venerated today that it seems strange to think that he wasn’t simply the heir apparent to the Republican Party nomination in the presidential election of 1860, but the truth is that Lincoln was the furthest thing from a consensus choice. Lincoln was a last-second compromise choice for the Republican Party nomination. Lincoln ended up winning the election in what was to become the lowest popular support for any winner in any presidential election by winning the electoral vote while carrying only 39% of the popular vote.12
The election of Abraham Lincoln and his history of radical abolitionist rhetoric noticeably upset many people in the South who did not believe that Lincoln could govern objectively. Whatever one may think of the reaction of states, such as South Carolina, that seceded immediately upon Lincoln being elected to the presidency, it is obvious that Lincoln should have been more conciliatory and better prepared to face the coming crisis with something other than bullets and cannons. Reinhard H. Luthin states that “from his (Lincoln’s) election to his inauguration Lincoln’s handling, or rather lack of handling of the bedeviling secession crisis might be termed ‘calculated inactivity’ for he was to do nothing about it nor was he to provide much leadership, with the Republic tottering in the balance.”13
Lincoln’s inactivity combined with his steadfast refusal to take secessionist sentiments seriously ultimately allowed the Union to be fractured along the Mason-Dixon Line. The outcome of the War Between the States, or the Civil War, is known well enough. One of the popular myths of our time is that Lincoln “saved” the Union from becoming permanently disjointed. Sam Francis pointed out how problematic this conclusion is in light of the fact that half the union had to be compelled by military force to rejoin the union, and the other half had to be held under constant martial law.14 Lincoln would end up being assassinated shortly after the conclusion of hostilities in 1865, and the Radical Republicans were free to pursue their agenda uninhibited. The South was essentially ruled as a military dictatorship in the period after the war known as Reconstruction. No longer would the basis of the union truly be federal. The powers of the states which had created the union had been completely dismantled, mostly by the illegally ratified fourteenth amendment. With this war, the Old Republic was lost and it has never been recovered since.
After the conclusion of the War Between the States, the radical abolitionists had carried the day. The process of bringing the rebellious Southern states under the federal boot was known ominously as Reconstruction. The Southern states were essentially annexed as conquered territories, and military garrisons were installed in order to keep Reconstruction governments in power. White Southerners were disenfranchised while blacks and Northern carpetbaggers who had come from Northern states were given power over the Southern state governments. Southern interests were entirely trampled upon in the interest of preserving the now arbitrary and compulsory union. The Reconstruction period was characterized by rampant corruption and scandal as all accountability of the federal government was buried. Former Union general Ulysses S. Grant was elected President in 1868. Grant used cabinet and government positions as nepotistic rewards for loyalty.15 Political corruption became so entrenched that there was an almost ubiquitous call for reform.
It was during the Reconstruction period that the first Ku Klux Klan was formed to defend the integrity of the South against Reconstructionist depredations. The Ku Klux Klan was historically celebrated even in the post-Reconstruction North for its bravery and heroism. Many people acknowledged the evils of the Reconstruction era Radical Republicans. It is a sad testament to the propaganda of the modern media that more people do not realize the war of genocide that was fought against the South and prompted the formation of the Klan after the war.
One example of the genocidal hatred that the South faced was voiced by the likes of radical abolitionist Jim Lane. Lane was a union general and later Senator from the state of Kansas. During a speech Lane said, “I would like to live long enough to see every white man in South Carolina in hell, and the negroes inheriting their territory. It would not any day wound my feelings to find the dead bodies of every rebel sympathizer pierced with bullet holes, in every street and alley in Washington City. Yes, I would regret the waste of powder and lead. I would rather have these Copperheads hung and the ropes saved for future use. I would like to see them dangle until their stinking bodies would rot and fall to the ground piece by piece.”16 Senator Lane was delusional, and amidst allegations of “financial irregularities,” Lane was obviously unstable. He committed suicide just three years after making this national call for genocide.
Another example of the tyranny that Southerners were acquainted with, both during and after the war, was the Union policy on handling Confederate prisoners of war. The official policy stated, “Rebel prisoners in our hands are to be subjected to a treatment finding its parallels only in the conduct of savage tribes and resulting in the death of multitudes by the slow but designed process of starvation and by mortal diseases occasioned by insufficient and unhealthy food and wanton exposure of their persons to the inclemency of the weather.”17
If that were not enough, radical Methodist “pastor” and Reconstruction Governor of Tennessee William Brownlow was absolutely fanatical in his hatred of Southerners. He said, “If I had the power, I would arm and uniform in the Federal habiliments every wolf and panther and catamount and tiger and bear in the mountains of America; every crocodile in the swamps of Florida and South Carolina; every negro in the Southern Confederacy, and every devil in hell, and turn them on the rebels in the South, if it exterminated every rebel from the face of God’s green earth…Every man, woman and child south of the Mason Dixon line. I would like to see Richmond and Charleston captured by negro troops commanded by Butler the Beast. We will crowd the rebels into the Gulf of Mexico, and drown the entire race, as the devil rid the hogs in the Sea of Galilee…I am one of those who believes the war has ended too soon. We have whipped the rebels but not enough…The second army of invasion will, as they ought to, make the entire South as God found the earth, without form and void. They will not, and ought not to, leave one rebel fence-rail, out house, one dwelling, in the eleven seceded states. As for the Rebel population, let them be exterminated. When the second war is wound up, which should be done with swift destruction, let the land be surveyed and sold out to pay expenses. Let them (the first army) be the largest division, and do the killing. Let the second division be armed with pine torches and spirits of turpentine and let them do the burning! Let the third and last division be armed with surveyors’ compasses and chains, that will survey the land and settle it with loyal people…’Burn and kill! Burn and kill!’ until the whole rebel race is exterminated.”18
One of the more well-known literary defenses of the actions of the postwar Ku Klux Klan was found in Margaret Mitchell’s famous novel, Gone With the Wind. She wrote, “But these ignominies and dangers were as nothing compared with the peril of white women, many bereft by the war of male protection, who lived alone in the outlying districts and on lonely roads. It was the large number of outrages on women and the ever-present fear for the safety of their wives and daughters that drove Southern men to cold and trembling fury and caused the Ku Klux Klan to spring up overnight. And it was against this nocturnal organization that the newspapers of the North cried out most loudly, never realizing the tragic necessity that brought it into being. The North wanted every member of the Ku Klux hunted down and hanged, because they had dared take the punishment of crime into their own hands at a time when the ordinary processes of law and order had been overthrown by the invaders.”19
It is absolutely essential to understand that the atrocities committed by the Reconstructionist governments were all committed under Republican auspices.20 It is impossible to discuss the foundation of the Republican Party without discussing Reconstruction policies. The conclusion of the struggle between the Ku Klux Klan and the Radical Republicans ended in a moral victory for the Klan and the South. By the end of the Grant administration, the Radical Republicans had entirely lost credibility because of the rampant corruption that had defined their tenure in power. A contested Presidential election in 1876 between Republican Rutherford B. Hayes and Democrat Samuel Tilden ended in a tie. Hayes agreed to formally end Reconstruction and withdraw the draconian military garrisons from the South in exchange for support from Congressional leaders. Hayes agreed that the federal government would no longer be able to strong arm Southern state politics. Southern legislatures quickly moved to take advantage of their new freedom, and replaced Radical Republicans with conservative Democrats. Reconstruction was over, and the Klansmen knew that their goals in joining the Klan had been achieved. The Klan disbanded, and these men returned to their homes, families, and farms.21
The history of radical abolitionism, the illegal and unconstitutional War Between the States, and Reconstruction are integral to understanding the ideological foundations of the Republican Party, ironically now known as the Grand Old Party. It is clear to see from a rudimentary knowledge of this history that Republicans have never really been the party of traditional conservatism. The Republicans bear only an effaced image of their Federalist and Whig ancestors in American politics. The foundation of the Republican Party as one of the major political parties in American politics was problematic for many decades, to say the least. This does not mean that good and principled men have never carried the Republican banner before. There most certainly have been Republicans who have had a mostly strong ideological foundation, especially in the years between the two so-called “World Wars.”
The point is that it is silly for any cautious thinker or patriotic American to place their exclusive trust in Republican Party politics, especially considering the party’s radical foundation. If the history of partisan politics in the Anglo-American world has taught us anything, it is that partisan loyalty is no substitute for steadfast devotion to principle. Unfortunately, the Western world has been sorely lacking in principled men to guide the spirit of the nations they lead in the ways of Christian righteousness. The solutions to our problems are not to be found in loyalty to any party, but in an unwavering loyalty to the beliefs and ideas of our venerable Christian progenitors. Instead of a quixotic campaign to take America back in the ballot box, it is necessary for Christian men and women in Europe and North America to inculcate the values of Christian fortitude and the love of God’s law and order to our children, and in doing so, save our future generations.
- Michael Baron. Our First Revolution: The Remarkable British Upheaval That Inspired America’s Founding Fathers. (Crown Publishers. New York. 2007), p.56 ↩
- Mark Kishlansky, Parliamentary Selection: Social and Political Choice in Early Modern England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), p. 12 ↩
- Michael Baron. Our First Revolution: The Remarkable British Upheaval That Inspired America’s Founding Fathers. (Crown Publishers. New York. 2007), p.56 ↩
- The full quote is this: “The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries, which result, gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of Public Liberty.” (Article 22). George Washington. “The Address of General Washington To The People of The United States on his declining of the Presidency of the United States.” September 19, 1796. The full text of the Address is available here: http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Washington%27s_Farewell_Address#1 ↩
- Samuel Eliot Morison, Harrison Gray Otis, 1765-1848: The Urbane Federalist (2nd ed. 1969) pages x-xi ↩
- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_System_(economic_plan) ↩
- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_Colonization_Society ↩
- See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Free_Soil_Party ↩
- See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Know_Nothing ↩
- The first Republican Party Platform can be found here: http://www.ushistory.org/gop/convention_1856republicanplatform.htm ↩
- Journal of Historical Review. Vol. 21. 2002. i. Sam Dickson. http://www.vho.org/GB/Journals/JHR/7/3/Dickson319-344.html#ftn19 ↩
- Sam Francis writes of Lincoln’s election, “In 1860, nominated as the candidate of a new splinter party that was widely regarded as eccentric if not extremist, he was elected to the White House as a fluke, because of the split within the Democratic Party, with less than 40 percent of the popular vote.” Samuel Francis. Shots Fired: Sam Francis on America’s the Culture War. Looking Into Lincoln’s Legacy. (Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation. Edited by Peter Gemma. 2006) p.194 ↩
- Reinhard H. Luthin. The Real Abraham Lincoln (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall 1960). See ch. 16. ↩
- Sam Francis writes, “What kind of union is it when half of it is forced back into it at the cost of military devastation and conquest, and much of the remainder has to be held under martial law and the suspension of civil liberties?” Samuel Francis. Shots Fired: Sam Francis on America’s the Culture War. Looking Into Lincoln’s Legacy. (Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation. Edited by Peter Gemma. 2006) p.198 ↩
- This article details the Grant scandals. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ulysses_S._Grant_presidential_administration_scandals ↩
- 1863, in the Washington speech by Jim Lane, Republican Senator from Kansas. See The Southern Partisan Reader: The Institute for the Study of Southern History and Culture. “Ethnic Cleansing, American-Style.” James Bovard. October 1999. http://www.thesouthernpartisan.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/02/24.1-ARCHIVEBovardEthicCleansing-22p.pdf ↩
- Official U.S. policy on Confederate prisoners of war; House Resolution #97, January 1865, passed by both houses of Congress. ↩
- Parson William G. Brownlow at the post-war National Union Convention, Philadelphia, 1866 ↩
- Gone With the Wind. Margaret Mitchell. p. 914. http://books.google.com/books?id=jZMpaRdaUzsC&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false ↩
- For more information on Postwar Reconstruction, visit: http://spiritwaterblood.com/2011/02/gary-demar-rewrites-history/ ↩
- See the Compromise of 1877. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Compromise_of_1877 ↩