History of the Republican Party: The Evolution of U.S. Republicans

By | November 13, 2020

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1874 Nast cartoon featuring the first notable appearance of the Republican elephant. (Thomas Nast/Wikimedia Commons)

Whether you call it the G.O.P., the conservatives, or just the Republican Party, this major political group has changed quite a bit since its inception in 1854. Somehow, this party has encompassed Abraham Lincoln, Ronald Reagan, Donald Trump, and countless politicians and voters in between. In its nearly 200 years of existence, the Republican Party has put 19 presidents in office—more than any other party—but in the 20th century, it underwent a major ideological shift.

The Creation Of The Republican Party

In 1854, the Kansas–Nebraska Act was signed by President Franklin Pierce with the goal of creating a transcontinental railroad and repealing the Missouri Compromise, but many Northerners believed the South would take advantage of the law to spread slavery throughout the growing United States. To combat this overreach, members of the Conscience Whigs and Free Soil Democrats met at "anti-Nebraska" meetings, one of which took place in Ripon, Wisconsin on March 20, 1854, where the name "Republican" was first suggested to describe the fledgling organization.

Aside from their anti-slavery stance, this new party advocated for modernizing the United States by expanding the railroad system and banking industry. By the election of 1860, the Republican Party had become such a force that they elected Abraham Lincoln as president during a time of extreme contention in the United States.

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Inauguration of President Ulysses S. Grant, March 4, 1869. (U.S. National Archives and Records Administration/Wikimedia Commons)

Restoration And Prohibition

As tightly knit as the Republican Party was during the Civil War, they started to splinter when it came time to put the country back together. Andrew Johnson took over as president following the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, and Johnson's outlook on the Reconstruction was moderate. He wanted to work with Southerners and Democrats, which didn't jive with Ulysses S. Grant and his band of radical Republicans. Grant won the presidency in 1868, and after his inauguration, he pushed the party to further extremes by supporting the mobilization of freedman voters and the suppression of the K.K.K.

Today, the Republican Party is defined in part by their moral conservatism and support of big business. This philosophy is rooted in the Gilded Age of the late 1800s, when the party supported the gold standard and high tariffs on imports but prioritized above all the well-being of Union veterans. At the same time, the specifically protestant nature of the party was quickly coalescing. Between 1860 and 1912, Republicans edged Roman Catholics out of the party along with Episcopalians and German Lutherans.

In 1919, the G.O.P. made its biggest step towards moral conservatism when they pushed Prohibition through the congressional machine even after the Volstead Act was vetoed by Democrat President Woodrow Wilson. While the average beer lover may have resented them, the 1920s proved to be a wildly successful decade for the Republicans, who elected Warren G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Herbert Hoover to the presidency on a platform of conservative economic policy and a pro-business mindset that ushered in unprecedented prosperity until the Great Depression hit.