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

By Jacob Shelton

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.

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.

Photograph taken from a Japanese plane during the torpedo attack on ships moored on both sides of Ford Island shortly after the beginning of the Pearl Harbor attack. (Imperial Japanese Navy/Wikimedia Commons)

Isolationism And Socialism

Following World War I, in which 100,000 American soldiers died, the Republican Party began preaching the gospel of isolationism. They argued that, with the country's well-protected borders, oceans on both sides, and thriving economy, it made sense to keep to ourselves.

Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover were all isolationists who kept America out of Europe's business, and in 1930, Republican Senator Gerald P. Nye pushed through the Neutrality Acts, which kept American arms out of the hands of foreign nations. Isolationism kept a firm hold on Americans and the Republican Party until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor drastically changed public sentiment.

From 1932 until the early '60s, the Democratic Party retained a tight grasp on American leadership as F.D.R.'s New Deal legislation stabilized the economy, and the Republican Party responded by shifting further to the right. The party of limited government and free markets attacked the New Deal, which they saw as federal overreach, as socialism in the form of a series of public works bills.

U.S. President Richard Nixon and First Lady Pat Nixon meet with California Governor Ronald Reagan and his wife Nancy, July 1970. (White House/Wikimedia Commons)

Anti-Communism And The Moral Majority

The mid-20th century was a tumultuous era of Civil Rights activism and the assassinations of larger-than-life figures like John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., leading many regular Americans to shift to the right. The G.O.P. adjusted to become the party of conventional thinking and law and order, and Richard Nixon's win in '68 showed that people were ready for stability. Following his re-election in 1972, however, the Nixon-backed Watergate break-in turned voters away from the Republican Party.

The party needed a makeover, and Ronald Reagan was the answer. Although Reagan was an acolyte of Nixon, his 1980 election on a platform that eschewed isolationism and brought government deregulation into a new focus changed the face of the party for decades to come. It was also during this time that a large number of evangelical voters shifted from supporting the Democratic Party, drawn to the anti-communist stance that defined the G.O.P. of the '80s even though Reagan was a divorced man who never attended church.

President Bush signing the No Child Left Behind Act into law, January 8, 2002. (White House/Wikimedia Commons)

Compassionate Conservatism And The Tea Party

Though they were on the losing end of national politics throughout the '90s, the Republican Party kept the faith through the election of President George W. Bush, who believed in bringing compassion back into the Republican Party. However, this business-as-usual brand of conservatism bred discontent in members of the party who were more libertarian-leaning, and when Bush's presidency came to an end, the Tea Party movement took hold. This grassroots group of Republicans took fiscal and social conservatism to new extremes, and the rough cohesion of these two ideologies turned the Republican Party into the group we know today. The G.O.P. of 2020 is a strange melange of every era of the group, full of Reaganite holdouts as well as Trumpian populists, that's constantly (and ironically) in flux.

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Jacob Shelton


Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.