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History of the United States Republican Party facts for kids

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The Republican Party was born in 1854 and is one of the two dominant parties today. For the current party and its history since 1980 see Republican Party (United States).

Birth: 1854-1860

Election poster for John C. Fremont (1856)
Colonel John C. Frémont 1856 Presidential campaign poster representing Frémont as the Pathfinder planting a U.S. Flag on top of the Rocky Mountains.

Founded in the Northern states in 1854 by anti-slavery activists, modernizers, ex-Whigs, and ex-Free Soilers, the Republican Party quickly became the principal opposition to the dominant Democratic Party and the briefly popular Know Nothing Party. The new party was created as an act of defiance against what activists denounced as the Slave Power--the powerful class of slaveholders who were conspiring to control the federal government and to spread slavery nationwide. The name "Republican" gain such favor in 1854 simply because as a title it connected voters with the original political organization of Thomas Jefferson in the 1790s. Thus the leaders drew upon the tradition of the National Republican Party of John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay, as well as Jefferson's Republican Party. The party founders adopted the name "Republican" to indicate it was the carrier of "republican" beliefs about civic virtue, and opposition to aristocracy and corruption.

Ripon, Wisconsin and Jackson, Michigan, claim the birthplace honors, but many other cities had similar meetings at about the same time. Delegates in Jackson, Michigan on July 6, 1854 declared their new party opposed to the expansion of slavery into new territories, as permitted by the proposed Kansas-Nebraska Act. They selected a state-wide slate of candidates. Besides opposition to slavery, the new party put forward a vision of modernization--emphasizing higher education, banking, railroads, industry and cities, while promising free homesteads to farmers. The Republicans absorbed the previous traditions of its members, most of whom had been Whigs, and some of whom had been Democrats or members of third parties especially the Free Soil Party and Know Nothing Party. Many Democrats who joined up were rewarded with governorships: (Nathaniel P. Banks of Massachusetts, Kinsley Bingham of Michigan, William H. Bissell of Illinois, Salmon P. Chase of Ohio, Hannibal Hamlin of Maine, Samuel J. Kirkwood of Iowa, Ralph Metcalf of New Hampshire, Lot Morrill of Maine, and Alexander Randall of Wisconsin) or seats in the U.S. Senate (Bingham and Hamlin, as well as James R. Doolittle of Wisconsin, John P. Hale of New Hampshire, Preston King of New York, Lyman Trumbull of Illinois, and David Wilmot of Pennsylvania.) Since its inception, its chief opposition has been the Democratic Party, but the amount of flow back and forth of prominent politicians between the two parties was quite high from 1854 to 1896.

John C. Frémont ran as the first Republican nominee for President in 1856, using the political slogan: "Free soil, free labor, free speech, free men, Frémont." Although Frémont's bid was unsuccessful, the party showed a strong base. It dominated in New England, New York and the northern Midwest, and had a strong presence in the rest of the North. It had almost no support in the South, where it was roundly denounced in 1856-60 as a divisive force that threatened civil war.

Abraham Lincoln head on shoulders photo portrait
Abraham Lincoln, 16th President of the United States (1861–1865) and the first Republican U.S. President

The election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 ended the domination of the fragile coalition of pro-slavery southern Democrats and conciliatory northern Democrats which had existed since the days of Andrew Jackson. Instead, a new era of Republican dominance based in the industrial and agricultural north ensued. Republicans still often refer to their party as the "party of Lincoln" in honor of the first Republican President.


Lincoln proved brilliantly successful in uniting all the factions of his party to fight for the Union. However he usually fought the Radical Republicans who demanded harsher measures. Most Democrats at first were War Democrats, and supportive until the fall of 1862. When Lincoln added the abolition of slavery as a war goal, many war Democrats became "peace Democrats". All the state Republican parties accepted the antislavery goal except Kentucky. In Congress the party passed major legislation to promote rapid modernization, including a national banking system, high tariffs, an income tax, many excise taxes, paper money issued without backing ("greenbacks"), a huge national debt, homestead laws, and aid to education and agriculture. The Republicans denounced the peace-oriented Democrats as Copperheads and won enough War Democrats to maintain their majority in 1862, and reelect Lincoln easily in 1864. During the war upper middle class men in major cities formed Union Leagues, to promote and help finance the war effort.

In Reconstruction how to deal with the ex-Confederates and the freed slaves or Freedmen were the major issues. By 1864 Radical Republicans controlled Congress and demanded more aggressive action against slavery, and more vengeance toward the Confederates. Lincoln held them off just barely. Republicans at first welcomed president Andrew Johnson; the Radicals thought he was one of them and would take a hard line in punishing the South. Johnson however broke with them and formed a loose alliance with moderate Republicans and some Democrats. The showdown came in the Congressional elections of 1866, in which the Radicals won a sweeping victory and took full control of Reconstruction, passing key laws over the veto. Johnson was impeached by the House, but acquitted by the Senate. With the election of Ulysses S. Grant in 1868 the radicals had control of Congress, the party and the Army, and attempted to build a solid Republican base in the South using the votes of Freedmen, Scalawags and Carpetbaggers, supported directly by U.S. Army detachments. The Republicans all across the South formed local clubs called Union Leagues that effectively mobilized the voters, discussed issues, and when necessary fought off Ku Klux Klan attacks. Thousands died on both sides.

Grant supported radical reconstruction programs in the South, the 14th Amendment, equal civil and voting rights for the freedmen; most of all he was the hero of the war veterans, who marched to his tune. The party had become so large that factionalism was inevitable; it was hastened by Grant's tolerance of high levels of corruption. The "Liberal Republicans" split off in 1872 on the grounds that it was time to declare the war finished and bring the troops home. Many of the founders of the GOP joined the movement, as did many powerful newspaper editors. They nominated Horace Greeley, who gained unofficial Democratic support, but was defeated in a landslide. The depression of 1873 energized the Democrats. They won control of the House, and formed "Redeemer" coalitions which recaptured control of each southern state, in some cases using threats and violence.

Reconstruction came to an end when the contested election of 1876 was handed to Republican Rutherford B. Hayes who promised, through the unofficial Compromise of 1877 to withdraw federal troops from control of the last three southern states. The region then became the Solid South, giving overwhelming majorities of its electoral votes and Congressional seats to the Democrats until 1964. The GOP, as it was now nicknamed, split into "Stalwart" and "Half-Breed" factions; they fought over patronage and civil service reform, but other policy differences were slight. In 1884, "Mugwump" reformers rejected James G. Blaine as corrupt and helped elect Democrat Grover Cleveland.

As the Northern post-bellum economy boomed with heavy and light industry, railroads, mines, and fast-growing cities, as well as prosperous agriculture, the Republicans took credit and promoted policies to keep the fast growth going. They supported big business generally, hard money (i.e. the gold standard), high tariffs, and high pensions for Union veterans. By 1890, however, the Republicans had agreed to the Sherman Anti-Trust Act and the Interstate Commerce Commission in response to complaints from owners of small businesses and farmers.

From 1860 to 1912 the Republicans took advantage of the association of the Democrats with "Rum, Romanism and Rebellion". Rum stood for the liquor interests and the tavernkeepers, in contrast to the GOP, which had a strong dry element. "Romanism" meant the Catholics, especially the Irish, who staffed the Democratic party in every big city, and whom the Republicans denounced for political corruption. "Rebellion" stood for the Confederates who tried to break the Union in 1861, and the Copperheads in the North who sympathized with them.

Demographic trends aided the Democrats, as the German and Irish Catholic immigrants were Democrats, and outnumbered the English and Scandinavian Republicans. During the 1880s and 1890s, the Republicans struggled against the Democrats' efforts, winning several close elections and losing two to Grover Cleveland (in 1884 and 1892).

Roosevelt on the Stump, 1912
Theodore Roosevelt represented the progressive faction of the Republican Party.

Early twentieth century

The election of William McKinley in 1896 is widely seen as a resurgence of Republican dominance and is sometimes cited as a realigning election. He relied heavily on industry and the middle classes for his support and cemented the Republicans as the party of business; his campaign manager, Ohio's Marcus Hanna, developed a detailed plan for getting contributions from the business world, and McKinley outspent his rival William Jennings Bryan by a large margin. This emphasis on business was in part mitigated by Theodore Roosevelt, McKinley's successor after assassination, who engaged in trust-busting. McKinley was the first president to promote pluralism, arguing that prosperity would be shared by all ethnic and religious groups.

Roosevelt did not seek another term in 1908, instead endorsing Secretary of War William Howard Taft as his successor, but the widening division between progressive and conservative forces in the party resulted in a third-party candidacy for Roosevelt on the Progressive, or "Bull Moose" ticket in the election of 1912. He finished ahead of Taft, but the split in the Republican vote resulted in a decisive victory for Democrat Woodrow Wilson, temporarily interrupting the Republican era.

The party controlled the presidency throughout the 1920s, running on a platform of opposition to the League of Nations, high tariffs, and promotion of business interests. Warren G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover were resoundingly elected in 1920, 1924, and 1928 respectively. Although the party did very well in large cities and among ethnic Catholics in presidential elections of 1920-24, it was unable to hold those gains in 1928. By 1932 the cities--for the first time ever--had become Democratic strongholds. The African American vote held for Hoover in 1932, but started moving toward Roosevelt. By 1940 the majority of northern blacks were voting Democratic. Southern blacks who could vote (in border states) were split; disenfranchised blacks in the South probably preferred the Republicans.

The Great Depression cost Hoover the presidency with the landslide election of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932. Roosevelt's New Deal coalition controlled American politics for most of the next three decades, excepting the two-term presidency of Republican Dwight Eisenhower.

Second half of the twentieth century

Richard Nixon
Despite his shortcomings, Richard Nixon's electoral victories are seen as forerunners to a GOP electoral realignment.

The post-war emergence of the United States as one of two superpowers and rapid social change caused the Republican Party to divide into a conservative faction (dominant in the West and Southeast) and a liberal faction (dominant in New England) – combined with a residual base of inherited progressive Republicanism active throughout the century. A Republican like U.S. Sen. Robert Taft of Ohio represented the Midwestern wing of the party that continued to oppose New Deal reforms and continued to champion isolationism. Thomas Dewey represented the Northeastern wing of the party. Dewey did not reject the New Deal programs, but demanded more efficiency, more support for economic growth, and less corruption. He was more willing than Taft to support Britain in 1939-40. After the war the isolationists wing strenuously opposed the United Nations, and was half-hearted in opposition to world Communism. Dwight Eisenhower, a NATO commander, defeated Taft in 1952 on foreign policy issues. The two men were not far apart on domestic issues. The conservatives made a comeback under the leadership of Barry Goldwater who defeated Nelson Rockefeller as the Republican candidate in the 1964 presidential convention. Goldwater was strongly opposed to the New Deal and the United Nations, but he rejected isolationism and containment, calling for an aggressive anti-Communist foreign policy.

One element of the New Deal coalition was the "Solid South", a term describing the Southern states' reliable support for Democratic presidential candidates. Goldwater's electoral success in the South, and Nixon's successful Southern strategy in 1968 and 1972, represented a significant political turnabout, as Southern whites began moving into the party. Later, the Democratic Party's support for liberal social stances for criminal law issues such as abolition of the death penalty, and same-sex marriage drove many former Democrats into a Republican party that was embracing the conservative views on these issues. Conversely, liberal Republicans in the northeast began to join the Democratic Party. In The Emerging Republican Majority, Kevin Phillips, then a Nixon strategist, argued (based on the 1968 election results) that support from Southern whites and growth in the Sun Belt, among other factors, was driving an enduring Republican electoral realignment. Today, the South is still solid, but the reliable support is for Republican presidential candidates, and no Democratic presidential candidate who wasn't from the South has won a presidential election since 1960.

Any enduring Republican majority, however, was put on hold when the Watergate Scandal forced Nixon to resign under threat of impeachment. Gerald Ford succeeded Nixon under the 25th Amendment and struggled to forge a political identity separate from his predecessor. The taint of Watergate and the nation's economic difficulties contributed to the election of Democrat Jimmy Carter in 1976, a Washington outsider.

Moderate Republicans of 1940-80

The term Rockefeller Republican was used 1960-80 to designate to a faction of the party holding "moderate" views similar to those of the late Nelson Rockefeller, governor of New York from 1959 to 1974 and vice president under President Gerald Ford in 1974-77. Before Rockefeller, Tom Dewey, governor of New York 1942-54 and GOP presidential nominee in 1944 and 1948 was the leader. Dwight D. Eisenhower and Richard Nixon reflected many of their views. An important leader in the 1950s was Connecticut Republican Senator Prescott Bush, father and grandfather of presidents. After Rockefeller left the national stage in 1976, this faction of the party was more often called "moderate Republicans," in contrast to the conservatives who rallied to Ronald Reagan. Historically Rockefeller Republicans were moderate or liberal on domestic and social policies. They favored New Deal programs, including regulation and welfare. They were very strong supporters of civil rights. They were strongly supported by big business on Wall Street (New York City). In fiscal policy they favored balanced budgets and relatively high tax levels to keep the budget balanced. They sought long-term economic growth through entrepreneurships, not tax cuts. In state politics, they were strong supporters of state colleges and universities, low tuition, and large research budgets. They favored infrastructure improvements, such as highway projects. In foreign policy they were internationalists, and anti-Communists. They felt the best way to counter Communism was sponsoring economic growth (through foreign aid), maintaining a strong military, and keeping close ties to NATO. Geographically their base was the Northeast, from Pennsylvania to Maine. Barry Goldwater crusaded against the Rockefeller Republicans, beating Rockefeller narrowly in the California primary of 1964. That set the stage for a conservative resurgence, based in the South and West, in opposition to the Northeast. Ronald Reagan continued in the same theme, but George H. W. Bush was more closely associated with the moderates.

Today there are very few Rockefeller Republicans left in power, although a handful remain in the senate such as U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, and control a few governorships, such as Jim Douglas of Vermont. Many Rockefeller Republicans came from the New England states but gradually left the Republican party throughout the 1970s and the 1980s as they began to feel alienated due to the increasingly socially conservative direction of the party as it formed a growing bond with the religious right. To be sure, the term "Rockefeller Republican" today sounds somewhat dated, and such Republicans are probably more apt to call themselves "moderate Republicans." The recent usage of the term South Park Republicans would seem to be a contemporary version of the term Rockefeller Republican.

Official Portrait of President Reagan 1981
Ronald Reagan launched the "Reagan Revolution" with his election to the Presidency in 1980, providing conservative influence that continues to the present day.

Ever since he left office in 1989, Reagan has been the iconic conservative Republican; and Republican presidential candidates frequently claim to share his views and aim to establish themselves and their policies as the more appropriate heir to his legacy. In 1994, the Party, led by House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich campaigning on the "Contract with America", was elected to majorities to both houses of Congress in the Republican Revolution. However, Gingrich was unable to deliver on most of its promises, and after the impeachment and acquittal of President Bill Clinton in 1998 and 1999, and subsequent Republican losses in the House, he resigned. Since Reagan's day, presidential elections have been close. However, the Republican presidential candidate won a majority of the popular vote only in 2004, while coming in second in 1992, 1996, 2000, 2008, 2012 and 2016.

21st century

The Senate majority lasted until 2001, when the Senate became split evenly but was regained in the 2002 elections. Both Republican majorities in the House and Senate were held until the Democrats regained control in the mid-term elections of 2006. The Republican Party has since been defined by social conservatism, a preemptive war foreign policy intended to defeat terrorism and promote global democracy, a more powerful executive branch, supply side economics, support for gun ownership, and deregulation.

George H. W. Bush, 41st President of the United States (1989–1993)
George W. Bush, 43rd President of the United States (2001–2009)
Father and son presidents of the United States
Donald Trump President-elect portrait
Donald Trump, 45th President of the United States

In the Presidential election of 2008, the party's nominees were Senator John McCain, of Arizona, for President and Alaska Governor Sarah Palin for Vice President. They were defeated by Senator Barack Obama of Illinois and Senator Joe Biden of Delaware. In 2009, Republicans Chris Christie and Bob McDonnell were elected to the governorships of New Jersey and Virginia.

2010 was a year of electoral success for the Republicans, starting with the upset win of Scott Brown in the Massachusetts special Senate election for the seat held for many decades by the Democratic Kennedy brothers. In the November elections, Republicans recaptured control of the House, increased their number of seats in the Senate, and gained a majority of governorships. Additionally, Republicans took control of at least 19 Democratic-controlled state legislatures.

In the Presidential election of 2012, the Republican nominees were former Governor Mitt Romney of Massachusetts for President, and Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin for Vice President. The Democrats nominated incumbents Barack Obama and Joe Biden. The campaign focused largely on the Affordable Care Act and President Obama's stewardship of the economy, with the country facing high unemployment numbers and a rising national debt four years after his first election. Romney and Ryan were defeated by Obama and Biden. In addition, in the November congressional elections, while Republicans lost 7 seats in the House, they retained control. However, Republicans were not able to gain control of the Senate, continuing their minority status with a net loss of 2 seats.

After the 2014 midterm elections the Republican Party took control of the Senate by gaining nine seats. With a final total of 247 seats (56.8%) in the House and 54 seats in the Senate, the Republicans ultimately achieved their largest majority in the U.S. Congress since the 71st Congress in 1929.

After the 2016 elections, Republicans maintained a majority in the Senate, House, Governorships, and elected Donald Trump as President. The Republican Party controls 69 of 99 state legislative chambers in 2017, the most it has held in history, and at least 33 governorships, the most it has held since 1922. The party has total control of government (legislative chambers and governorship) in 25 states, the most since 1952, while the opposing Democratic Party has full control in five states.

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