Abolishing slavery. Free speech. Women's suffrage. In today's stereotypes, none of these sounds like a
typical Republican issue, yet they are stances the Republican Party, in opposition to the Democratic
Party, adopted early on.
Reducing the government. Streamlining the bureaucracy. Returning power to the states. These issues
don't sound like they would be the promises of the party of Lincoln, the party that fought to preserve the
national union, but they are, and logically so. With a core belief in the idea of the primacy of individuals,
the Republican Party, since its inception, has been at the forefront of the fight for individuals' rights in
opposition to a large, bloated government.
The Republican Party has always thrived on challenges and difficult positions. Its present role as leader
of the revolution in which the principles of government are being re-evaluated is a role it has traditionally
At the time of its founding, the Republican Party was organized as an answer to the divided politics,
political turmoil, arguments and internal division, particularly over slavery, that plagued the many existing
political parties in the United States in 1854. The Free Soil Party, asserting that all men had a natural
right to the soil, demanded that the government re-evaluate homesteading legislation and grant land to
settlers free of charge. The Conscience Whigs, the "radical" faction of the Whig Party in the North,
alienated themselves from their Southern counterparts by adopting an anti-slavery position. And the
Kansas-Nebraska Act, which allowed territories to determine whether slavery would be legalized in
accordance with "popular sovereignty" and thereby nullify the principles of the Missouri Compromise,
created a schism within the Democratic Party.
A staunch Anti-Nebraska Democrat, Alvan E. Bovay, like his fellow Americans, was disillusioned by this
atmosphere of confusion and division. Taking advantage of the political turmoil caused by the
Kansas-Nebraska Act, Bovay united discouraged members from the Free Soil Party, the Conscience
Whigs and the Anti-Nebraska Democrats. Meeting in a Congregational church in Ripon, Wis., he helped
establish a party that represented the interests of the North and the abolitionists by merging two
fundamental issues: free land and preventing the spread of slavery into the Western territories. Realizing
the new party needed a name to help unify it, Bovay decided on the term Republican because it was
simple, synonymous with equality and alluded to the earlier party of Thomas Jefferson, the
On July 6, 1854, in Jackson, Mich., the Republican Party formally organized itself by holding its first
convention, adopting a platform and nominating a full slate of candidates for state offices. Other states
soon followed, and the first Republican candidate for president, John C. Frémont, ran in 1856 with the
slogan "Free soil, free labor, free speech, free men, Frémont."
Even though he ran on a third-party ticket, Frémont managed to capture a third of the vote, and the
Republican Party began to add members throughout the land. As tensions mounted over the slavery
issue, more anti-slavery Republicans began to run for office and be elected, even with the risks involved
with taking this stance. Republican Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts experienced this danger
firsthand. In May 1856, he delivered a passionate anti-slavery speech in which he made critical remarks
about several pro-slavery senators, including Andrew F. Butler of South Carolina. Sumner infuriated Rep.
Preston S. Brooks, the son of one of Butler's cousins, who felt his family honor had been insulted. Two
days later, Brooks walked into the Senate and beat Sumner unconscious with a cane. This incident
electrified the nation and helped to galvanize Northern opinion against the South; Southern opinion hailed
Brooks as a hero. But Sumner stood by his principles, and after a three-year, painful convalescence, he
returned to the Senate to continue his struggle against slavery.
The first Republican
With the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860, the Republicans firmly established themselves as a major
party capable of holding onto the White House for 60 of the next 100 years. Faced with the first shots of
the Civil War barely a month after his inauguration, preserving the Union was Lincoln's greatest
challenge--and no doubt his greatest achievement. But it was by no means his only accomplishment.
Amid the fierce and bloody battles of the Civil War, the Lincoln administration established the
Department of Agriculture, the Bureau of Internal Revenue and a national banking system. Understanding
the importance of settling the frontier, as well as having a piece of land to call your own, Lincoln passed
the Homestead Act, which satisfied the former Free Soil members by offering public land grants. Hoping
to encourage a higher level of education, Lincoln also donated land for agricultural and technical colleges
to the states through the Land Grant College Act, which established universities throughout the United
Fully sensitive to the symbolism of their name, the Republicans worked to deal the death blow to slavery
with Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation and the passage, by a Republican Congress, of the 13th
Amendment, which outlawed slavery. Hoping to permanently turn back the Democratic advance in the
South, immediately after the Civil War the Republican Congress continued to push through legislation to
extend the full protection of civil rights to blacks.
During Reconstruction, the mostly Democratic South, which had seceded from both the Union and
Congress, struggled to regain its footing. Meanwhile, the Republicans took advantage of their majority
and passed several measures to improve the quality of life for blacks throughout the entire Union. First
the Republicans passed a Civil Rights Act in 1866 recognizing blacks as U.S. citizens. This act hoped
to weaken the South by denying states the power to restrict blacks from testifying in a court of law or
from owning their own property.
Continuing to take advantage of their majority, Republicans proposed the 14th Amendment, which
became part of the Constitution in 1868, stating: "All persons born or naturalized in the United States,
and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they
reside. No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of
citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without
due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws."
That same year the Republican Congress also passed the National Eight Hour Law, which, though it
applied only to government workers, brought relief for overworked federal employees by limiting the work
day to eight hours.
Leading the way on the issues
Some people have argued that Republicans fought to give blacks equal rights and then the vote as a way
of wresting control of the South away from the Democrats. While it is true that almost all blacks voted
Republican, these were very dangerous and controversial issues at the time. For whatever reason, many
Republican politicians risked their careers on that period's "third rail" of politics and managed to not only
abolish slavery, but eventually even established a black's right to vote as well. In fact, many blacks even
held elected office and were influential in state legislatures. And, in 1869, the first blacks entered
Congress as members of the Republican Party, establishing a trend that was not broken until 1935 when
the first black Democrat finally was elected to Congress.
Meanwhile, Republicans continued being elected to the White House. In 1868, Civil War hero Ulysses S.
Grant won the presidency easily and was re-elected in 1872. Although he seemed a bit bewildered by
the transition from the military life of a general to being president, under Grant the Republican
commitment to sound money policies continued, and the Department of Justice and the Weather Bureau
were established. The Republicans in Congress continued to boldly set the agenda, and in 1870 they
proposed and passed the 15th Amendment, which guaranteed voting rights regardless of race, creed or
previous condition of servitude. Setting another precedent two years later, the Republican Congress
turned its sights toward women's issues and authorized equal pay for equal work performed by women
employed by federal agencies.
It was around this time that the symbol of the elephant for the Republican Party was created by Thomas
Nast, a famous illustrator and caricaturist for The New Yorker. In 1874, a rumor that animals had
escaped from the New York City Zoo coincided with worries surrounding a possible third-term run by
Grant. Nast chose to represent the Republicans as elephants because elephants were clever, steadfast
and controlled when calm, yet unmanageable when frightened.
But, embracing a tradition established by George Washington and the Republican Party, which had gone
on record opposing a third term for any president, President Grant did not run for re-election in 1876.
Instead, in one of the most bitterly disputed elections in American history, Republican Rutherford B.
Hayes won the presidency by the margin of one electoral vote. After the election, cooperation between
the White House and the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives was nearly impossible.
Nevertheless, Hayes managed to keep his campaign promises. He cautiously withdrew federal troops
from the South to allow them to shake off the psychological yoke of being a conquered land, took
measures to reverse the myriad inequalities suffered by women in that period and adopted the merit
system within the civil service.
Not surprisingly, the Republican appeal held in 1880 when the party won its sixth consecutive
presidential election with the election of the Civil War hero James A. Garfield and also managed to regain
small majorities in both the House and the Senate. Following Garfield's assassination, Chester A. Arthur
succeeded to the Oval Office and, in 1883, oversaw the passage of the Pendleton Act through Congress.
This bill classified about 10 percent of all government jobs and created a bipartisan Civil Service
Commission to prepare and administer competitive examinations for these positions. As dreary as this
bill sounds, it was important because it made at least part of the government bureaucracy a professional