The origins of the Republican Party

The Republican party was created by men who wanted to destroy the power of slaveholders. The year 1854 is the usual date assigned to its ‘birth’, although in truth there was no one single moment of creation. Its main supporters in the early months and years were, like Abraham Lincoln, mostly former members of the Whig Party, an organisation which had championed Protestant moral reform and economic development, but which had been fatally compromised by division over slavery.


Only seeking support in the northern states, the new Republican Party had no need to pull their punches on slavery. Its supporters argued that the republic was under threat from the “Slave Power” – a conspiracy of southern planters who were undermining the freedoms of northern white men by demanding more and more protections for their human “property”.

Exhibit A in this well-founded conspiracy theory was the Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854) that had overturned the long-standing Missouri Compromise which had banned slavery from expanding into much of the west. The prospect of slaveholders marching their human chattels into Kansas and beyond was frightening to northerners because it cut off their own dreams of going west to make their fortune. More than that, it was a demonstration that southern “aristocrats” held the “whip hand”. White northerners began to feel that they were being enslaved too, just as their forefathers in 1776 had used the metaphor of their own enslavement to justify their opposition to the king.

The Republican Party came into being by dividing and ruling. Arguably, they have been doing it ever since

In 1858 Lincoln made a famous speech in Springfield, Illinois, in which he warned that a “house divided against itself cannot stand”. We cannot endure “half slave and half free”, he said. His point was that the nation was in danger of becoming an entirely slave-based republic unless the north rose up and made it, in the long run, entirely free. Lincoln’s ‘house-divided’ metaphor was, in other words not (as is sometimes mistakenly assumed) a pious call for national reconciliation but a call to arms. And it worked: Lincoln won the presidency in 1860 with only 40 per cent of the national popular vote but with a majority in the Electoral College achieved by winning pluralities in almost every single northern state. The Republican Party came into being by dividing and ruling. Arguably, they have been doing it ever since.

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A painting of Abraham Lincoln giving a speech at Knox College
A painting of Abraham Lincoln giving a speech at Knox College, 1858. Print from the original painting by Ralph Fletcher Seymour. (Photo by Authenticated News/Archive Photos/Getty Images)

A mission to destroy slavery

For the first generation of Republicans, marginalising and eventually destroying slavery was part and parcel of a larger vision of breaking down obstacles to the creation of wealth and opportunity. The Republican-dominated Congress during the Civil War did not just concern itself with slavery or military matters but with huge infrastructure projects like the transcontinental railroad and with increasing tariffs to protect US industry against foreign competition. They were also the party of evangelicals, who, when they imagined the great republic they were building, saw it as one structured by Protestant morality. Catholics, Mormons, atheists, European-style socialists: to Republicans, all these groups were as inherently subversive of American freedom as the would-be tyrannical slaveholders.

If the Republican Party had begun as a party of outsiders, challenging the proslavery domination of US politics since the Revolution, they very quickly graduated into the party of the establishment. After the Civil War, the Republican Party dominated national politics for half a century. Their electoral base remained in the north and far west, but that was amply sufficient to ensure Electoral College majorities for the president and, more often than not, control of Congress. The party had the unquestioning support of those who were benefiting from the enormous wealth created in the ‘Gilded Age’: the big businessmen and entrepreneurs, the new class of professionals and clerks.

By the dawn of the 20th century, the Republicans had also become the party of imperial expansion. During the presidency of William McKinley (1897–1901), the US became involved in a war with Spain after which they emerged with, in effect, their own overseas empire in Cuba and the Philippines.

Theodore Roosevelt
Theodore Roosevelt speaks from a platform during a political campaign. (Photo by Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)

“Progressive” politics?

After McKinley became the third Republican president to be assassinated (the second, after Lincoln, was James A Garfield in 1881), he was succeeded by Theodore Roosevelt, whose charismatic leadership combined bombastic support for US global expansion – a grand vision for great American leadership – with what was then called a “progressive” politics of limiting the power of over-mighty corporations. The progressive strand in the Republican Party that Roosevelt represented remained strong well into the 20th century. It was strongest among westerners who felt most distant from the centres of financial power in the eastern cities; it was a tradition that harked back to the egalitarian world of small-scale capitalism that Lincoln knew.

This progressive Republican strand was insufficient, however, to offer a satisfactory response to the Great Depression. The incumbent Republican in the White House, Herbert Hoover, became synonymous with the hardship of the years after 1929: the shanty towns that were inhabited by families who’d lost their homes were known as “Hoovervilles”. Democrat Franklin Roosevelt (a distant relative of the Republican Teddy Roosevelt) defeated Hoover in a landslide in 1932 with his promise of a New Deal and the stage was set for three decades in which the Republicans were largely marginalised.

Two children photographed at a 'Hooverville' shantytown
Two children photographed at a 'Hooverville' shantytown in Washington DC. (Photo by MPI/Getty Images)

Saved by the south

The party’s return to power – even if not with the same level of dominance as they’d enjoyed in the late 19th-century – came through what may once have seemed an unexpected route: the south. That region of the country had been hostile to Republicans since the Civil War, but in the wake of the civil rights movement, white southerners began moving steadily towards the Republican Party. For most of the last half century most of the former Confederacy has been the bedrock of the party’s congressional and presidential majorities. Richard Nixon won the presidency in 1968 with what his advisors called a “southern strategy”: building a new electoral coalition based on white anxiety about a changing society. Ronald Reagan won in 1980 with a sunnier version of the same strategy.

Republicans still hark back to their antislavery origins as a kind of proof that they can’t possibly be racist

Because the Republican Party was born as an antislavery party, and because Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation and post-Civil War Republicans pushed through the dramatic constitutional amendments giving citizenship and rights to former slaves, the “party of Lincoln” remained for a long time the natural party of African-Americans. Up until the 1930s, black voters were Republicans (in areas where they were able to vote), while the Democrats were the party of the white “Jim Crow” south. The New Deal attracted black voters to the Democrats for the first time, but the civil rights revolution ­– enabled by Democrats on a national level – completed the transformation. Now, as few as one in 10 African-Americans vote for the party of Donald Trump, even though Republicans still hark back to their antislavery origins as a kind of proof that they can’t possibly be racist.

Richard M Nixon
Richard M Nixon arriving at Fargo during a presidential campaign. (Photo by Paul Schutzer/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)

Trump’s party

President Trump would have appalled most previous generations of Republicans for many reasons, not least his coarseness, disregard for constitutional norms, and frequent attacks on US national security services. That he could become not just the Republican nominee in 2016 but that his party is now so firmly in thrall to him will long be seen by historians as a marker of a profound shift in the makeup of the Republican base and its attitude to power and authority.

And yet if we are attempting to understand the Republican party as an enduring and successful political party, Trump can – as in so many other ways – obscure more than he illuminates.

Look at the policy record of the Trump administration and it is hard not to conclude that any Republican president would have done the same things: very conservative judicial appointments and regressive tax cuts while blocking Democratic-sponsored spending bills.

The Republican Party has always been the party of the wealthiest in America, and never been in favour of government-induced redistribution of wealth. The context has changed massively since Lincoln’s day, but three themes illustrate the continuities in the public positions and policies of the party.

The first is the rhetoric of individual freedom as opposed to “class legislation” allegedly favoured by Dems. The second is social order and its defence. For Republicans, who have always drawn on the support of evangelical Protestants, there have always been profound threats to an ideal of social stability and the patriarchal family whether from Catholic immigrants, communists, 1960s radicals, civil rights leaders, or the identity politics of the “woke” left.

The third theme has been national chauvinism. Ronald Reagan used the slogan “Let’s Make America Great Again” in his 1980 campaign. Even with Donald Trump – perhaps especially with Donald Trump – there is nothing entirely new.


Adam I P Smith is the Edward Orsborn Professor of United States politics and political history at the University of Oxford and the Director of the Rothermere American Institute. He also regularly writes and presents documentaries for the BBC. His latest book is The Stormy Present: Conservatism and the Problem of Slavery in Northern Politics, 1846–1865 (The University of North Carolina Press, 2017). To find out more, visit