Skip to main content

For Whom and For What: The Birth of the Republican Party and the Makings of Modern America

Heather Cox Richardson in conversation with The Straddler

Heather Cox Richardson, Cambridge, MA, 2015 Photo: Mark Ostow

On April 10, 2015, The Straddler met with Heather Cox Richardson in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Richardson is Professor of History at Boston College, and the author of several books on nineteenth-century America.

Her most recent book is To Make Men Free: A History of the Republican Party, which traces the GOP from its founding in the 1850s to the contemporary Tea Party. In it, she argues that charting the development of the Republican Party illuminates “the profound tension between America’s two fundamental beliefs, equality of opportunity and protection of property.”[1]

According to Richardson, the party founded before the Civil War as a reaction against the concentration of wealth that was the Southern slave power became, beginning during the presidency of Ulysses S. Grant and reaching a high point with the presidencies of Benjamin Harrison and William McKinley, a servant of another concentration of power and wealth in the form of business interests.

Richardson looks at this transition, and two subsequent party transitions from a commitment to equality of opportunity to a dedication to the protection of a small elite, and claims that the Republican Party’s history helps us understand “why, since the Civil War, the nation has swung between progressivism and reaction, and why government efforts to level the economic playing field have been first embraced and then later attacked as ‘communism.’”[2]

Our conversation began with a discussion of the American cowboy, a familiar figure whose mythos has often been put to use in the service of reaction.

April 10, 2015
The American cowboy really came into popular culture beginning in 1866, and that’s not an accident. Texas had a growing cattle industry before the Civil War, but after the Union took the Mississippi River, there was no way to get the cattle from Texas to St. Louis, which was the industry hub. So by 1865, men were literally pleading with Jefferson Davis to take cattle out of Texas. Confederate soldiers were living on parched corn while Texans were overrun by these feral and very nasty longhorns, but there was no way for Davis to move the cattle east.

After the Civil War, the South was devastated. People were mentally shattered, they had no money, bodies were buried in shallow graves—we have accounts of refugees seeing wild animals dragging human limbs. It was bad everywhere, and no place in the South was worse than Texas. During the war, when the white Texans had gone to fight for the Confederacy, both Comanches—who used to command the area—and Mexicans began to move in. That meant that after the war, Texas had Comanches, Mexicans, whites, and African Americans all jockeying for some sort of power. Meanwhile, all of these cattle were running feral. If you even bothered to buy one, you were only going to pay three or four dollars. But for the most part, Comanches, Mexicans, and white Americans were just stealing them back and forth.

If you could figure out a way to get the cattle out of Texas and up to a railhead, though, or if you could get them to the federal army—which was buying cattle because by treaty it had to provide beef on Indian reservations—you would be able to sell them for thirty to forty bucks a head. So in 1865, Charles Goodnight put together an organization of former Confederates and former slaves to try and do that. The first attempt failed because the Comanches ran their cattle off, but in 1866, Goodnight tried again. On his way out of Texas, he ran into his old friend Oliver Loving, and together they forged the Goodnight-Loving Trail and reached a U.S. Army post. They returned to Texas with $12,000 in gold—a fortune—and their success started the cattle drives.

At the same time, right after the Civil War, southern white people began to insist that the war had not been about slavery, that it had been about keeping the federal government out of their lives. They pointed in particular to the Freedmen’s Bureau, which they said was a federal behemoth that was using white tax dollars to keep federal troops in the South to help African Americans. They claimed that the federal government was whipping up false stories of black people being abused in order to keep Republicans in power, and they said this was destroying white liberties and taking white tax dollars.

The cowboy was used as a contrasting image. The cowboy was a white Confederate—they never talked about the African Americans—who was an independent individualist. He didn’t need the federal government. Of course, if you look at it, the cowboys were selling their cattle to the federal government, and they were relying on the federal army to protect them from the Indians. But in any case, this image of the independent cowboy apart from the federal government went into the southern newspapers, and Democrats in the North who hated the Republicans for their own reasons began to pick it up, too. So in those two years after the Civil War, you started to get the rise of this image of the great American cowboy who was an individualist, and who was always seen in opposition to the large federal government that was trying to help African Americans.

Something else that contributed to the rise of the popularity of the cowboy image is related to Jesse James, who was a Confederate, a criminal, and a murderer. During the Civil War, he was part of Quantrill’s Raiders in Missouri. These were Confederate guerillas who would ride into town with guns in both hands and randomly shoot people, including women and children, and then ride out. This was considered extraordinarily unsporting and unfair. You’re not supposed to do this, even in wartime. When the war was over, people in Missouri were so mad at the Confederate guerillas that in 1865 the Missouri Legislature, which was dominated by Republicans, wrote the new “Drake” constitution that said that nobody who supported the Confederacy in any way—delivered a letter, fed a relative breakfast, expressed sympathy—could ever vote, hold office, be a minister, or be a lawyer. And since the jury pool was taken from the voting lists, that also meant these people were excluded from jury service. So if you were a Democrat in Missouri, you really had no civic rights, and you had no chance to testify in court, or to be represented by someone else who was a Democrat.

After the war Jesse James turned to crime—but he insisted that he wasn’t a criminal. He said was being accused of things he hadn’t done, but he couldn’t turn himself in to prove his innocence in court because the Republican government—which, by 1871, was kept in power in Missouri with votes from African Americans—had made it impossible for him to get legal representation or to have anyone who would be sympathetic to him on a jury. He insisted he couldn’t get a fair trial. Jesse James was basically illiterate, but there was a Democratic newspaper editor in Missouri who wrote columns about how his situation was an example of the big, behemoth Republican government squashing the poor little guy. And these columns got picked up back east—even in the New York Times—and this also contributed to the creation of the cowboy image.

Of course, when you look at the real cowboys, the reality of their lives looked very much like the lives of the industrial workers in the North who were their contemporaries. Working conditions were terrible, hours were terrible, pay was quite low, and it was very dangerous—very few people stayed in it for long. It was a young man’s game. Historians have looked at who got the money out of the cattle industry, and it was never the cowboy. The reality was grim. But the image that was spread was that these guys were having the times of their lives; they were the heart of independent America, standing apart from the federal government.

Now, working together with this was the idea that African Americans were lazy and undeserving. In the 1840s and the 1850s, there had been a growing rhetoric of African Americans being lazy and not very good workers. This rhetoric had come about for different reasons in both the North and South. But during the Civil War, this changed dramatically in the North. After spending the first two years of the Civil War losing, the North began to say that the South had an advantage over it in the form of black slaves who did all of the menial work. By the middle of the war, you actually had northern newspapers saying that one black worker was worth two white workers. And, of course, African Americans fought for the Union during the war, and also started working for the Treasury Department, and this contributed to their image as good workers. When the northern armies took over the southern fields, the Treasury Department would put African Americans to work on them—for less money than they should have been getting, incidentally—and the crops produced on the fields were sold overseas to bring money into the Union. So African Americans were producing money for the Union war effort.

Coming out of the war, you had northerners saying that African Americans were very good workers, and southerners and northern Democrats saying just the opposite. Southern whites looked at the fact that African Americans refused to work in gangs any longer, and wouldn’t go back to the fields, where there was no food, and they said, they’re lazy. But northerners didn’t listen to that. So how does that language of African Americans being lazy make it back into the northern lexicon? The story behind that is about the Republican Party.

In April of 1865, after Lincoln was assassinated, Andrew Johnson took over. Because Congress was out of session, he was in sole control of Reconstruction until December of that year. When the Republicans came back in session, they fought with Johnson from December of 1865 through the election of Grant in 1868. During this interregnum, if you will, the Republicans didn’t have their own leader. After Grant was elected, Charles Sumner, a senior member of the Senate who believed he should control the Republican Party, was vocally and publicly disdainful of him.

The image of Grant that has come down to us is that he was corrupt. But Grant was brilliant—he not only won the Civil War, but he later wrote memoirs that launched an entirely new movement in American literature. So he was no slouch. And he was determined to run the government on his own, and to do it according to merit. So Grant started to make appointments without consulting Sumner or some of the other leading figures in the Senate, and they got furious and started to accuse him of cronyism because he was appointing his own people rather than the people that they recommended. Grant eventually figured out that he had a problem, but not in time. By the time he began to defer to Sumner, Sumner had already decided to challenge him for control of the Republican Party.

Sumner’s friends in the party included most of the newspaper editors in the country, and the newspapers began to go after Grant by going after the southern Republican governments. Beginning in May of 1871, they picked up the language of the Democrats, and they began to say that Grant was only supporting African American rights and Republican governments in the South to keep himself in power. The New York Daily Tribune under Horace Greeley, for example, wrote that no one in the South was abusing African Americans, and that these Republican governments were corrupt and just designed to use white tax dollars to help undeserving, lazy black people. That’s how this rhetoric gets back into northern discourse.

Of course, a lot of this should sound familiar. We hear versions of this rhetoric today. And that’s what’s fascinating about this whole period immediately after the Civil War—it’s really the making of modern America. You see all the patterns that we live with today being laid down. The relationship to organized labor is another example. In 1866, we get the National Labor Union, which is the first national labor union in the United States. Sixty thousand people show up for its organization, and what they really want is equality of opportunity. They want shorter work hours and they want some regulations. But the statement that the organizing committee produces says that there is a conflict in America between labor and capital, and that it has to be fixed. Republicans, especially Republican factory owners and financiers, look at this and they’re horrified. The whole concept of equality of opportunity in the Republican vision is that everyone is in the game together. If the guys at the bottom do fine, they’re going to put money away and hire more people. That’s a very different vision from the idea that there is a fight between labor and capital.
Then in 1867, a group of senators, including Benjamin Wade, the president pro tem of the Senate, take a trip out west. In Kansas, Wade makes a speech where he says that there are problems in the country between labor and capital. He was probably referring to an ongoing financial issue related to the repayment of bonds, but there was a reporter there for the New York Times who insisted that Wade said that there was going to be a war between labor and capital. Wade insists he never said it, but the Times keeps printing it, and this feeds into American anxiety about organized labor.

Meanwhile, African Americans had begun to vote under the Military Reconstruction Act of 1867, and they were voting for delegates to write state constitutions, and the state constitutions were quite good. This horrified white southerners, who thought that African Americans should not have any say in their government. When the state constitutions got accepted, and most of the southern states returned to Congress in 1868, white southerners began to warn that African American voters were going to use the power of the vote to redistribute wealth to themselves. Northerners were simultaneously looking to what was happening with workers in northern cities, especially in New York City—which was a Democratic city in a Republican state that could sway presidential elections—and they were saying that the same thing was happening. Except that instead of having African Americans voting, they had poor Irish immigrants. Remember, Tammany Hall was kept in power by Irish immigrant votes.

So you had all of this rumbling, and then from March through May of 1871, you had the Paris Commune in France. The way it plays in America is that workers have taken over the city of Paris, they’re killing priests, they’re redistributing wealth, women are blowing up buildings with bottles filled with gasoline. This is all getting a lot of press in America, partially because the only foreign minister left in Paris is Elihu Washburne, whom everyone expects is going to be the next Republican nominee for president. Republican newspapers run his dispatches as front-page news again and again and again, and images of communist chaos and lawlessness permeate America from March through May of 1871. And then in October of 1871, Chicago burns. Out of that comes the legend that it is Mrs. O’Leary who burns down the city. In fact, it wasn’t Mrs. O’Leary—but the story that takes hold is that an immigrant worker destroyed Chicago.

Now, if you look at the 1950s in America, they were much like the 1860s and the 1870s. As I mention in the book, Westerns took off on the new medium of television in the mid 50s. These were simple stories in which strong white men worked hard and made it on their own. The crucial moments in the 50s were Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 and Eisenhower’s sending troops into Little Rock in 1957. Again there was this perception of a large federal government using white tax dollars to help African Americans. In 1955, William F. Buckley, Jr., established the National Review, and he made it a big point to hire a Richmond newspaper editor to work for the magazine and talk about how things like Brown v. Board of Education were exactly what you were going to get if you let there be an active federal government—which is what Buckley stood against.

In 1954, Buckley had written McCarthy and His Enemies in which he basically said, well, McCarthy might have been wrong in what he did, but his ideas were good. Buckley equated the New Deal liberal consensus with communism, and argued that the good guy, capital “C” Conservatives were going to have to eradicate the bad guy, capital “L” Liberals, the same way they were going to have to eliminate the bad guy, capital “C” Communists. Movement Conservatives did not believe that the government had any role in regulating finance or the economy at all. But what were they going to do to take on the extraordinarily popular New Deal liberal consensus? The tool Buckley used was racism. So, he pointed to Brown v. Board of Education, and then to Eisenhower’s sending troops to Little Rock—which was the first time federal troops had been in the South since Reconstruction—and then later to Kennedy starting to integrate Ole Miss. I have a picture of an old billboard that says, “Fight Communism and Integration, Join the KKK.” These two things often became conflated in the American mind. Again, the idea was that the government was using white tax dollars to help unworthy minorities. In the 50s, Movement Conservatives are talking about African Americans, but by the time you get to the 1970s you see this expand to include other people they don’t like—especially women.

Also crucial to the rise of Movement Conservatism was the postwar demographic. In the past, America had always demilitarized immediately after a war, but that didn’t happen after World War II. Instead, we got the first permanent version of what Eisenhower would call the military-industrial complex. If you think about America before World War II, you think about the South as an extraordinarily impoverished place and the West as a place that is not developed. During World War II, the government needed good weather and cheap land so that they could spread out military installations and train people. So it’s almost as if the country gets tipped and people pour into the West and South.

The rise of the suburbs in California is an important part of the rise of Movement Conservatism. In California, you had people saying that they were standing against communism in their communities—you know, they were against a large federal government, against aid to minorities, against all of these things—and at the same time, they wanted a lot of government dollars to go to defense industries in order to continue to fight communism. So they wanted government welfare, but government welfare that only went to a certain group of people—those who were building armaments. And it’s fascinating—the more you were against communism in Orange County, where Ronald Reagan was from, the more you wanted government money.

Meanwhile, in the South, you had white people who mostly loved the New Deal and an activist government. But what they don’t like about the New Deal was exactly what Eisenhower started to push in the 1950s—that an activist government helped their black neighbors. That enabled movement conservatism to get a foothold by talking about race and racism. And that’s when you see Republicans beginning to make inroads into the traditionally Democratic South.

Movement Conservatism was—and is—really standing in opposition to the New Deal. There is a direct inherited lineage from the Republicans in the 1920s, led by Senator Robert Taft—William Howard Taft’s son—who believed that if the government did anything but promote big business, it was anti-American communism. Republican businessmen in the 1930s hated the New Deal, less because of the welfare programs—although they hated those too—and more because of business regulation. They insisted that the government must not be involved in regulating business, because businessmen were the only ones who knew how to run their businesses, and regulation would make them unable to accumulate as much as they could—and they were the movers who were going to advance American society. They believed that the New Deal was itself communist. That thread against the New Deal is the one we’re still living with today.

At its founding, the Republican party really created a political arm, if you will, of the Declaration of Independence, which says that everybody is created equal. Lincoln articulated this vision, and said that the United States was about equality of opportunity. He stood against the vision of society articulated by James Henry Hammond, a South Carolina Democrat, and Robert Toombs, a cabinet officer in the Confederacy. These men argued not just for slavery, but also for a society where you have the vast majority of people, the “mudsills,” working for the very few. Lincoln stood absolutely against that kind of thinking.

In the 1860s, Republicans firmly believed in Lincoln’s version. But in the 1870s, some Republicans began to pick up some of the language that Andrew Johnson used, and they used it against Grant’s government. There was a sense that maybe James Henry Hammond was onto something, because Americans were now terrified by the rise of organized labor. The idea that maybe not everybody should be as equal as Lincoln talked about began to take over the party by the 1870s, which was also the time when the party shifted from being a party of the West, which it was under Lincoln, to a party of Wall Street, which it became under Grant.

The obvious problem for Lincoln’s vision is that if everybody has equality of opportunity, not everybody is going to end up at the same place. And invariably, when you get some people who do better than others, they work to control the legal system. Not just the political system, but also the laws, which they skew to benefit themselves. And as they skew the laws, they also skew the ideology, until you get to a place—and we have seen this repeatedly—that says that what America is really about is making sure the people at the top move America forward.

That swing, from equality of opportunity to the protection of a very small group of people, has happened three times in American history. First it went from Lincoln to the presidencies of Benjamin Harrison and William McKinley. In response to this, people from within the party like Teddy Roosevelt, Henry Cabot Lodge, Albert Beveridge, and “Fighting Bob” LaFollette sought to recreate a government that guaranteed equality of opportunity during the Progressive Era. But from that era, it swung to 1929 and the presidency of Herbert Hoover, where you again had a Republican government that was dedicated to protecting the very wealthy with the idea that they were the movers of society.

After FDR created a safety net during the Depression, Eisenhower tried to recreate equality of opportunity. He created the largest public works program in American history—the Interstate Highway Act. He pushed desegregation—people always forget that Brown v. Board of Education was decided under a Republican court. He sent troops into Little Rock. He also tried to desegregate Washington through use of contracts. And from that period, we got another swing, to Goldwater, Reagan, and the modern-day Republican Party—certainly through George W. Bush—where the idea was that the entire weight of the government should be geared towards protecting the top of the scale.

Website | + posts

Leave a Reply