The Republican Party, often called the GOP (short for “Grand Old Party”) is one of two major political parties in the United States. Founded in 1854 as a coalition opposing the extension of slavery into Western territories, the Republican Party fought to protect the rights of African Americans after the Civil War. Today’s GOP is generally socially conservative, and favors smaller government, less regulation, lower taxes and less federal intervention in the economy.
Early Political Parties
Though America’s Founding Fathers distrusted political parties, it wasn’t long before divisions developed among them. Supporters of George Washington and Alexander Hamilton, who favored a strong central government and a national financial system, became known as Federalists.
By contrast, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson favored a more limited government. His supporters called themselves Republicans, or Jeffersonian Republicans, but later became known as Democratic-Republicans.
The Federalist Party dissolved after the War of 1812, and by the 1830s the Democratic-Republicans had evolved into the Democratic Party (now the main rival to today’s Republicans), which initially rallied around President Andrew Jackson.
Opponents of Jackson’s policies formed their own party, the Whig Party, and by the 1840s Democrats and Whigs were the country’s two main political coalitions.
Slavery and the Republicans
In the 1850s, the issue of slavery—and its extension into new territories and states joining the Union—ripped apart these political coalitions. During this volatile period, new political parties briefly surfaced, including the Free Soil and the American (Know-Nothing) parties.
In 1854, opposition to the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which would permit slavery in new U.S. territories by popular referendum, drove an antislavery coalition of Whigs, Free-Soilers, Americans and disgruntled Democrats to found the new Republican Party, which held its first meeting in Ripon, Wisconsin that May. Two months later, a larger group met in Jackson, Michigan, to choose the party’s first candidates for statewide office.
The Republican goal was not to abolish slavery in the South right away, but rather to prevent its westward expansion, which they feared would lead to the domination of slaveholding interests in national politics.
In the 1860 election, a split between Southern and Northern Democrats over slavery propelled the Republican candidate Abraham Lincoln to victory, though he won only around 40 percent of the popular vote.
Even before Lincoln could be inaugurated, seven Southern states seceded from the Union, beginning the process that would lead to the Civil War.
Over the course of the Civil War, Lincoln and other Republicans began to see the abolition of slavery as a strategic move to help them win the war. Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, and by war’s end, the Republican majority in Congress would spearhead the passage of the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery.
Frustrated by the inaction of Lincoln’s Democratic successor, Andrew Johnson, as well as the treatment of freed blacks in former Confederate states during the Reconstruction era, Radical Republicans in Congress passed legislation protecting the rights of blacks, including civil rights and voting rights (for black men).
These Republican Reconstruction policies would solidify white Southerners’ loyalty to the Democratic Party for many decades to come.
During Reconstruction, Republicans would become increasingly associated with big business and financial interests in the more industrialized North. The federal government had expanded during the war (including passage of the first income tax) and Northern financiers and industrialists had greatly benefited from its increased spending.
As white resistance to Reconstruction solidified, these interests, rather than those of blacks in the South, became the main Republican focus, and by the mid-1870s Democratic Southern state legislatures had wiped out most of Reconstruction’s changes.
Progressive Era and The Great Depression
Because of the Republican Party’s association with business interests, by the early 20th century it was increasingly seen as the party of the upper-class elite.
With the rise of the Progressive movement, which sought to improve life for working-class Americans and encourage Protestant values such as temperance (which would lead to Prohibition in 1919), some Republicans championed progressive social, economic and labor reforms, including President Theodore Roosevelt, who split from the more conservative wing of the party after leaving office.
Republicans benefited from the prosperity of the 1920s, but after the stock market crash of 1929 ushered in the Great Depression, many Americans blamed them for the crisis and deplored their resistance to use direct government intervention to help people. This dissatisfaction allowed Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt to easily defeat the Republican incumbent, Herbert Hoover, in 1932.
Emergence of New Conservatism
The relief programs included in FDR’s New Deal earned overwhelming popular approval, launching an era of Democratic dominance that would last for most of the next 60 years. Between 1932 and 1980, Republicans won only four presidential elections and had a Congressional majority for only four years.
Though the centrist Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was president from 1953 to 1961, actively supported equal rights for women and African Americans, a conservative resurgence led to Barry Goldwater’s nomination as president in 1964, continued with Richard Nixon’s ill-fated presidency and reached its culmination with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980.
The South saw a major political sea change starting after World War II, as many white Southerners began migrating to the GOP due to their opposition to big government, expanded labor unions and Democratic support for civil rights, as well as conservative Christians’ opposition to abortion and other “culture war” issues.
Meanwhile, many black voters, who had remained loyal to the Republican Party since the Civil War, began voting Democratic after the Depression and the New Deal.
Republicans From Reagan to Trump
After running on a platform based on reducing the size of the federal government, Reagan increased military spending, spearheaded huge tax cuts and championed the free market with policies that became known as Reaganomics.
In foreign policy, the United States also emerged the victor in its long-running Cold War with the Soviet Union. But as the economy began to show signs of weakness, the growing national debt helped foster popular dissatisfaction with Reagan’s successor, George H.W. Bush.
The GOP recaptured the White House in 2000, with the highly contested victory of Bush’s son, George W. Bush, over Democratic contender Al Gore. Though initially popular, particularly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Bush administration lost support thanks to growing opposition to the war in Iraq and the faltering economy during the Great Recession.
After Democrat Barack Obama became the first African American to be elected U.S. president in 2008, the rise of the populist Tea Party movement harnessed opposition to Obama’s economic and social reform policies to help Republicans gain a large majority in Congress by 2014.
The 2016 election, in which Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton, left Republicans in control of the White House, Senate, House of Representatives and a majority of state governorships. Democrats gained control of the House in the 2018 midterm elections and in September 2019, a formal impeachment inquiry was launched against President Trump for allegedly attempting to involve Ukraine in the 2020 presidential election.
Political Parties in Congress, The Oxford Guide to the United States Government.
Republican Party, Ohio History Central.
Andrew Prokop, “How Republicans went from the party of Lincoln to the party of Trump, in 13 maps,” Vox (November 10, 2016).