There Once Was A Party…

One of the newsletters I receive is that of Heather Cox Richardson. Richardson is a history professor, and her obviously deep knowledge of U.S. history permits her to contextualize the news of the day in ways that most of us cannot.

A recent letter is a great example. It’s also profoundly sad–at least, to those of us who once belonged to a very different Republican Party.

Richardson begins by reminding us that the GOP’s roots “lie in the immediate aftermath of the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in spring 1854.” That was when it became clear that southern slaveholders effectively controlled the federal government– and were using that control to protect and spread the institution of slavery.

At first, members of the new party knew only what they stood against: an economic system that concentrated wealth upward and made it impossible for ordinary men to prosper. But in 1859, their new spokesman, Illinois lawyer Abraham Lincoln, articulated a new vision of government. Rather than using government power solely to protect the property of wealthy slaveholders, Lincoln argued, the government should work to make it possible for all men to get equal access to resources, including education, so they could rise to economic security.

Most of us think of Lincoln as the President who fought the civil war and emancipated the slaves. Richardson focuses on what is considerably less well-known, his policy preferences–especially his belief that government should provide a national infrastructure.

Back then, both Lincoln and the Republican Party believed in an activist government.

Richardson points out that the early Republican Party introduced the first national taxes, including the  first income tax. They used government to give “ordinary men” access to resources. In 1862, the GOP passed the Homestead Act, a measure that gave away western lands to those willing to settle on it. The party established Land-Grant Colleges, established the Department of Agriculture, and provided for construction of a railroad across the continent. They joined with Democrats to build more than 600 dams in 20 western states.

FDR is usually–and appropriately–credited with enlarging the scope of government in order to deal with the Great Depression, but as Richardson reminds us, Republicans who followed accepted the premise that government should provide for the common good–and that it has a special obligation to fund and maintain the national infrastructure.

Three years after he became president, Eisenhower backed the 1956 Federal-Aid Highway Act, saying, “Our unity as a nation is sustained by free communication of thought and by easy transportation of people and goods.” The law initially provided $25 billion for the construction of 41,000 miles of road; at the time, it was the largest public works project in U.S. history.

So what happened? Why are today’s Republicans not just disinterested in governing, they are positively allergic to the notion that government should provide for the common good by building and maintaining the country’s physical and social infrastructure.

In this moment, Republican lawmakers seem weirdly out of step with their party’s history as well as with the country. They are responding to the American Jobs Plan by defining infrastructure as roads and bridges alone, cutting from the definition even the broadband that they included when Trump was president. (Trump, remember, followed his huge 2017 tax cuts with the promise of a big infrastructure bill. As he said, “Infrastructure is the easiest of all…. People want it, Republicans and Democrats.”) Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) warns that Biden’s plan is a “Trojan horse” that will require “massive tax increases.”

Republicans under Lincoln provided the first justifications for investing in the nation, and for taxing citizens to fund those investments.

The government had a right to “demand” 99% of a man’s property for an urgent need, said House Ways and Means Committee Chair Justin Smith Morrill (R-VT). When the nation required it, he said, “the property of the people… belongs to the [g]overnment.”

I probably wouldn’t go as far as Morrill, but it’s hard to rationalize what passes for philosophy in today’s Republican Party with the party’s history–not just the devolution into White Supremacy, but the 180 degree shift from policies supportive of the common good to policies favoring the wealthy.

Remember that old TV ad that told us “this isn’t your father’s Oldsmobile”? This isn’t your father’s (or grandfather’s) GOP, either.


  1. Many thanks, Sheila, for this history of the beginnings of the Republican Party. Oh the irony of introducing the first nation-wide income taxes to implement public good works, and now being the party representing corporate greed and cronyism. Lincoln would not recognize todayʻs GOP (Greedy Oligarchs Party).

  2. “Why are today’s Republicans not just disinterested in governing, they are positively allergic to the notion that government should provide for the common good by building and maintaining the country’s physical and social infrastructure.”

    Today’s Republicans have reverted to that “slaveholder mentality”; there is no money to be made by providing the “common good” for the “common man”…and woman. They appear to operate today by using avoidance of the realities facing them and attempt to function on their belief that reality is a Democratic illusion and if they ignore reality, it will go away. Indianapolis Republican City Government under Mayor Bill Hudnut faced the reality of the many needs of many residents here and attempted to alleviate many of their problems. Then Ronald Reagan was elected; end of story…and end of federal funds to aid the needy. Was Mayor Bill Hudnut the last of such Republicans or was he the “odd man out” of the party.

    The Republican Indiana State Legislature is in the process of attempting to cut back on retirement benefits of public employee retirees throughout this Republican state. Blaming the “need” for the cutback on the Covid-19 Pandemic. These retirees include public employees, teachers, judges, police officers, firefighters, excise, games & conservation officers, prosecutors and legislators. What percentage of these retirees are Republicans? They are, and have been for more than 10 years, determined to cut back retirement benefits on “their own” who are no longer of use to them to “concentrate wealth upward”. Their “trickle down” concept as a lie is now out in the open.

  3. I also receive Heather Cox Richardson’s daily posts .
    Being a Political Science major and History minor , I’m always interested and intrigued by her thoughts and insights . I had read this column on the GOP that you referenced . Enjoyed your perspective and take on it .

  4. President Eisenhower penned to his brother, Edgar Newton Eisenhower, on 8 November 1954:

    “Now it is true that I believe this country is following a dangerous trend when it permits too great a degree of centralization of governmental functions. I oppose this — in some instances the fight is a rather desperate one.

    But to attain any success it is quite clear that the Federal government cannot avoid or escape responsibilities which the mass of the people firmly believe should be undertaken by it. The political processes of our country are such that if a rule of reason is not applied in this effort, we will lose everything — even to a possible and drastic change in the Constitution. This is what I mean by my constant insistence upon “moderation” in government.

    Should any political party attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history. There is a tiny splinter group, of course, that believes you can do these things. Among them are H.L. Hunt (you possibly know his background), a few other Texas oil millionaires, and an occasional politician or business man from other areas. Their number is negligible and they are stupid.”

    On Jan. 17, 1961, President Dwight Eisenhower gave the nation a dire warning about what he described as a threat to democratic government.

    “As we peer into society’s future, we – you and I, and our government – must avoid the impulse to live only for today, plundering for our own ease and convenience the precious resources of tomorrow. We cannot mortgage the material assets of our grandchildren without risking the loss also of their political and spiritual heritage. We want democracy to survive for all generations to come, not to become the insolvent phantom of tomorrow.”

    “In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists, and will persist.”

    It is impossible today to imagine any Republican saying these words today. They would be drummed out of the GOP.

  5. Where in that history lesson did the Republican Party abandon being a party of racists, or shall I say, a country of racists?

    The Homestead Act gave white men access to free land in the West. What about the slaves and Chinese who were brought here to work on the railroad?

    After the Civil Rights Act was signed, Martin Luther King, Jr. continued his quest of learning and preaching what he learned to black people and poor white people in the South. He started the Poor People’s Campaign to teach about how wealth was built in this country and how the system was rigged against minorities and even poor whites. He was heading to Washington this time to collect his check – reparations check from the government for being excluded from the Homestead Act.

    He never made it to Washington to demand that check.

    What has this country done to remedy those injustices? With another murder of a young black man just minutes from the Chauvin murder trial in Minneapolis, what steps has this country taken to remedy our racism and economic injustices at the onset through today?

    All the wealth accumulated needs to be reallocated appropriately because it was stolen from its rightful owners. It was nothing less than theft which continues through today.

  6. When everyone is working together, there is success. President Eisenhower, hotboffvtge heels serving as command of Allied Forces in Europe during WWII, knew something about that. Eisenhower knew the importance of storytelling to cast a vision supported by aligned solutions to complex issues. Eisenhower benefitted from diplomatic followers from both parties in Congress who shared a common bond in defense of freedom around the world. This common bond despite differences of policy is what is missing today.

  7. The Homestead Act gave away land we didn’t own to people who looked like us at the expense of those who didn’t. Some might call it revisionist history. Some might call it just plain history.

  8. Todd, excellent question; “What has this country done to remedy those injustices?” What has this country done to remedy all injustices?

    Yesterday I watched the movie, “Judgement At Nuremberg”; the trial of 4 Nazi Judges. Along with the German people “who didn’t know” and the military “who were just following orders”, one of the judges used as his excuse; “You follow the law; you do not ask if it is justice.” While the movie was fiction; that excuse answers your question regarding many issues, especially racial issues today.

  9. What isn’t mentioned in today’s history lesson was the total sellout of the GOP to Wall Street in 1981. When the greatly overrated Ronald Reagan picked (or was told to pick) Don Regan as his Sec. Treasury, the total embracing of Milton Friedman’s idiotic “trickle down” economics sealed the fate of the Republican party as the lackeys to the corporate interests. Full stop.

    The meme, “Government is the problem” is the most destructive and anti-social, anti-American theme in our history. Rather than make government work without corruption, the GOP chose to make government the problem. It is happening in more stark terms today.

    Today, the GOP is trying ever so hard to eliminate minority voices from voting. Why? Because they cannot win elections (power) without cheating and tilting the playing field. Their silk-paper masters on Wall Street won’t allow it. Oh, I know they’re clutching their pearls now with regard to the moronic anti-voting legislation, but the marriage between big money and the totally corrupt GOP of today won’t end until the GOP ends.

  10. Lincoln would not recognize the GOP of today and neither would Eisenhower.

    Because they are against “big government”, Republicans can do nothing but become obstructionist when they are in the minority and when they are in the majority, they seem to lack a vision for our country that serves the greater good.

    Ronald Reagan never addressed the AIDS epidemic. This was an eggregious assault on public health.

    Slaves that had been freed were supposed to get a mule and some land. They never did. If we wish to make reparations to African-Americans, we will need to direct them to those who are most needy, not to the African-American celebrities and others who have managed to become wealthy.

    There is no doubt in my mind that the Homestead Act led to the genocide of Native Americans. We came close to making buffaloes extinct.

    The free market economy in health care has led to closures of small hospitals in rural areas. It has undermined our public health instructure and failed to create innovations in preventative care that are not costly. Milton Friedman never thought of how his economic structures would lead to health care many cannot afford. Eisenhower and FDR would both be appalled at what has happened to the cost of health care. Maybe they would even hate it that I can’t get a candy bar and a 6 ounce coca-cola for a dime.

  11. Vernon,

    Don’t forget that before Reagan it was Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” that called on Southern Democrats, conservatives one and all, to re-embrace their racist roots and return to the values that caused the Civil War. That moved the Republican Party much further to the right, secured the racist support that Nixon sought, and made politicians like Nelson Rockefeller anathema to today’s Republican troglodytes.

    That initiative so transformed the party that for today’s Republicans to point to Lincoln as one of their own is both comical and hypocritical. Many people seem to have forgotten how that transition came about and so remain confused about why the two parties seem to hold – looking back over time – such contradictory positions. Now, in fact and in practice, Republicans are Southern Democrats who never wanted to join the Union in the first place, have always insisted on their states’ supremacy , and continue to extol plutocracy, demean democracy, and preach (and try to prove) that government is the enemy of the people (which is why January 6 is not offensive to them). Today’s puerile Southern attitude toward guns arises mostly out of their fear that the government their politicians excoriate and revile is coming to disarm them.

    Can a house this divided against itself continue to stand? Not as long as compromise remains essential to the working of democracy.

  12. Our government doesn’t exist at the expense of anything based on the common notion that freedom must be the same for everyone to be freedom at all. Government is the institution that protects that freedom by ensuring that no other person or institution imposes what’s best for them on others who don’t want it.

    That takes some perspective to understand. Wearing masks in a pandemic is not a loss of freedom for those who don’t want to. It’s preventing them from inflicting a much worse consequence on others like hospitalization, or death. People are free to commit suicide but only on themselves, not others.

    The same perspective applies to economics. Good government doesn’t cost but adds value. It is an investment, not an expense.

    We have been given the power to maintain effective government, democracy, but we also have the responsibility to base our votes on good information about government and about candidates. That’s what we have lost to entertainment and social media.

  13. Today’s GOP has been taken over by the Koch philosophy, and attendant money, I will venture to say. The Koch POV is one of White, elitist, supremacy, and it funds many major right-wing “think” tanks. It brought us the Tea Party, now calling itself the “Freedom Caucus.” The Tea Party folks have had no interest in bi-partisanship, from their get go. Their interest is not in governing, not even, relaying small gov’t, but in reigning supreme, obviously not consistent with their beginnings.
    I thank you, Sheila, for the update in historical perspective.

  14. Changed their minds they did, from Yoda. I am reminded of the depth of the change of the GOP. Here is a link to the 1956 GOP Platform. Here is a teaser:

    “Equal Rights.

    We recommend to Congress the submission of a constitutional amendment providing equal rights for men and women.
    Equal Opportunity and Justice

    Civil Rights

    The Republican Party points to an impressive record of accomplishment in the field of civil rights and commits itself anew to advancing the rights of all our people regardless of race, creed, color or national origin.

    This is who they used to be. I would be a member of this party today.

  15. I remember Tom Kean’s great 1988 Keynote Speech at the Republican National Convention. He was great. The Republican Party was the party of Lincoln, the liberator of the slaves, Teddy Roosevelt, the great trust buster, and Ronald Reagan — who disagreed with both of them.

    Somewhere in the later 19th Century, the Republicans became the party of business. LBJ ofended the Dixicrat racists, and Nixon welcomed them with open arms- hating Commies, calling your opponents Commies, calling civil rights leaders Commies – it fits.

    I think the real change happened to the party either at the same time, or shortly after the change to business. During the Reagan days, business changed from wanting a lot, to wanting it all.

    The robber barons had a sense of their hometown and noblesse oblige. After screwing the workers and killing many in unsafe working conditions, they gave some back.

    In the ’80s, the managerial robber barons came into being. They relocated businesses, broke them up and sold off the pieces, and moved from company to company, leaving a mess behind. Maximizing profits and giving nothing back. That was the rule.

    I think that the GOP started to match big business in following the Ayn Randian Zeitgeist. Slowly, the liberal and moderate members were pushed aside until the Tea Party completed the coup.

    There once was a party, but I have watched its demise throughout my life. It didn’t happen all at once. Vietnam wasn’t a slippery slope to the whole world becoming Communist, but Nixon might have been the slippery slope for the Republican Party.

    That is just my thoughts, as history is one of my weaker subjects.

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