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“The most comprehensive account of the GOP and its competing impulses” (Los Angeles Times), now updated to cover the Trump presidency and its aftermath
When Abraham Lincoln helped create the Republican Party on the eve of the Civil War, his goal was economic opportunity for all Americans. Yet the party quickly became mired in an identity crisis. Would it be the party of democratic ideals? Or the party of moneyed interests?
In To Make Men Free, acclaimed historian Heather Cox Richardson traces the shifting ideology of the Republican Party from the antebellum era to the Great Recession. While progressive Republicans like Teddy Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower revived Lincoln’s vision and expanded the government, their opponents appealed to Americans’ latent racism and xenophobia to regain political power, linking taxation and regulation to redistribution and socialism. In the modern era, the schism within the Republican Party has grown wider, pulling the GOP ever further from its founding principles.
Now with a new epilogue that reflects on the Trump era and what is likely to come after it, To Make Men Free is a sweeping history of the party that was once considered America’s greatest political hope, but now lies in disarray.
In 1862, in the midst of the Civil War, Republican Justin Smith Morrill stood up in Congress to defend his party’s novel invention: an income tax. The government had the right to demand 99 percent of a man’s property, Morrill thundered. If the nation needed it, “the property of the people . . . belongs to the government.” The Republican Congress passed the income tax—as well as a spate of other taxes—and went on to create a strong national government. By the time the war ended three years later, the Republicans had fielded an army and navy of more than 2.5 million men; had invented national banking, currency, and taxation; had provided schools and homes for poor Americans; and had freed the country’s four million slaves.
A half century later, when corporations dominated the economy and their millionaire owners threw their weight into political contests, Republican Theodore Roosevelt fulminated against that “small class of enormously wealthy and economically powerful men, whose chief object is to hold and increase their power.” Insisting that America must break up this class in order to return to “an economic system under which each man shall be guaranteed the opportunity to show the best that there is in him,” Roosevelt called for government to regulate business, prohibit corporate funding of political campaigns, and impose income and inheritance taxes. He demanded a “square deal” for the American people.1
In the mid-twentieth century, Republican president Dwight Eisenhower reiterated the earlier Republican calls for economic opportunity and applied them on an international scale. Believing that economic inequality bred war and that in the nuclear age war threatened humanity itself, Eisenhower sought to prevent international conflict by raising standards of living everywhere. He recoiled from using American resources to build weapons alone, warning, “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.” He called for government funding for schools, power plants, roads, and hospitals.2
At these crucial junctures in American history, Republicans have taken the stand that economic opportunity is central to the American ideal and that it is government’s responsibility to make it possible for everyone to rise. At other times, the Republicans have thrown their support behind America’s wealthiest men: Congress has passed laws that benefit businessmen—has even permitted businessmen to write legislation—and has blamed those who fell behind for their own poverty. While claiming to be championing “laissez-faire” government, Republicans and the policies they pursue have been anything but evenhanded; they have protected an increasingly small wealthy population at the expense of America’s majority.
Over the one hundred and sixty years of their history, Republicans have swung from one pole to another: sometimes they have been leftists, sometimes reactionaries. Today, once again, the Republican Party has positioned itself on the far right. How did the Republican Party—the party of Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and Dwight D. Eisenhower—become the party of today?
The journey has not been straightforward.
Since its formation in the 1850s, the party has, in three different eras, swung from one end of the political spectrum to the other. In each of these cycles, Republicans have replayed the same pattern. In their progressive periods they have expanded the vote, regulated business, and raised taxes. As a result, wealth became widely distributed and the economy strong.
Yet each time the party has sponsored progressive legislation, it has sparked a backlash from within its own ranks. After Lincoln, and after Roosevelt and Eisenhower as well, Republican leaders gradually turned against their own reforms in favor of protecting the interests of the rich. Their argument was always that taxes redistribute wealth, interfering with the fundamental right to property. Adamant that hardworking white men not see their fortunes transferred to lazy African Americans and immigrants, they cut funding for education and social welfare programs. As Republican policy shifted, and the machinery of government was enlisted to promote big business, wealth moved upward. And each time—in 1893, in 1929, and most recently in 2008—these periods of reaction were followed by a devastating economic crash.
There is nothing at all random about the Republicans’ ideological shifts. They reflect the GOP’s ongoing renegotiation of the party’s—and the nation’s—central unresolved problem: the profound tension between America’s two fundamental beliefs, equality of opportunity and protection of property.
This tension has driven American political life since the nation’s earliest days. The Declaration of Independence promised citizens equal access to economic opportunity. This was the powerful principle for which poor men were willing to fight the American Revolution, but it was only a principle; it was never actually codified in law. When the Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution, the supreme law that established the American nation, they assumed that the country’s vast resources would ensure equality of opportunity. Worried instead about social stability, they enshrined in the Constitution another principle: that property rights must be protected.
In the economic, social, and political chaos of the Revolution and its aftermath, political leaders were much more concerned with putting out fires and hammering out plausible solutions to governing a raw country than they were with foreseeing problems that might arise in lands that were still unsettled. But western settlement became central to American life soon after the Constitution was ratified. As it did, Americans discovered that the principles of equality of opportunity and protection of property contradicted each other, and that that contradiction threatened American democracy itself.
During the American Revolution, Daniel Boone crossed the Appalachian Mountains to explore the land to the west of Virginia and returned with stories of “Kentucke,” a land abundant in natural resources. As soon as the war ended, Americans rushed to lay claim to the region’s riches. Once there, they quickly discovered that equality was not the inevitable result of economic freedom. Some men settled on better land than others; some had family money; some were just lucky, and quickly, those men accumulated more than others.
This rapid stratification of wealth revealed that the disparity between the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution made America’s new democracy inherently unstable. Along with their wealth, Kentucky’s landowners gained political power, which they used to secure legislation that promoted their interests at the expense of poorer settlers. They justified their actions with the Constitution’s mandate that property must be protected. Wealthy men came to control government by working with lawmakers who shared their values and influencing voters by buying the channels through which they got information. Gradually, the laws they put in place circumscribed other men’s ability to rise, and wealth moved upward. Equality of opportunity faltered.
As soon as national legislators saw what was happening in Kentucky, they tried to address the disparity between the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. In 1787, when the Articles of Confederation were still in force, the congress assembled under that document passed the Northwest Ordinance, which was designed to prevent wealthy men from dominating the new western lands. The measure outlawed both primogeniture and slavery, systems that the men who wrote the Northwest Ordinance—including Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence—believed were instrumental in concentrating wealth. Over the next fifty years, as a handful of wealthy slave owners tightened a stranglehold on the South, it remained possible for poor men to rise in the northern lands protected by the Northwest Ordinance. By the 1850s, as the grandsons of America’s Founding Fathers came of age, the contrast between protection of property in the South and opportunity in the North was stark.
America’s 1848 acquisition of vast western lands from Mexico brought the two systems into conflict. Southern leaders insisted that the Constitution’s protection of property—including their property in slaves—was the nation’s fundamental principle, and they demanded the right to spread slavery to the new lands. But the struggles of Kentucky’s poor settlers had shown northerners that slavery was incompatible with economic opportunity, and they opposed its western spread. By 1854, when southern slaveholders, who made up about 1 percent of the population, came to control the White House, the Senate, and the Supreme Court, they pushed to establish their program as the law of the land. It began to seem as if America would abandon the promise of equality in favor of the protection of property.
Certainly slave owners expected this outcome. They explained that their leadership was God’s will; he had proved he favored them by making them richer than other Americans. According to these increasingly powerful men, society functioned best when workers with little intelligence and no aspirations simply did as they were told, producing food, clothing, housing, and all the other basic requirements of human society. Thanks to this hardworking majority, southern leaders, men at the forefront of civilization and refinement, could direct their attention to advancing human progress. The labor of those below freed them from the need to get their hands dirty. They proclaimed loudly that this system was the pinnacle of human achievement.
Their vehement defense of their way of life revealed slave owners’ uneasy awareness of just how unstable their system was. It depended on keeping those at the bottom of society from political power. If they were allowed to vote, slaveholders explained, they would demand a larger share of the wealth they were producing and would launch a revolution by “the quiet process of the ballot-box,” as one southern leader warned. Eventually, angry voters would to turn to leaders who promised to promote equality and pledged to level the economic playing field.3
It was this very scenario that inspired the creation of the Republican Party. Northern men who aspired to better themselves rejected the idea that they were part of a permanent underclass meant to serve the rich; they reiterated the promise of the Declaration of Independence that every man was created equal. They argued that national prosperity could grow only from a strong and broad base, not from the top down, and they insisted that the government must guarantee all men equal access to economic opportunity. Aware that these northern men threatened their political dominance, slave owners vilified them and tried to manipulate the political system, insisting that the nation teetered on the edge of revolution.
But northerners went on to organize the Republican Party to push back against the control of government by the wealthy slave-holders. We “are for both the man and the dollar; but in cases of conflict, the man before the dollar,” Abraham Lincoln explained. The Republicans, inspired by the need to guarantee that rich men would not dominate the government and take away economic opportunity for all, came together to take back the country.4
In 1860, the Republicans put Lincoln into the White House, and southerners promptly left the Union. Their absence opened the way for members of the new party to reshape the national government according to their principles. As they pivoted from one crisis to another to fund and fight the Civil War, they fundamentally changed the government, turning it from protecting the wealth of propertied men to promoting economic opportunity for everyone. In the 1860s, prodded by the needs of the Union cause, the Republican Party created a new, strong national government that worked to develop the economy from the bottom, educating young men and giving them land to farm. Finally, when the circumstances of the war permitted it, they tried to make America into a land where every man, regardless of race or background, could rise through hard work. They abolished slavery, then gave freedmen the vote to enable them to protect their own economic interests.
Civil War Republicans explicitly rejected the idea that they were enacting welfare legislation. Rather, they argued, it was a legitimate use of the government to expand economic growth that benefited everyone. Their arguments were popular, and their legislation won bipartisan support. The Founding Fathers had neglected to guard against the wealthy dominating government and subverting it to their own ends, but Lincoln’s Republican Party had addressed that omission by protecting the economic independence its members believed lay at the heart of American liberty. It seemed the nation had, at last, found a political system that would fulfill its original promise to promote widespread prosperity.
Almost as soon as the Civil War ended, the Republicans’ egalitarian vision came under attack. The war had required Americans to pay national taxes for the first time in history, and when government-funded programs helped ex-slaves and immigrant workers, opponents saw the very redistribution of wealth southern leaders had predicted. Eastern Republicans, whose industries flourished under the party’s economic policies, began to focus on protecting their interests rather than promoting opportunity. Within just a few years, they drove the party to embrace the ideas it had just fought a war to expunge. By the 1870s, more than thirty years before Russia’s Bolshevik Revolution, powerful Republicans were railing against the “socialism” and “communism” that might lead government to redistribute wealth to African Americans and immigrant workers through public works projects and social welfare legislation paid for with tax dollars. The party began to focus on defending the interests of big business, and money and power concentrated at the top of society. In the 1880s, voters turned to the Democrats, and the Republican Party took steps to restrict voting and jiggered the electoral system to stay in power. When their efforts failed and voters returned a Democratic government to power in 1892, Republican leaders predicted economic disaster, encouraged investors to shun the stock market, prompted a run on Treasury gold, and precipitated a national economic crash.
Within the span of about fifty years, the Republican Party had taken the nation to opposite extremes. In the 1860s, party leaders had launched an innovative drive to expand opportunity, but within a generation, the Republican effort to enable working men to rise had turned to the defense of property. Property was the heart of individualism, Republicans argued, and any effort to regulate business or to levy taxes was a direct attack on the American system. Unregulated capitalism meant that wealth concentrated at the very top of the economic ladder, consumption faltered, and an inevitable depression crashed down. Once the driving agents of economic security, Republicans had become engineers of economic disaster.
The tension between the commitment to equal opportunity and the quest to protect property created a vicious cycle. The country was in thrall to a pattern that would reoccur each time the party rededicated itself to its founding principles. It would become the central story of the Republican Party.
Just as Lincoln adapted the American vision of freedom to the challenges of westward expansion, Theodore Roosevelt and Dwight D. Eisenhower adapted it to the crises of their own eras: industrialization and international conflict. Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Eisenhower each believed that government must not privilege any specific economic interest, neither stacking the deck for the rich nor redistributing wealth to the poor. It should work to promote the interests of all hardworking Americans, the group that by the 1870s had come to be called the middle class. The vision of these three presidents, at critical moments, revived what was best about the Republican Party.
As Lincoln had done before him, Roosevelt recognized the danger of a system that forced increasing numbers of workers into poverty and concentrated wealth and power in the hands of a few. He came of age during the 1880s, the height of early American industrialization, when wealth was gathered in the hands of business owners, who built empires that rested on the labor of millions of unskilled urban workers. Opposing the industrialists’ iron control over government, Roosevelt turned back to the original Republican vision, adapting it to the particular moment in which he governed. He called for government regulation of business and promotion of education to guarantee a level playing field for all Americans. His actions forced national leaders again to take measures to protect economic freedom.
The backlash against this second expansion of the middle class was quick and dramatic, especially after the labor and racial unrest following World War I. Republicans accused workers and African Americans of plotting to bring the Bolshevik Revolution to America and demanded full-throated support for capitalism from all Americans. When the party resumed control of the government in the 1920s, its leaders slashed taxes and business regulation, insisting that a strong business sector would create wealth that would make everyone prosper. “The chief business of the American people,” said Republican president Calvin Coolidge, “is business.” 5
As had been true thirty years before, wealth concentrated at the top of the economic scale and declining purchasing power among the majority of Americans destabilized the economy. When the 1929 crash wiped out disposable income, there were not enough consumers to fuel a recovery. Americans clamored for government aid, but President Herbert Hoover echoed the big business Republicans of the 1890s. He and members of his administration blamed greedy and lazy American workers for the crash and insisted that the government must not intervene in the economy: the only things that would spark a recovery were lower taxes and pay cuts for public employees. The Great Depression settled over the country.
The language and the pattern were familiar. They had been honed in the aftermath of the Civil War and provided a potent blueprint for the next decades of Republican leadership, although they had more to do with the habits of the Republican Party than they did with the reality of modern life.
At the end of World War II, the cycle began again. Dwight Eisenhower renewed the Republican effort to expand the middle class and adapted that effort to the modern era. Facing the challenge of leading a superpower in a bitterly divided nuclear world, Eisenhower fervently believed that America must promote widespread economic prosperity across the globe to prevent the political extremism that sparked wars.
Like Lincoln and Roosevelt before him, Eisenhower revived the classic Republican view of government and set out to use it to guarantee American freedom in the postwar world. Under his direction, the middle class expanded, and the country thrived. But once again, a racist and anti-immigrant backlash in the 1960s and 1970s tied the party firmly to big business in the next decade. In an uncanny echo of the ideas of the 1890s and the 1920s, Republican economists embraced the old idea that deregulation and unfettered capitalism would create wealth that would trickle down to everyone in society. It took until the new millennium, but once again the government’s aggressive promotion of big business led to wealth stratification and, inevitably, in October 2008, economic collapse.
Three great presidents, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and Dwight D. Eisenhower, advanced a new, progressive vision of America, only to have their vision come under attack from forces within their own party. In each era, opponents of government activism used racism, xenophobia, and antitax rhetoric to destroy Republican programs designed to advance economic opportunity. Party leaders then tied the party to big business, abandoning entrepreneurs and small businessmen as well as rising workers. Wealth moved to the top echelons of society, until, in each era, a crash destroyed the economy.
The Republican Party repeatedly has swung from being the party of the middle class to the party of the rich, following pathways laid down during the peculiar years of the Civil War and its aftermath. It is impossible to understand the crossroads at which the Republicans stand today without understanding how this pattern, established in the late nineteenth century, would go on to repeat itself, first during the era of Theodore Roosevelt, then during the era of Dwight Eisenhower.
But the history of the Republican Party does more than simply show the trajectory of a political party. It explains why, since the Civil War, the nation has swung between progressivism and reaction, and why government efforts to level the economic playing field between individuals and corporations have been first embraced and then later attacked as “communism.” These swings expose the tensions inherent in America’s peculiar brand of government: how can a democracy promote individual economic opportunity at the same time it protects property?
THE WEST AS A LAND OF PROMISE
The story of the Republican Party starts in the late eighteenth century, in what was then the American West. Immediately after the Revolutionary War, Americans in Kentucky saw firsthand that the Constitution had a flaw that undercut the equality promised in the Declaration of Independence. The nation’s fundamental law had not provided any way to prevent the wealthy from taking over the government and using it for their own benefit. One of the families that suffered profoundly from this omission was that of the man who would come to define the Republican Party: Abraham Lincoln.
In 1831, when he was twenty-two, Abraham Lincoln packed his few belongings and left his father’s home. He set out on his own, traveling west to the wild Sangamo Country in the southwest part of the Illinois frontier, where settlers were slicing furrows through the purple and white and golden wildflowers that bent in the endless winds, carving out rough farms from the deep grass prairies. In Sangamo Country, families lived in rough cabins made of chinked logs, cooked corn and small game over open fires, and made do with whatever furniture they could knock together. They built small towns with gristmills, dry goods stores, and whiskey sellers, working their way up to economic security in a raw land.1
Lincoln’s 1831 journey was part of America’s dramatic nineteenth-century westward expansion. Decades earlier, as ragged soldiers were fighting the American Revolution, Daniel Boone had crossed the Appalachian Mountains to explore the land on the other side. The story of his travels appeared in 1784, a year after the Revolution ended, and it established for Americans what the West would mean for the new nation. Boone’s West was a paradise. The soil was rich for farming, sparkling rivers could power mills, and there were prime animals fattened for hunters. It was a place where even an impoverished wanderer like Boone could prosper “in peace and safety, enjoying the sweets of liberty, and the bounties of Providence.” Boone described the people who trekked across the mountains after him as ideal Americans, polite and hospitable, and so eager for education that they immediately set up schools. Boone’s West was the heart of America, where every man could rise and build a thriving, educated community.2
Boone’s distant relative Abraham Lincoln, grandfather of the future president, heard Boone’s stories about the West. Lincoln sold a large parcel of land in his home state of Virginia and bought at least sixteen hundred acres in Kentucky. Then he joined the migrants leaving the settled states, bringing his wife and five children across the mountains to the new land. With the help of his three sons—Mordecai, Josiah, and Thomas—he cleared trees and brush to plant fields. Quickly, he accumulated property: by 1785, he owned more than five thousand acres.3
But this rich land was not unoccupied, and its inhabitants did not want new neighbors. In 1786, while the Lincoln men were working in one of their clearings, Indians attacked. They killed Abraham as Mordecai ran for a gun and Josiah ran for help. Eight-year-old Thomas stayed with his father. He was still beside his father’s body when Mordecai, hastening back, shot an Indian coming toward the boy, a story that would grow over the years until it was one of the few things Thomas would pass on to his own son.4
His boys’ lives after Lincoln’s death revealed a political flaw in the idea that the West was a land of opportunity for everyone. The elder Lincoln had done well in Kentucky, but his sons would not share his fortune. Kentucky lands were still part of Virginia, and Virginia’s primogeniture laws were in force there. Thus Abraham’s eldest son, Mordecai, inherited all of his father’s property. Mordecai became a wealthy Kentucky planter who bred racehorses, but his younger brothers, Josiah and Thomas, fell into poverty. Forced to work as a day laborer, Thomas, and presumably Josiah, never learned to read.5
Thomas worked hard as a farmer and occasionally as a carpenter to make up some of the ground the primogeniture laws had taken from him. Eventually, he bought his own farm. In 1806, he married Nancy Hanks, a young woman from a similarly rising family, and the two began to put down roots. They lived in a log cabin with a dirt floor and a single window, but they had a feather bed with a woven coverlet, a loom, and a spinning wheel, and Thomas was elected to minor positions in the community. In 1807, a daughter, Sarah, joined their household. Thomas Lincoln moved his wife and daughter to a new farm in Hardin County, Kentucky, in 1809. On February 12 of that year, Nancy and Thomas Lincoln welcomed their first son, naming him Abraham, after Thomas’s dead father. It seemed to the Lincolns and their neighbors, who shared corn shuckings and barn raisings, that their hard work might be able to turn the West into the world of prosperity that Boone had promised.6
- “A readable and provocative account of the many paths that Republicans have taken to their current state of confusion.”—New York Times Book Review
- “The book offers a lively survey of Republican politics in all its diversity, from the ‘transformational presidency' of Abraham Lincoln (to borrow a 21st-century term) to the conservative ascendancy of Ronald Reagan.”—Washington Post
- “The most comprehensive account of the GOP and its competing impulses... an important contribution to understanding where we are today.”—Los Angeles Times
- “[Richardson's] theory of the party's historical cycle is intriguing.”—New Republic
“A rich portrait of the thinking and times of Abraham Lincoln and those closest to him in the founding of the Republican Party... perceptive and persuasive.... Readers of Richardson's history of the GOP will come away with a good sense of the complex path that led the party to the abnegation of the Lincoln legacy.”
- “Sharp and readable.”—Open Letters Monthly
- “In To Make Men Free, one of our most admired historians takes on one of the most important topics of our past and present: the 160-year story of the Republican Party. From Abraham Lincoln to George W. Bush, from Radical Republicans to Movement Conservatives, Heather Cox Richardson recounts the GOP's dramatic history with unimpeachable insights and crisp, vivid writing. How did the anti-slavery party become the party of the Solid South? How did the anti-trust party of Theodore Roosevelt become the party of Wall Street and the Club for Growth? In this brisk account, Richardson make sense of a twisting tale that shapes our lives every day.”—T.J. Stiles, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt
“Heather Cox Richardson has written a much-needed book: a comprehensive and balanced history of the Republican Party. The prose is engaging, the research is deep, the argument is persuasive; To Make Men Free is the work of a major talent at the top of her craft.”
—Ari Kelman, Bancroft Prize-winning author of A Misplaced Massacre: Struggling Over the Memory of Sand Creek
- “At its Lincolnian best, the G.O.P. has been not just grand but good. In To Make Men Free, the eminent political historian Heather Cox Richardson superbly brings the Republican Party's history to life, while offering sharp and often surprising interpretations of its rises and declines, when it heeded Lincoln's legacy and when it did not.”—Sean Wilentz, author of The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln
“Heather Cox Richardson tells a great story, full of fascinating figures, of how the Republican Party has enjoyed extraordinary political success in a country full of poor people, while doing much to serve the rich. It's a vital chapter in the history of American conservatism.”
—Eric Rauchway, Professor of History, University of California, Davis
- “Heather Cox Richardson's concise history of the Republican Party shows how a party that once saw government as the guarantor of equal opportunity for all morphed into today's intransigently anti-government, anti-tax, anti-regulation GOP. Richardson convincingly demonstrates that the Republican Party has oscillated throughout its history between equal opportunity and protection of property rights as its lodestar. Those seeking clues to how the GOP might evolve in the future will want to read this important book.”—Ruy Teixeira, co-author of The Emerging Democratic Majority
“[An] opinionated history...Richardson aptly ends by wondering if the modern Republican Party ‘will find a way to stay committed to the ideals of its founders.'”
- “Richardson makes a bold, pertinent argument.... A hard-hitting study that will surely resonate with ongoing attempts to regenerate the GOP.”—Kirkus
- On Sale
- Nov 23, 2021
- Page Count
- 560 pages
- Basic Books