One of the oldest functioning political parties in the world, the moment of the creation of what would later be nicknamed the Grand Old Party can be traced back to March 20, 1854 in Ripon, Wisc., where a group of men came together to establish an anti-slavery coalition to meet the growing danger that slavery posed to the country. (Some say that Michigan is actually the birthplace of the Republican Party, and it was there that the first statewide Republican convention took place, but that wasn’t until July 6 of the same year.)
For decades, the precarious political balance between free and slave states was held together by the Missouri Compromise. Slavery would not be allowed to expand above a certain latitude, which was just fine with politicians in the North. Southerners, however, believed that they were being unfairly hemmed in, and they wanted change.
On Jan. 4, 1854, Democratic Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois gave the South what it wanted and upset the established order by introducing the Kansas-Nebraska Act. This bill essentially nullified the Missouri Compromise and would allow for states entering the union the power to decide on whether to allow slavery by popular sovereignty.
The bill set off a political firestorm, but opponents of slavery found they had little recourse against the Democrats. The once powerful Whig Party had long been a champion of the anti-slavery cause, but by 1854 it was a shadow of its former self. Its lackluster performance in recent elections signified that the Whigs did not hold a strong enough national coalition to beat back the pro-slavery forces. A new coalition would be needed to turn the tide.
A motley group of anti-slavery Democrats, northern Whigs, Free-Soilers, and Know-Nothings gathered in Wisconsin in March to assemble a new party. They called themselves Republicans, hoping the term would remind voters of Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans. “In the broader context,” writes Lewis L. Gould, author of Grand Old Party: A History of the Republicans, “‘Republicanism’ tapped into a rich historical tradition dating back to the Italian renaissance and the English revolution that saw republics as embodying public-spirited citizens acting in the political sphere to preserve civic virtue and welfare for all.”
The new Republican party was certainly capable of establishing a new party organization as an institution. Many of its members were already politicians schooled in the mechanics of running a political party. The problem was putting together a coalition that could face the Democrats on a national scale.
The major hurdle for Republicans to overcome in achieving national prominence was the nativist sentiments of the Know-Nothings. This secretive organization believed that Catholics and immigrants would be the death of the republic. The Know-Nothings were so skillful at translating these fears into votes, that their anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic platform trumped anti-slavery, and in 1855, they won more local races than the Republicans.
Republicans were able to persevere, however, by partnering with the Know-Nothings to get Nathaniel Banks elected Speaker of the House in February 1856. For the first time, the Republicans had a seat on the national political stage. Other events worked in Republicans’ favor to convince voters that slavery was indeed the issue of gravest concern. Kansas erupted in violence as pro-slavery mobs rioted in Lawrence on May 21, and the next day Republican Senator Charles Sumner was savagely beaten by South Carolina Congressman Preston Brooks in the Senate chamber.
Later that year, the Republicans would field their first presidential candidate, John C. Frémont of California. Frémont lost the election to Democrat James Buchanan. Former president Millard Fillmore’s Know-Nothing/Whig campaign syphoned off votes that probably cost Frémont the election. But Republicans were emboldened by their strong showing. The final disintegration of the Know-Nothings and the Whigs after the election led many of their supporters into the Republican camp.
Even in 1856, the Democrats were saying that a Republican presidency would lead to the end of slavery and civil war. And, of course that is what happened with the election of Republican Abraham Lincoln in 1860. But Lincoln’s election also led to an extended period of Republican dominance. For the next 72 years, only three Democrats would go on to win the White House.
Party of Freedom
Though popularized in a Thomas Nast cartoon, the GOP’s elephant symbol originated during the 1860 campaign, as a symbol of Republican strength. Republicans envisioned “free soil, free speech, free labor.” Under the leadership of President Abraham Lincoln, the GOP became the Party of the Union as well.
President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, but it was the entire Republican Party who freed the slaves. The 1864 Republican National Convention called for the abolition of slavery, and Congressional Republicans passed the 13th Amendment unanimously, with only a few Democrat votes.
The early women’s rights movement was solidly Republican, as it was a continuation of abolitionism. They were careful not to be overly partisan, but as did Susan B. Anthony, most suffragists favored the GOP. The 19th Amendment was written by a Republican senator and garnered greater support from Republicans than from Democrats.
Party of Prosperity
Low taxes, sound money, regulatory restraint: these were among the commonsense economic policies established by the GOP that brought about decades of prosperity after the Civil War. Republicans encouraged innovation and rule of law. Buttressed by Republican control in Congress, the McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt and Taft administrations cleared away obstacles to economic growth.
President Dwight Eisenhower and congressional Republicans appreciated the fact that the private sector, not government, is the engine of wealth creation. With his bold tax-cutting agenda, President Ronald Reagan revived the economy after years of Democrat malaise.
Ronald Reagan explained the difference between Democrats and Republicans in a way that cannot be improved upon: “Two visions of the future, two fundamentally different ways of governing – their government of pessimism, fear, and limits, or ours of hope, confidence, and growth. Their government sees people only as members of groups. Ours serves all the people of America as individuals.”
Some key highlights in Republican history:
- March 20, 1954 – First Republican Party meeting in Ripon, Wisconsin.
- July 6, 1954 – Under the Oaks Convention.
- September 22, 1862 – Republican President Abraham Lincoln issues preliminary Emancipation Proclamation
- January 1, 1863 – President Abraham Lincoln issues Emancipation Proclamation.
- February 9, 1864 – Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton deliver over 100,000 signatures to U.S. Senate supporting Republicans’ plans for constitutional amendment to ban slavery
- June 15, 1864 – Republican Congress votes equal pay for African-American troops serving in U.S. Army during Civil War
- June 28, 1864 – Republican majority in Congress repeals Fugitive Slave Acts
- October 29, 1864 – African-American abolitionist Sojourner Truth says of President Lincoln: “I never was treated by anyone with more kindness and cordiality than were shown to me by that great and good man”
- January 31, 1865 – Republican-controlled 38th House of Representatives passes the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery with 100% Republican support but only 23% Democrat support in congress.
- March 3, 1865 – Republican Congress establishes Freedmen’s Bureau to provide health care, education, and technical assistance to emancipated slaves
- April 8, 1865 – 13th Amendment banning slavery passed by U.S. Senate, also w/ 100% Republican support
- April 14, 1865 – Lincoln is assassinated. Lincoln’s VP, Andrew Johnson, was a strongly pro-Union (but also pro-slavery) Democrat who had been chosen by Lincoln as a compromise running mate to attract Democrat support. After he was assassinated, Johnson thwarted Republican efforts in Congress to recognize the civil rights of the freed slaves, and Southern Democrats continued to thwart any such efforts for close to a century.
- June 19, 1865 – On “Juneteenth,” U.S. troops land in Galveston, TX to enforce ban on slavery that had been declared more than two years before by the Emancipation Proclamation
- November 22, 1865 – Republicans denounce Democrat legislature of Mississippi for enacting “black codes,” which institutionalized racial discrimination
- December 6, 1865 – Republican Party’s 13th Amendment, banning slavery, is ratified.
- January 13, 1866 – With unanimous Republican support and against intense Democrat opposition, Congress passes the 14th Amendment giving full citizenship to freed slaves with 94% Republican support and 0% Democrat support in congress.
- February 5, 1866 – U.S. Rep. Thaddeus Stevens (R-PA) introduces legislation, successfully opposed by Democrat President Andrew Johnson, to implement “40 acres and a mule” relief by distributing land to former slaves
- April 9, 1866 – Republican Congress overrides Democrat President Johnson’s veto; Civil Rights Act of 1866, conferring rights of citizenship on African-Americans, becomes law
- April 19, 1866 – Thousands assemble in Washington, DC to celebrate Republican Party’s abolition of slavery
- May 10, 1866 – U.S. House passes Republicans’ 14th Amendment guaranteeing due process and equal protection of the laws to all citizens; 100% of Democrats vote no
- June 8, 1866 – U.S. Senate passes Republicans’ 14th Amendment guaranteeing due process and equal protection of the law to all citizens; 94% of Republicans vote yes and 100% of Democrats vote no
- July 16, 1866 – Republican Congress overrides Democrat President Andrew Johnson’s veto of Freedman’s Bureau Act, which protected former slaves from “black codes” denying their rights
- July 28, 1866 – Republican Congress authorizes formation of the Buffalo Soldiers, two regiments of African-American cavalrymen
- July 30, 1866 – Democrat-controlled City of New Orleans orders police to storm racially-integrated Republican meeting; raid kills 40 and wounds more than 150
- January 8, 1867 – Republicans override Democrat President Andrew Johnson’s veto of law granting voting rights to African-Americans in D.C.
- July 19, 1867 – Republican Congress overrides Democrat President Andrew Johnson’s veto of legislation protecting voting rights of African-Americans
- March 30, 1868 – Republicans begin impeachment trial of Democrat President Andrew Johnson, who declared: “This is a country for white men, and by God, as long as I am President, it shall be a government of white men”
- May 20, 1868 – Republican National Convention marks debut of African-American politicians on national stage; two – Pinckney Pinchback and James Harris – attend as delegates, and several serve as presidential electors
- 1868 (July 9) – 14th Amendment passes and recognizes newly freed slaves as U.S. Citizens
- Republican Party Support: 94% Democratic Party Support: 0%
- September 3, 1868 – 25 African-Americans in Georgia legislature, all Republicans, expelled by Democrat majority; later reinstated by Republican Congress
- September 12, 1868 – Civil rights activist Tunis Campbell and all other African-Americans in Georgia Senate, every one a Republican, expelled by Democrat majority; would later be reinstated by Republican Congress
- September 28, 1868 – Democrats in Opelousas, Louisiana murder nearly 300 African-Americans who tried to prevent an assault against a Republican newspaper editor
- October 7, 1868 – Republicans denounce Democratic Party’s national campaign theme: “This is a white man’s country: Let white men rule”
- October 22, 1868 – While campaigning for re-election, Republican U.S. Rep. James Hinds (R-AR) is assassinated by Democrat terrorists who organized as the Ku Klux Klan
- November 3, 1868 – Republican Ulysses Grant defeats Democrat Horatio Seymour in presidential election; Seymour had denounced Emancipation Proclamation
- December 10, 1869 – Republican Gov. John Campbell of Wyoming Territory signs FIRST-in-nation law granting women right to vote and to hold public office
- February 3, 1870 – The US House ratifies the 15th Amendment granting voting rights to all Americans regardless of race. Republican support: 98% House, 68% Senate (39 Yea, 5 Nay, 13 no votes), Democrat support: 0 from House, 0 from Senate
- February 25, 1870 – Hiram Rhodes Revels becomes the first Black seated in the US Senate, becoming the First Black in Congress and the first Black Senator.
- May 19, 1870 – African American John Langston, law professor and future Republican Congressman from Virginia, delivers influential speech supporting President Ulysses Grant’s civil rights policies
- May 31, 1870 – President U.S. Grant signs Republicans’ Enforcement Act, providing stiff penalties for depriving any American’s civil rights
- June 22, 1870 – Republican Congress creates U.S. Department of Justice, to safeguard the civil rights of African-Americans against Democrats in the South
- September 6, 1870 – Women vote in Wyoming, in FIRST election after women’s suffrage signed into law by Republican Gov. John Campbell
- December 12, 1870 – Republican Joseph Hayne Rainey becomes the first Black duly elected by the people and the first Black in the US House of Representatives
- In 1870 and 1871, along with Revels (R-Miss) and Rainey (R-SC), other Blacks were elected to Congress from Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina and Virginia – all Republicans.
- A Black Democrat Senator didn’t show up on Capitol Hill until 1993. The first Black Congressman was not elected until 1935.
- February 28, 1871 – Republican Congress passes Enforcement Act providing federal protection for African-American voters
- March 22, 1871 – Spartansburg Republican newspaper denounces Ku Klux Klan campaign to eradicate the Republican Party in South Carolina
- April 20, 1871 – Republican Congress enacts the (anti) Ku Klux Klan Act, outlawing Democratic Party-affiliated terrorist groups which oppressed African-Americans
- March 1, 1872 – Republican-controlled 42nd Congress establishes Yellowstone as first national park.
- December 9, 1872 – First African-American governor, Pinckney Pinchback (R-LA), inaugurated.
- April 2, 1917 – First woman in Congress, Rep. Jeannette Rankin (R-MT), sworn in.
- May 21, 1919 – Republican-controlled 66th Congress passes the 19th Amendment guaranteeing women the right to vote.
- June 2, 1924 – Republican-controlled 68th Congress and President Calvin Coolidge grant citizenship to Native Americans.
- December 7, 1928 – First Hispanic U.S. Senator, Senator Octaviano Larrazolo (R-NM), sworn in.
- January 3, 1949 – Margaret Chase Smith (R-ME) becomes the first woman to serve in both the Senate and the House of Representatives.
- May 17, 1954 – Brown v Board of Education strikes down racial segregation in public schools; majority decision written by Chief Justice Earl Warren, former governor (R-CA) and vice presidential nominee.
- September 9, 1957 – President Dwight Eisenhower signs the 1957 Civil Rights Act. One of Eisenhower’s primary political opponents on civil rights prior to 1957 was none other than Lyndon Johnson, then the Democratic Senate Majority Leader. LBJ had voted the straight segregationist line until he changed his position and supported the 1957 Act.
- August 21, 1959 – First Asian-American U.S. Senator, Hiram Fong (R-HI), is seated.
- June 10, 1964 – Senate passes the 1964 Civil Rights Act when the Republican leader, Everett Dirksen (R-IL), defeats Democrat filibuster. The historic Act of 1964 was supported by a higher percentage of Republicans than Democrats in both houses of Congress. In the House, 80 percent of the Republicans and 63 percent of the Democrats voted in favor. In the Senate, 82 percent of the Republicans and 69 percent of the Democrats voted for it.
- September 25, 1981 – Sandra Day O’Connor, appointed by President Reagan, becomes first woman on the Supreme Court.
- June 12, 1987 – President Ronald Reagan calls for liberation of East Europeans from Communism with “Tear Down This Wall” speech.