Heather Cox Richardson is a professor of history at Boston College and the author of the forthcoming “To Make Men Free: A History of the Republican Party” (Basic Books), from which this essay is adapted.
In 1862 , in the midst of the Civil War, Republican Justin Smith Morrill stood in Congress to defend his party’s invention: an income tax . The government had the right to demand 99 percent of a man’s property, the Vermont representative thundered. If the nation needs 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, the GOP had invented national banking , currency and taxation ; had provided schools and homes for poor Americans; and had freed the country’s 4 million slaves.
A half-century later, when corporations dominated the economy and their owners threw their weight into political contests, 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 return to “an economic system under which each man shall be guaranteed the opportunity to show the best that there is in him,” the Republican president called for government to regulate business, prohibit corporate funding of political campaigns, and impose income and inheritance taxes.
In the mid-20th century, Republican President Dwight Eisenhower 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.
At these crucial moments, Republican leaders argued that economic opportunity is central to the American ideal and that government must enable all to rise. But each time the party has taken this stand, it has sparked a backlash from within, prompting the GOP to throw its support behind America’s wealthiest people and to blame those who fall behind for their own poverty.
How did the progressive Republican Party of Lincoln, Roosevelt and Eisenhower become the reactionary party of Ronald Reagan, the tea party and Paul Ryan?
There is nothing random about these ideological shifts. They reflect the party’s — and the nation’s — central unresolved problem: the tension between equality of opportunity and protection of private property.
This tension has driven American politics since the nation’s earliest days. The Declaration of Independence promised citizens equal access to economic opportunity. This was the powerful principle for which men were willing to fight the American Revolution, but it was never codified in law. When the Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution, they assumed that the country’s vast resources would ensure equality of opportunity. Worried instead about stability, they enshrined in the Constitution another principle: that property rights must be protected.
Soon after the Constitution was ratified, American settlers poured across the Appalachians and into the new lands to the west, hoping to work their way to economic security. There, some men settled on better land than others; some had family money; some were rich enough already to own slaves to work their lands — and quickly, those men accumulated more than others. This stratification of wealth revealed the disparity between the Declaration and the Constitution.
Along with wealth, slaveowners gained political power, which they used to secure legislation promoting their interests. Gradually, the laws they put in place circumscribed other Americans’ ability to rise. Wealth moved upward; equality of opportunity faltered.
By 1854, Southern slaveholders, who made up about 1 percent of the population, had come to control the White House, Senate and Supreme Court. They insisted that America’s central principle was the protection of property and that this principle established their right to spread slavery, effectively limiting access to land for poorer men. They contended that their leadership was God’s will. Society functioned best when a workforce with little intelligence and no aspirations produced food, clothing, housing and other basic requirements, overseen by wealthy, educated white men who could focus on advancing human progress.
This system depended on the concentration of wealth and political power. If those at the bottom were allowed to vote, they would demand a larger share of the wealth they were producing and launch a revolution by “the quiet process of the ballot box,” one Southern leader warned.
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; they reiterated the promise of the Declaration of Independence that every man was created equal and argued that the government must guarantee all men equal access to economic opportunity. Only widespread prosperity could maintain a healthy society. They organized the Republican Party in 1854 to push back against the control of the government by wealthy slaveholders. Republicans “are for both the man and the dollar; but in cases of conflict, the man before the dollar,” Abraham Lincoln explained.
In 1860, the Republicans put Lincoln in the White House, and Southerners left the Union. Their absence opened the way for the new party to reshape the national government, from protecting the wealth of propertied men to promoting economic opportunity for everyone. Prodded by the needs of the Union cause, the Republican Party created a strong national government that educated young men and gave them land to farm. Ultimately, the GOP abolished slavery, then gave freedmen the vote so they could protect their own economic interests.
Civil War Republicans rejected the idea that they were enacting welfare legislation. Rather, they argued, it was a legitimate use of the government to promote broad-based economic growth. The Founding Fathers had neglected to guard against the wealthy dominating and subverting the government, but Lincoln’s Republican Party addressed that omission.
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, and when government-funded programs helped former slaves and immigrant workers, opponents saw the very wealth redistribution Southern leaders had feared. 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 fought a war to expunge. By the 1870s, powerful Republicans were railing against the “socialism” and “communism” that might lead the government to redistribute wealth through public works projects and social welfare laws. The party began to focus on defending the interests of business, and money and power became concentrated at the top of society.
In the 1880s, voters turned to the Democrats, and the Republican Party restricted voting and jiggered the electoral system to stay in power, adding six states to the Union in an attempt to stack the Senate. When their efforts failed and voters elected a Democratic government in 1892, Republican leaders predicted economic disaster, encouraged investors to shun the stock market, prompted a run on treasury gold and precipitated an economic crash.
In three decades, the Republican Party had taken the nation to opposite extremes. Once the driving agents of economic opportunity, Republicans had become the engineers of economic ruin.
As Lincoln had done before him, Theodore Roosevelt recognized the danger of a system that concentrated wealth and power. 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 with the labor of unskilled urban workers. Opposing the industrialists’ control over government, Roosevelt turned back to the original Republican vision, adapting it to his time. He called for government regulation of business and promotion of education to guarantee a level playing field, and he forced national leaders again to take measures to protect economic opportunity. They cleaned up the tenements, factories and adulterated food that sickened workers; regulated railroad shipping rates; broke up trusts; protected public lands; and promoted education and women’s health to guarantee that no hard-working American would be locked into poverty.
The backlash against this second expansion of the middle class was quick and dramatic, especially amid 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 support for unbridled capitalism from all Americans. When the party retook power in the 1920s, its leaders slashed taxes and business regulation, insisting that a strong business sector would create wealth for everyone. “The chief business of the American people,” said Republican President Calvin Coolidge, “is business.”
Like 30 years before, wealth became 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 Republican President Herbert Hoover echoed his party’s big-business rhetoric of the 1890s. His administration blamed greedy, lazy American workers for the crash and insisted that the only things that would spark a recovery were lower taxes and pay cuts for public employees. “Liquidate labor, liquidate stocks, liquidate the farmers, liquidate real estate,” Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon insisted. “It will purge the rottenness out of the system. High costs of living and high living will come down. People will work harder, live a more moral life. Values will be adjusted, and enterprising people will pick up the wrecks from less competent people.”
The Great Depression settled over the country. The economy would not recover until the New Deal and World War II pumped money into it.
At the end of World War II, the Republican cycle began once more. Dwight Eisenhower renewed the effort to expand the middle class, adapting that vision to the modern era. Facing the challenge of leading a superpower in a divided nuclear world, he fervently believed that America had to promote economic prosperity across the globe to prevent the political and religious extremism that sparked wars. Like Lincoln and Roosevelt before him, Eisenhower adhered to the classic Republican view of government and set out to use it to guarantee economic opportunity in the postwar world. He cut regulations and price controls for certain businesses, but vetoed laws he thought unfairly favored businessmen and endorsed an upper income-tax bracket of 91 percent. Under his direction, Congress invested in education and infrastructure: The 1956 Federal-Aid Highway Act remains one of the largest public-works programs in history. He defended the right to economic opportunity for every hard-working American, putting government muscle behind desegregation. During Eisenhower’s administration, the middle class expanded, and the country thrived.
But business leaders who hated government regulation insisted that Eisenhower’s policies were tantamount to communism. They pointed to desegregation as proof that the government was redistributing tax dollars to undeserving minorities, and their mingling of racism and communist fears won votes. By the 1970s, in an uncanny echo of the 1890s and the 1920s, Republican economists had embraced the old idea that only deregulation and unfettered capitalism would create wealth, which would then trickle down to everyone.
After 1980, the government slashed taxes and social welfare spending, even as it boosted defense spending, and once again, wealth stratified. Between 1979 and 2008, the after-tax income of the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans grew 275 percent. By 2007, the top fifth of American earners made more than the other four-fifths combined.
In the early 21st century, the U.S. economy, after years of Republican control, looked much like that of the American South before the Civil War. Business and wealth were entrenched in the nation’s political and judicial system, while most Americans found themselves burdened with debt and stagnating incomes. It appeared likely that Congress and the courts would move in only one direction: to strengthen the tax policies and defense spending that served business, and to loosen restraints on the ability of corporations to influence elections. In 2004, as the country mourned the death of Republican icon Ronald Reagan, it was easy to imagine that Lincoln’s vision was finally, and irreparably, doomed.
But cracks in the economy were starting to show. Easy money had fed an unsustainable real estate boom in the early years of the century. When the market for safe mortgages began to dry up, banks began lending money to borrowers who were likely to have a hard time keeping current on their loans. That risk was hidden as the loans were “bundled” and exchanged widely in financial markets. When the economy softened in 2006 and home values fell precipitously, the resulting mortgage defaults left banks saddled with bad loans and worthless real estate, further weakening a fragile economy. Republican economic policy had no answers, and in September 2008, the financial world began to crumble.
Financiers impressed upon President George W. Bush that it was imperative to bail out the big banks; their collapse, they claimed, would destroy the world economy. Bush, along with most members of Congress, got behind the Troubled Asset Relief Program, but movement conservatives in Congress opposed it as yet another big-government program. They insisted that mitigating the crisis was not the proper role of government, and that the only way to boost the economy was to cut taxes and spending and reduce regulations on business.
As unemployment climbed, housing prices fell and the stock market plummeted, erasing Americans’ retirement savings, the GOP completed its third cycle, witnessing the abandonment by the party of its founding principles, the precipitation of an economic crash and a transfer of power to the Democrats. The victory of Barack Obama in the 2008 election constituted an explicit and overwhelming rejection of an ideology that had engulfed the Republican Party since Reagan won the White House in 1980.
The history of the Republican Party shows why, since the Civil War, the nation has been caught in cycles of progressivism and reaction. Is it possible for the party — and the country — to resolve this tension? Surely the original Republican argument that economic opportunity must be advanced by an active government, the idea conceived by Lincoln and adopted by Roosevelt and Eisenhower, could work in the modern global economy as it did in the era of industrialization and in the nuclear age. But can the party shed the opposing argument, developed in the conflicts of the late 19th century and recycled ever since, that government activism is tantamount to socialism?
Perhaps with the influx of young people, immigrants and minorities into the voting population, the cycle can finally be broken. These voters are too young to remember the Cold War and are more comfortable across ethnic lines, making it harder to rally them with the specters of socialism or racial conflict. Forced to adapt to a changing nation, in this century, perhaps, the Republican Party will find a way to stay committed to the ideals of its founders.