To Make Men Free: A History of the Republican Party

By Astor, Aaron | Presidential Studies Quarterly, March 2017 | Go to article overview

To Make Men Free: A History of the Republican Party


Astor, Aaron, Presidential Studies Quarterly


To Make Men Free: A History of the Republican Party. By Heather Cox Richardson. New York: Basic Books, 2014. 416 pp.

Few questions boggle modern political observers more than that of the "great shift" in Republican Party ideology. How did the Party of Lincoln become the Party of Reagan? How did a party based in anti-slavery activism among Northern progressives become the redoubt of Southern white conservatism? Heather Cox Richardson's To Make Men Free provides one of the first comprehensive answers to this conundrum.

Rather than seeing a complete shift in party ideology, Richardson identifies a tension within Republican ideology present at the beginning of the party and continuing to this day. On one side was Abraham Lincoln's vision of a country where all people could pursue their dreams of economic prosperity. The government's job was to level the playing field and establish the physical, legal, and political infrastructure to "make men free." Against this egalitarian vision was one that sanctified private property, seeing its defense as essential to ordered liberty, even if the result was a highly stratified society where the poor remain locked in a perpetual "mudsill" and the rich grew richer.

The egalitarians were dominant among Republicans at first, able to push through a robust agenda in the absence of Democrats from seceded Southern states. This program included a Homestead Act, a Land Grant Education Act, an income tax, a protective tariff, and, by the Civil War's end, a constitutional amendment to abolish slavery. As former Confederates threatened to reimpose slavery under President Andrew Johnson's lenient Reconstruction plan, radical Republicans pushed through several Military Reconstruction Acts, passed a Freedmen's Bureau and Civil Rights Act, and then amended the Constitution two more times, enshrining the egalitarian principle of equal civil and political rights into the nation's basic legal framework.

From this point on, Richardson notes, Republicans began to split over tactics and, eventually, ideology. For some, the egalitarian pull of the radicals continued until the end of the nineteenth century. But for most of the Republican leadership, the party's future lay with the industrialists, Wall Street bankers, and mine prospectors of the West. The threat of radicalized workers following the 1871 Paris Commune and labor activism during the Depression of 1873 cemented the party's leadership behind the forces of capital. By the 1890s, the Republican Party paid the barest lip service to the rights of African Americans and took a laissez-faire approach to monopolies and labor relations.

By the turn of the nineteenth century, however, a new force within the Republican Party pushed the party back toward its egalitarian roots. Theodore Roosevelt and the new Progressive wing of the party embraced a strong federal government as the only force capable of reining in the industrial trusts that had found such favor with Presidents McKinley and Harrison. …

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