The Whigs formed in opposition to the policies of Democratic President, Andrew Jackson (1829–37). The Whigs supported the supremacy of the US Congress over the Presidency, and favoured a programme of modernisation, banking and protectionism for manufacturing. It appealed to entrepreneurs, planters, reformers and the growing urban middle class, but not to labourers and farmers.
Slavery was only one of many issues in the country’s politics then, usually relatively minor. The American South based its economy on the enslavement of non-whites, and the two major parties, Democrats and Whigs, were willing to let the Southern states be. But when most Whigs eventually quit politics or changed parties over slavery, the northern voter base moved to the new Republican Party.
America acquired a vast amount of territory from Mexico in 1848. There was a struggle between the northern and southern states over whether the new territory should be settled with slavery, and not. If slavery had expanded, it could have undercut free workers. America would have become a nation that was controlled by 1% of the very wealthy, educated, white, male population. Northerners worried about America privileging equality for whites.
The Republican Party, founded 1854 in Michigan, opposed slavery. And northerners did not know if Kansas and Nebraska would enter the Union as free or slave states. They feared that the South would dominate US politics, instituting slavery everywhere. It would also cut off opportunity for free white labourers. While not abolishing existing slavery, the new northern Republican Party stopped it expanding.
By 1858, Republicans dominated the Northern states and espoused “free labour, free land and free men”. The Republican Party won both houses of Congress in 1860 and the party’s first candidate, Abraham Lincoln, became president.
Southern slaveholders still wanted to ignore the northern Republican Party. In 1861 11 states seceded from the Union to form a new nation, the Confederate States of America. And when Northerners would not tolerate secession, the Civil War began. The North’s first aim was merely to restore the South to the Union, not to free slaves. But as the war dragged on, strategic imperatives pulled Lincoln and the Republicans toward Abolition.
The American Civil War of 1861-5 left hundreds of thousands dead and the South's infrastructure destroyed. Lincoln successfully steered the country through the crisis and was loved by northerners. But immediately after the southern army surrendered, Abraham Lincoln was assassinated.
delivered to a joint session of Congress in 1862.
Republican President Lincoln's vice president, Andrew Johnson, was a Democrat (sic) from Tennessee. He prohibited governments from abolishing slavery!
With the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, Lincoln freed all slaves in the Confederacy. And as the war was ending in early 1865, Congress approved the 13th anti-slavery Amendment. The GOP had abolished slavery outright in the USA, and had preserved the Union. In fact the Republicans required some Southern states to ratify the 14th Amendment, just to be readmitted to the Union.
In the 1860s, northern Republicans organised a determined expansion of federal power, helping to fund: a] transcontinental railroad, b] state universities, c] settlement of the West by homesteaders, and d] a national currency and protective tariff. Southern Democrats opposed these measures. It was the Republicans who passed laws that advanced social justice!
Republicans supported gold standard money, high tariffs to promote economic growth, high wages, high profits and pensions for Union ex-servicemen. As the northern post-war economy boomed with heavy and light industry, railroads, mines, fast-growing cities and prosperous agriculture, the Republicans promoted policies to sustain the fast growth.
But when the states were readmitted to the Union in the Reconstruction Era 1865-77, Republicans gave up on reforming the South and many of the gains they had made seemed impermanent. And white businessmen in the North thought they'd done enough for black Southerners at this point and wanted their own interests to be given priority.
Admission of new western states to the Union created a new voting bloc. Nevada and Nebraska joined the Union in the 1860s, Colorado in 1876, the Dakotas, Montana & Washington in 1889, Idaho, Wyoming and Utah in the 1890s. Republican federal expansions in the 1860s and 1870s were favourable to northern businesses, especially banks, railroads and manufacturers. But small farmers who had moved out west received very little. Who would win western voters?
After 2 terms of Democrat Grover Cleveland, the election of William McKinley in 1896 saw a resurgence of Republican dominance. President McKinley promptly ended high tariffs, to help the owners of small businesses and farmers.
From 1896 on, Democrat Congressman William Jennings Bryan became prominent. Standing three times as the party's nominee for President, he blurred party values by emphasising the government's role in social justice, through expansions of federal power. This had traditionally been the Republican philosophy!! Republicans didn't automatically adopt the opposite position of favouring limited government. Instead both parties were promising an augmented federal government, variously devoted to social justice values.
Republican President Theodore Roosevelt (1901-9) urged his progressives to take control of a united party at the state and local level. The Republicans had cemented their position as the party of big business and Roosevelt added more small business support via trust busting. Defeated by Taft in 1912, Roosevelt led a third-party Progressive Party ticket.
Progressive reformers who wanted to check the power of corporations and the wealthy briefly had support from Republican President Roosevelt. When Democrat Woodrow Wilson won the presidency (1913-21), the Republican Party opposed many of his progressive reforms, which they came to believe expanded government’s power too much. Only gradually did Republican rhetoric drift to the Nasty Right.
Republican presidents Warren G Harding, Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover were easily elected in 1920, 1924 and 1928 respectively - the party of big business, high tariffs and wealthy families. That worked out quite well for them during the 1920s, but not so well with the Great Crash in 1929 and Depression.
Then Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933–45) swept into power and expanded the size and role of the federal government. His New Deal was a set of reforms that could save ordinary families, including regulation of financial institutions, founding of welfare and pension programmes, infrastructure development etc.
Naturally Roosevelt's New Deal divided the GOP - while many Republicans were willing to accept some parts of the New Deal, other more conservative Republicans never agreed. The Old Right sharply attacked the Second New Deal because it “represented class warfare and socialism”. Nonetheless Democrat Roosevelt won in a landslide again in 1936.
The economy improved, so Southern conservatives and most Republicans formed a conservative coalition in reaction; Roosevelt won further terms (1940 and 1944) anyhow. Conservatives abolished most of the New Deal during the war, but did not attempt to reverse Social Security or the agencies that regulated business.
Domestically Republicans were anti New Deal, anti community-development, pro limited Federal government and pro free market economics. Republicans had become conservative, and southerners had become Republican.
Except for Republican Dwight Eisenhower's 2 terms in 1946 and 1952, the Democrats continuously elected majorities to Congress, but the Conservative Coalition blocked practically all major liberal domestic policies. After 1945, the GOP's internationalist wing cooperated with Harry Truman's Cold War foreign policy, funded the Marshall Plan and supported NATO, despite the continued isolationism of the Old Right.
A civil rights bill was designed by Democratic President John Kennedy in 1963. When President Lyndon Johnson signed that Act in July 1964, it received overwhelming bi-partisan support, except for southern segregationists and white supremacists. So those same southerners championed Republican Barry Goldwater, the Arizona senator who had voted against the Civil Rights Act, for President. He was defeated by Lyndon Johnson in the Nov 1964 election.
Cities across America exploded in Race riots in 1963-65. When Republican Richard Nixon won in 1968, he focused on a Law and Order platform, lashing out against the Black Power movement. And Republican Ronald Reagan cared only that the Federal government did nothing except protect business, support a strong military and protect Christianity.