The summer after my sophomore year, I was too young to draw a paycheck but too old, in my father’s estimation, not to work. He set up his politically precocious 15-year-old son in a full-time volunteer job with the campaign of a candidate vying to represent Wisconsin in the United States Senate.
About which party I would serve, there was never a doubt. To my father — raised by Presbyterian parents who owned a filling station in small-town Iowa; trained as a scientist; propelled into the executive ranks by the Eisenhower boom—there was but one party. The party that had pushed the G.I. education benefits that had made him the first in his family to go to college. The party that gave birth to the “Wisconsin Idea” of putting the scientific and academic expertise of the University of Wisconsin at the service of the entire state. The party that planted parks and gleaming public schools in the corn fields long before the new neighborhoods sprouted ranch houses and split-levels. The party of Teddy Roosevelt and Ike, the party of Lincoln.
That was 1964. Today’s Republican Party, with its hostility to public schools, science, and all forms of public investment except the military, is no longer my father’s GOP.
As Heather Cox Richardson explains in To Make Men Free, her briskly written history of the Republican Party, this transformation is part of a longer pattern. Each generation of Republicans has had to navigate what she sees as the nation’s enduring tension between the promise of equality of opportunity in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution’s protection of private property. And as each generation has made its choices, “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.”
The Republican Party was founded in 1854 by northerners alarmed by passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which opened the door for slavery to spread to the prairie lands that had been put off-limits by the Missouri Compromise of 1820. Republicans saw the new law, and the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision which soon followed, as evidence of a rising Slave Power determined to use its unified control of the federal government to monopolize the West for slavery, close out free labor, and undermine democracy.
Richardson illustrates this clash of visions with two speeches of the era. In the first, Sen. James Henry Hammond, a South Carolina Democrat, declared in 1858 that society must have a class to do the menial duties — “the very mud-sills of society,” he called them — to free their betters to govern and cultivate “progress, civilization, and refinement.” In the South, the governing class owned the mud-sills. In the North, capitalists paid their mud-sills wages, gave them the vote, and, Hammond gibed, pretended that the day would not soon arrive when free labor would use the ballot to take away their betters’ property and seize control of government.
A year later, in 1859, Abraham Lincoln replied to Hammond. “By some it is assumed that labor is available only in connection with capital — that nobody labors, unless somebody else owning capital, somehow, by the use of it, induces him to do it,” he said. But capital is the fruit of labor, and labor the superior of capital. Contrary to the “mud-sill” theory, labor and education let men rise above a fixed position. Free labor is “the just and generous, and prosperous system, which opens the way for all—gives hope to all, and energy, and progress, and improvement of condition to all.”
The next year, when the Democratic Party split, Lincoln and the Republicans won the White House with only 40 percent of the vote. And when, in response, Southern states soon seceded, Republicans were left in control of Congress too and free to carry out their vision. Over the next decade they reshaped America.
They enacted a Homestead Act, created land-grant universities, subsidized construction of the transcontinental railroad, and raised tariffs to encourage domestic industry. They amended the Constitution to abolish slavery, guarantee equal protection of the laws, and protect the voting rights of citizens against racial discrimination. Out of wartime necessity, they passed the nation’s first income tax, issued “greenback” paper money, and created a system of national banks. “They argued the 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,” Richardson writes.
But their free labor vision soon ran up hard against the realities of the world they helped create. An industrializing economy widened the gap in wealth between the new barons of railroads, industry, and Wall Street and the nation’s workers and farmers. Labor grew restless and militant. Little more than two decades after the party’s founding, a new generation of Republicans, dependent for their power on political machines fueled by patronage and the dollars of wealthy businessmen, had turned their backs on Lincoln’s vision and turned the army’s guns on striking railway workers in 1877. Hammond’s mud-sill theory, Richardson argues, had taken over the party created to oppose it.
The Republicans would twice more swing back to the Lincoln vision, adapting it to new challenges.
In the first swing, at the turn of the 20th century, aristocratic reformers like Theodore Roosevelt and Republican progressives in the Midwest and West like Robert LaFollette and Hiram Johnson challenged the hold on their party by Standpatters and the wealthy. When today’s Republicans attack things like the income and inheritance tax, the direct election of senators, the anti-trust laws, the protection of natural resources, the ban on corporate contributions in elections, they are undoing the work of their own party.
The second swing came in the 1950s, under President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who receives from Richardson a more appreciative profile than any figure in the book except Lincoln. “Like Lincoln and Roosevelt before him, Eisenhower revived the classic Republican view of government,” she writes. He followed “a middle way between untrammeled freedom of the individual and the demands of the welfare of the whole nation.” He balanced the budget three times and cut military spending. He also expanded Social Security, funded investments in science and engineering education, and gave birth to the interstate highway system. “Under his direction, the middle class expanded, and the country thrived.”
Why, after Eisenhower’s success, as after the successes of the earlier Republican progressives, did the Republican Party soon return to serving big business and pursuing policies that widened economic inequality and ended, in 1929 and again in 2008, in Depression and the loss of the White House? A recurring theme of the book is that conservatives would recoup power by deploying the imagery of cowboy individualism and portraying government initiatives as handouts to African-Americans. But those rhetorical ploys were always available. Richardson does not explain why they worked only some of the time. To Make Men Free is longer on narrative than analysis.
And at times, even the narrative is wanting. Richardson, a professor of history at Boston College, is at her best telling the story of the GOP’s first half-century, a period she has written about in four previous books. But her account of the 20th century is sometimes sketchy, even unfairly so.
For example, Richardson summarizes Herbert Hoover’s response to the Great Depression in a single phrase: he “did channel some money into public works projects.” She ignores other measures, including creation of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation and Home Loan Banks, which some historians have seen as precursors of the New Deal. Hoover’s action was too little, too late, too grudging, but it was more than Richardson gives him credit for. And she forgets even to mention that congressional Republicans forced John Kennedy’s hand by introducing what would become the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 and voting for it overwhelmingly and in greater numbers than congressional Democrats. Moderate and liberal Republicans of the Eisenhower variety played important roles in Congress and statehouses well into the 1990s, a part of the story she neglects.
But on the evidence of the Bush years and the furious Republican reaction to the Obama presidency, it is hard to quarrel with her judgment about where the GOP pendulum has finally swung: “Having been captured by Movement Conservatives, the Republican Party could no longer engage with the reality of actual governance.”
It is not in the nature of political parties to tell true stories about their past. “For more than 200 years, our party has led the fight for civil rights,” the Democratic Party’s website declares, putting down the memory hole the 150 years when Democrats were the party of slavery, Jim Crow, and white supremacy. Today’s Republican Party similarly genuflects before the portraits of Calvin Coolidge and Ronald Reagan, ignoring Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, and Eisenhower. But Richardson’s book is a bracing reminder, to Democrats and Republicans alike, that there is a vital Republican tradition of active and responsible government — a tradition that once commanded a progressive father’s loyalty and once carried an idealistic boy’s hopes for an America of broader opportunity and equal rights.
Mark Paul, co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It, is a former deputy treasurer of California and former deputy editorial page editor of the Sacramento Bee.