The Beginning: Republicans Stood for Freedom

Abolishing slavery. Free Speech. Women’s Suffrage. In today’s stereotypes, none of these sound like a typical Republican issue, yet they are stances the Republican Party – in opposition to the Democratic Party – adopted early on.

Reducing the government. Streamlining the bureaucracy. Returning power to the states. These issues do not sound like they would be the promises of the party of Lincoln – the party that fought to preserve the national union – but they are, and logically so. With a core belief in the idea of the primacy of individuals, the Republican Party, since its inception, has been at the forefront of the fight for individual rights in opposition to a large, bloated government.

The Republican Party has always thrived on challenges and difficult positions. Its present role as leader of the revolution in which the principles of government are being re-evaluated is a role it has traditionally embraced.

At the time of its founding, the Republican Party was organized as an answer to the divided politics, political turmoil, arguments and internal division – particularly over slavery – that plagued the many existing political parties in the United States in 1854. The Free Soil Party, asserting that all men had a natural right to the soil, demanded that the government re-evaluate homesteading legislation and grant land to settlers free of charge. The Conscience Whigs, the “radical” faction of the Whig Party in the North, alienated themselves from their Southern counterparts by adopting an anti-slavery position. And the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which allowed territories to determine whether slavery would be legalized in accordance with “popular sovereignty” and thereby nullify the principles of the Missouri Compromise, created a schism within the Democratic Party.

A staunch Anti-Nebraska Democrat, Alvan E. Bovay – like his fellow Americans – was disillusioned by this atmosphere of confusion and division. Taking advantage of the political turmoil caused by the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Bovay united discouraged members from the Free Soil Party, the Conscience Whigs and the Anti-Nebraska Democrats. Meeting in a Congregational church in Ripon, Wisconsin, he helped establish a party that represented the interests of the North and the abolitionists by merging two fundamental issues: free land and preventing the spread of slavery into the Western territories. Realizing the new party needed a name to help unify it, Bovay decided on the term Republican because it was simple, synonymous with equality and alluded to the earlier party of Thomas Jefferson, the Democratic-Republicans.

On July 6, 1854, in Jackson, Michigan, the Republican Party formally organized itself by holding its first convention, adopting a platform and nominating a full slate of candidates for state offices. Other states soon followed, and the first Republican candidate for president – John C. Fremont – ran in 1856 with the slogan “Free soil, free labor, free speech, free men, Fremont.”

Even though he ran on a third-party ticket, Fremont managed to capture a third of the vote and the Republican Party began to add members throughout the land. As tensions mounted over the slavery issue, more anti-slavery Republicans began to run for office and be elected – even with the risks involved with taking this stance. Republican Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts experienced this danger firsthand. Sumner infuriated Rep. Preston S. Brooks, the son of one of Butler’s cousins, who felt his family honor had been insulted. This incident electrified the nation and helped to galvanize Northern opinion against the South; Southern opinion hailed Brooks as a hero. But Sumner stood by his principles, and after a three year, painful convalescence, he returned to the Senate to continue his struggle against slavery.

Origin of the Republican Elephant

This symbol of the party was born in the imagination of cartoonist Thomas Nast and first appeared in Harper’s Weekly on November 7, 1874.

An 1860 issue of Railsplitter and an 1872 cartoon in Harper’s Weekly connected elephants with Republicans, but it was Nast who provided the party with its symbol.

Oddly, two unconnected events led to the birth of the Republican Elephant. James Gordon Bennett’s New York Herald raised the cry of “Caesarism” in connection with the possibility of a third term try for President Ulysses S. Grant.

While the illustrated journals were depicting Grant wearing a crown, the Herald involved itself in another circulation-builder in an entirely different, non-political area. This was the Central Park Menagerie Scare of 1874, a delightful hoax perpetrated by the Herald. They ran a story, totally untrue, that the animals in the zoo had broken loose and were roaming the wilds of New York’s Central Park in search of prey.

Cartoonist Thomas Nast took the two examples of the Herald enterprise and put them together in a cartoon for Harper’s Weekly. He showed an ass (symbolizing the Herald) wearing a lion’s skin (the scary prospect of Caesarism) frightening away the animals in the forest (Central Park). The caption quoted a familiar fable: “An ass having put on a lion’s skin roamed about in the forest and amused himself by frightening all the foolish animals he met within he wanderings.”

One of the foolish animals in the cartoon was an elephant, representing the Republican vote – not the party, the Republican vote – which was being frightened away from its normal ties by the phony scare of Caesarism. In a subsequent cartoon on November 21, 1874, after the election in which the Republicans did badly, Nast followed up the idea by showing the elephant in a trap, illustrating the way the Republican vote had been decoyed from its normal allegiance.

The Origin of “GOP”

A favorite of headline writers, GOP dates back to the 1870s and ‘80s. The abbreviation was cited in a New York Herald story on October 15, 1884; “The G.O.P. Doomed,” shouted the Boston Post.

But what GOP stands for has changed with the times. In 1875 there was a citation in the Congressional Record referring to “this gallant old party,” and, according to Harper’s Weekly, in the Cincinnati Commercial in 1876 to “Grand Old Party.”

Perhaps the use of “the G.O.M.” for Britain’s Prime Minister William E. Gladstone in 1882 as “the Grand Old Man” stimulated the use of GOP in the United States soon after.

In early motorcar days, GOP took on the term “get out and push.” During the 1964 presidential campaign “Go-Party” was used briefly, and during the Nixon Administration frequent references to the “generation of peace” had happy overtones. In line with moves in the 1970s to modernize the party, Republican leaders took to referring to the “grand old party,” harkening back to a 1971 speech by President Nixon at the dedication of the Eisenhower Republican Center in Washington, D.C.

Indeed, the “grand old party” is an ironic term, since the Democrat Party was organized some 22 years earlier in 1832.

Republican Presidential Candidates

The Republican Party, one of the two major United States political parties, was founded by virtue of a coalition in 1854. The coalition was composed of former members of the Whig, Free-Soil, and Know-Nothing parties, along with Northern Democrats who were dissatisfied with their party’s conciliatory attitude on the slavery issue (see Free-Soil Party; The early Republicans were united in their opposition to extending slavery into the Western territories. In 1856 they nominated John Charles Fremont for the presidency. He won about a third of the popular vote, but alienated many potential supporters by his failure to oppose immigration.

The Republicans joined the Democrats as one of the nation’s two major parties in the late 1850s. They gained support as concern grew in the North over Southern influence in Washington, D.C., and they reassured the antiforeign Know-Nothings that they cared about the social impact of immigration. In 1860 their candidate – Abraham Lincoln – was elected to the presidency; the Southern states reacted by seceding from the Union and the country was plunged into the Civil War (1861-1865).