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History of the Republican Party


Leading the way on the issues

Some people have argued that Republicans fought to give blacks equal rights and then the vote as a way of wresting control of the South away from the Democrats. While it is true that almost all blacks voted Republican, these were very dangerous and controversial issues at the time. For whatever reason, many Republican politicians risked their careers on that period's "third rail" of politics and managed to not only abolish slavery, but eventually even established a black's right to vote as well. In fact, many blacks even held elected office and were influential in state legislatures. And, in 1869, the first blacks entered Congress as members of the Republican Party, establishing a trend that was not broken until 1935 when the first black Democrat finally was elected to Congress.

Meanwhile, Republicans continued being elected to the White House. In 1868, Civil War hero Ulysses S. Grant won the presidency easily and was re-elected in 1872. Although he seemed a bit bewildered by the transition from the military life of a general to being president, under Grant the Republican commitment to sound money policies continued, and the Department of Justice and the Weather Bureau were established. The Republicans in Congress continued to boldly set the agenda, and in 1870 they proposed and passed the 15th Amendment, which guaranteed voting rights regardless of race, creed or previous condition of servitude. Setting another precedent two years later, the Republican Congress turned its sights toward women's issues and authorized equal pay for equal work performed by women employed by federal agencies.

It was around this time that the symbol of the elephant for the Republican Party was created by Thomas Nast, a famous illustrator and caricaturist for The New Yorker. In 1874, a rumor that animals had escaped from the New York City Zoo coincided with worries surrounding a possible third-term run by Grant. Nast chose to represent the Republicans as elephants because elephants were clever, steadfast and controlled when calm, yet unmanageable when frightened.

But, embracing a tradition established by George Washington and the Republican Party, which had gone on record opposing a third term for any president, President Grant did not run for re-election in 1876. Instead, in one of the most bitterly disputed elections in American history, Republican Rutherford B. Hayes won the presidency by the margin of one electoral vote. After the election, cooperation between the White House and the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives was nearly impossible. Nevertheless, Hayes managed to keep his campaign promises. He cautiously withdrew federal troops from the South to allow them to shake off the psychological yoke of being a conquered land, took measures to reverse the myriad inequalities suffered by women in that period and adopted the merit system within the civil service.

Not surprisingly, the Republican appeal held in 1880 when the party won its sixth consecutive presidential election with the election of the Civil War hero James A. Garfield and also managed to regain small majorities in both the House and the Senate. Following Garfield's assassination, Chester A. Arthur succeeded to the Oval Office and, in 1883, oversaw the passage of the Pendleton Act through Congress. This bill classified about 10 percent of all government jobs and created a bipartisan Civil Service Commission to prepare and administer competitive examinations for these positions. As dreary as this bill sounds, it was important because it made at least part of the government bureaucracy a professional work force.

Suddenly the Republicans' fortunes changed, and embarking on a decade-long period of quick reversals, the Republicans lost the 1884 election. But by this time the party had firmly established itself as a permanent force in American politics by not only preserving the Union and leading the nation through the Reconstruction, but by also striking a chord of greater personal autonomy within the national psyche. Yet while the presidency was regained for one term with the 1888 election of Benjamin Harrison, with the re-emergence of the South from the destruction of the Civil War the Republicans were shut out for the first time since the Civil War in the election of 1892, as the Democrats won control of the House, the Senate and the presidency.

Republican voters returned to their party with the 1896 election, electing William McKinley to the White House. His term was the start of a consecutive four-term Republican possession of the White House.