An Outsider’s View—11-Transformation of Republicans from do-gooders to troglodytes
Posted on December 17th, 2011

By Shelton A. Gunaratne Professor of mass communications emeritus, Minnesota State University Moorhead

 The Republican Party leadership should take a good look at the party history to understand that the social and political ideology of early Republicans””‚a composite of anti-slavery expansion activists, modernizers, ex-Whigs and ex-Free-Soilers who founded the Grand Old Party (GOP) in 1854, a few years after the the era of Jacksonian democracy (1830-1850)””‚was far more superior to their current stance.

As an outsider who wanted to understand the troglodytic political behavior of the current batch of political actors seeking the Republican nomination for the presidency, I looked at the early history of the U.S. party system. I came to the surprising conclusion that the early Republicans were much more enlightened than the early Democrats or the contemporary Republicans in their social and political ideology.

George Washington, the first U.S. president, remained a nonpartisan leader even after the founding of the Federalist Party by Alexander Hamilton. It was an upper-class party of urban bankers and businessmen. The Federalist policies called for a national bank, tariffs, and good relations with Britain as expressed in the Jay Treaty negotiated in 1794. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, who opposed the national bank and the Jay Treaty as a sellout of republican values, promptly formed the Democratic-Republican Party to ensure the republican structure of the federal government. In 1801, the Federalists lost power to the largely rural-based Democratic-Republican Party. 

The Democratic Republicans’ ideology was based on Jeffersonian democracy, republicanism, and states’ rights with the Madison faction committed to nationalism and isolationism; and the quid faction committed to agrarianism. The party, which appealed to the yeoman famers, particularly in the South, elected three presidents””‚Jefferson (1801-1809), Madison (1809-1819) and James Monroe (1817-1825)””‚with the dwindling Federalists in the Opposition. Apparently, the monikers Democrat and Republican had different connotations in the early days than now.  

The Democratic-Republican Party collapsed in 1824, when the Democratic faction rallied around Tennessee-based Andrew Jackson, a polarizing figure who had earned kudos as an army general by defeating the Creek Indians in 1814 (Battle of Horseshoe Bend) and the British in 1815 (Battle of New Orleans). Although Jackson ran for president in 1824 in a four-way race, the House of Representatives chose John Quincy Adams, who was the secretary of state in the Monroe Administration. Adams had the support of the anti-Jackson elements in the crumbling coalition. When Jackson easily defeated Adams in the 1828 presidential election, the so-called “Adams’ men” formed the Opposition to the Jackson Administration.

Jacksonian Democrats, the forerunners of the modern Democratic Party, supported Jackson’s ideology of pro-slavery expansion and containment of American Indians. As president (1829-1837), Jackson, a rich slaveholder, aggressively enforced the Indian Removal Act, which resulted in the forced relocation of thousands of Native American tribes to Indian Territory (now Oklahoma). The Whigs in the Opposition questioned the morality of the Democrats on race issues. The modern Democrat would hardly see eye to eye with a Jacksonian Democrat. A typical example of a Democrat was John C. Calhoun, who served as vice president under both Adams and Jackson.  Calhoun was an outspoken proponent of the institution of slavery, which he defended as a “positive good” rather than as a “necessary evil.” He rooted this claim on two grounds: white supremacy and paternalism.

In contrast to Jackson, Adams was an inveterate opponent of slave-power expansion to western territories. Starting as a Federalist, Adams remained a Democratic Republican through the beginning of his presidency before he and his Secretary of State Henry Clay formed the alliance of old Federalists and the faction of Democratic Republicans who opposed Jacksonian Democrats into the short-lived National Republican party.

National Republicans officially became the Whig Party in 1833. Two single-issue parties, the Anti-Masonic Party (1828-1838) and the Free Soil Party (1848-1854) subsequently joined the Whigs. Both originated in the East, the one staunchly against freemasonry, the other against slavery. These groups defined the political-economic ideology of the original Republican Party, founded in 1854. From 1837 to 1861, four Democrats and four Whigs occupied the presidency.

The voting pattern in the 1856 presidential election clearly indicated that the Republican Party was predominantly a Northern and Midwestern phenomenon. Its slogan “free labor, free land, free men” reflected early Republican ideology.

“Free labor” expressed the party’s opposition to slave labor and belief in independent artisans and businessmen.  I wonder whether today’s Republicans would support this theme!

“Free land” expressed the party’s opposition to the plantation system, which allowed the rich to buy up all the good farmland and work it with slaves, leaving only the leftover for yeoman independent farmers. The Republican goal was to restrict the expansion of slavery, thereby dismantling Slave Power and expanding freedom.

In today’s context, we could substitute “free capital” (in place of “free land”), which allowed the rich to own more than 90 percent of the wealth, leaving only the miniscule balance to the hoi polloi, and ask the rhetorical question: would today’s Republicans even consider approving such a theme?

Abraham Lincoln, representing the fast-growing western states, won the Republican nomination in 1860 and subsequently won the presidency. The party took on the mission of saving the Union and destroying slavery during the American Civil War and over Reconstruction. In the election of 1864, it united with pro-war Democrats to nominate Lincoln on the National Union Party ticket.

However, during the century from the election of Lincoln as the first Republican president in 1860 to the election of Democrat John F. Kennedy as president in 1960, the two parties went through an ideological metamorphosis that made Democrats the champions of minority rights and Republicans their adversaries. The Deep South, which was once the power base of the Democrats, has become the political playground of the Republicans.

Following the formation of the conservative coalition, which helped realign the Democratic and Republican ideologies in the mid-1960s, the GOP that historically advocated classical liberalism, paleoconservatism, and progressivism became a party associated with bigots and troglodytes. For political expedience, the Republicans chose to march backwards to curry favor with WASPs, the super-rich, the South, the anti-internationalists, the tea party and assorted right-wingers.  

(Next: The ideological metamorphosis of Democrats and Republicans.)

One Response to “An Outsider’s View—11-Transformation of Republicans from do-gooders to troglodytes”

  1. GaryAnderson Says:

    It is time for a change backwards to go forwards! The Florida Whig Party is thinking that there are only thirteen months to go before we can start seriously thinking about the 2016 presidential race! We have a Exploratory Candidate for the US Senate, 2012 NOW! Gary A. Anderson is preaching “Principles before Party, Personality and Profit with deeds not words,” as I am the first Whig in over 150 years to do so; We are back, now watch us grow!

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