When Abraham Lincoln helped create the Republican Party on the eve of the Civil War, his goal was to promote economic opportunity for all Americans, not just the slaveholding Southern planters who steered national politics. Yet, despite the egalitarian dream at the heart of its founding, the Republican Party quickly became mired in a fundamental identity crisis. Would it be the party of democratic ideals? Or would it be the party of moneyed interests? In the century and a half since, Republicans have vacillated between these two poles, with dire economic, political, and moral repercussions for the entire nation.
In To Make Men Free, celebrated historian Heather Cox Richardson traces the shifting ideology of the Grand Old Party from the antebellum era to the Great Recession, revealing the insidious cycle of boom and bust that has characterized the Party since its inception. While in office, progressive Republicans like Teddy Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower revived Lincoln's vision of economic freedom and expanded the government, attacking the concentration of wealth and nurturing upward mobility. But they and others like them have been continually thwarted by powerful business interests in the Party. Their opponents appealed to Americans' latent racism and xenophobia to regain political power, linking taxation and regulation to redistribution and socialism. The results of the Party's wholesale embrace of big business are all too familiar: financial collapses like the Panic of 1893, the Great Depression in 1929, and the Great Recession in 2008. With each passing decade, with each missed opportunity and political misstep, the schism within the Republican Party has grown wider, pulling the GOP ever further from its founding principles.
Expansive and authoritative, To Make Men Free is a sweeping history of the Party that was once America's greatest political hope -- and, time and time again, has proved its greatest disappointment.
Under President Lincoln, Congress passed the first income tax, encouraged immigration, and strengthened the Federal government; Theodore Roosevelt urged business regulation; Eisenhower supported government funding of schools, roads, and hospitals. Sadly, writes Richardson, Boston College professor of history (Wounded Knee: Party Politics and the Road to An American Massacre), in this opinionated history, upon these figures' exit from the scene, their party reversed course to take up its role as the protector of the rich. Lincoln and his Republican contemporaries believed government should promote individual economic advancement, but their successors (well before the Russian revolution) denounced such thinking as "socialism" and "communism." In the first decade of the 20th century, a new generation of Republican progressives supported TR's reforms, but by the 1920s their influence was minuscule. Eisenhower's popularity gave middle-of-the-road modern Republicanism a short-lived cachet, but, Richardson argues, the subsequent half century has seen the party harden into a defender of jingoism, privilege, and property under the banner of Movement Conservatism. The election of Barack Obama, a Democrat, signaled a "return to the vision of Republicans Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and Eisenhower," just as it "revealed the hollow core of the twenty-first-century Republican Party." Richardson aptly ends by wondering if the modern Republican Party "will find a way to stay committed to the ideals of its founders."