Books Interview: Heather Cox Richardson on the History of the Republican Party — Going Full Circle

In this book, Boston College historian Heather Cox Richardson explores the (d)evolution of the Republican Party from its founding in 1854 through the presidency of George W. Bush.

By Blake Maddux


To Make Men Free: A History of the Republican Party, by Heather Cox Richardson. Basic Books, 393 pages, $29.95.

Heather Cox Richardson is a professor of history at Boston College. Between 1997 and 2010, she authored four books that dealt with major political and economic issues in the United States from the Civil War until the end of the 19th century.

Her new book is To Make Men Free: A History of the Republican Party. This volume casts a wider net by exploring the (d)evolution of the Grand Old Party (as it would later be called) from its founding in 1854 through the presidency of George W. Bush.

Richardson will be discussing To Make Men Free at the Harvard Book Store (1256 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, MA) on Thursday, September 25, at 7 p.m.

Although she describes herself on Twitter (@HC_Richardson) as a “Budding Curmudgeon,” Richardson was quite accommodating as she answered questions from The Arts Fuse by phone while she was taking a six-mile walk.

Arts Fuse: How does To Make Men Free draw with your previous work and what new ground does it break?

Heather Cox Richardson: My four previous books were all about the Republican Party because I am a historian of politics and the economy. The first four books really grounded me in the early history of the party. At the same time, I taught most of my classes on the 20th century. So I knew the party in the 20th century from teaching. So this book is a history of the party, but it has a completely different thesis and it tries to do something completely different than any of my other books did.

What this does is try to ground the Republican Party in the larger story of America. Its thesis is that from the very beginning of America, through the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, there’s been a deep tension in American society between principles of equality of opportunity—as promised in the Declaration of Independence—and the protection of property—as promised in the Constitution. It traces how those two tensions played out through the Republican Party from the time of Lincoln to the present, and argues that there were three cycles characterized by Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, and Eisenhower that this party has gone through and we’re at the end of one of those cycles. The book tries to look forward and say that it looks like we could do this again unless we really work on resolving these central tensions.

Julia Ward Howe

Julia Ward Howe — one of Richardson’s favorite people in American history

AF: How does the title of your book, a phrase from “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” by Julia Ward Howe, resonate with the history of the Republican Party?

Richardson: Personally, Julia Ward Howe is one of my favorite people in American history. It works for the book because she was embodying when she wrote that the heart of the concept behind the American Civil War on the part of the North that the government had a responsibility to make men free, to make sure that they were not enslaved to the wealthiest members of society, the American slaveholders.

The Republican Party has never, ever been good about women’s rights. I’m one of the very few women who writes about politics and certainly one of the very few who writes about economics. So it was almost kind of a personal play that I had a woman [Julia Ward Howe] writing a title that said that the Republican Party was always about men.

In her [Howe’s] era, they didn’t think about it any other way, but she becomes an early and very powerful women’s rights activist. She didn’t do it deliberately because she didn’t think to say anything different. Nowadays, of course it means something different, and the Republican Party is in a little bit of trouble right now with women in case you hadn’t noticed!

AF: Early on in the book you write that “they called themselves ‘Republicans,’ hoping to invoke Thomas Jefferson—who had called his own political party Republican….” How did the early Republican Party draw on Jefferson’s ideas?

Richardson: What the Republicans pick up from Jefferson is the idea of the fundamental part of society being individuals, you know, hard-working men. They point to the fact that Jefferson was instrumental in writing the law on which the Northwest Ordinance [1787] was based. The Republican Party goes on to base its philosophy on the Northwest Ordinance, quite explicitly. Lincoln refers to Jefferson and the Northwest Ordinance repeatedly in the Lincoln-Douglas debates. He picks it up again in his Cooper Union speech [1860] and says, I’m on the side of the political angles here, not those Democrats who have come up with this entirely new way of looking at society.

AF: Is there any significance to the fact that Abraham Lincoln ran for reelection in 1864 as a member of the National Union Party, not as a Republican?

Richardson: There’s a huge significance. The two most important points are that he really did foresee that the Republican Party needed to be and could be a national party. He was interested in pulling together everyone who would subscribe to the free labor theory. While we now think of the North and the South as being complete enemies, in fact, many southerners were eager for the kind of policies that Lincoln and the Republicans had pushed from the North. They wanted education, they wanted land, they wanted railroads. They wanted to develop the country.

The other significant part of it is that by making it the National Union Party, what Lincoln and his handlers do is manage to associate the Republican Party with the country and the Democrats with treason. So if you believe in the union, you vote for the Republicans, and the idea that Democrats are treasonous, I think, haunts us still.

AF: Did Republicans have a respectable record with regard to equal treatment of African-Americans in the decades following the Civil War?

Richardson: They do at first, for sure. In fact they court the black vote and continue to believe that the black vote is going to be on their side. By the time that you get to the end of the century, there is less emphasis on the black vote, but it’s only really starting in the 1910s and 1920s that they split the other way and they decide that it’s just not worth trying to keep African-American voting on board.

[President Herbert] Hoover, when a bunch of black Republicans try to meet him at the White House, makes them stand on the lawn, which is just astonishing. When the government sends boats over to Europe for the women who’ve lost sons in World War I (they’re called Gold Star Mothers), he segregates the ships.

So the African-American vote switches to FDR during the Depression. Eisenhower, because he had such an expansive and profound vision of the country, I’m a big fan of Eisenhower, very actively courts the black vote again. He actually hires a black man to work with him in the White House. He desegregates federal properties. He puts a lot of pressure on people in D.C. to desegregate because he says they are not going to get government contracts unless they desegregate. He really pushes to break into the South with a very progressive black Republican vote.

It looks like it might happen. And then you’ve got Nixon, who has to try and undercut [Alabama Governor George] Wallace. So he courts Strom Thurmond and then in ’68 you get the Southern strategy. But there’s that moment in the ’50s when it really looks like you could be a black Republican.

AF: In 2010, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow said, “I’m undoubtedly a liberal, which means that I’m in almost total agreement with the Eisenhower-era Republican Party platform.” Does this make sense?

Heather Cox Richardson

Historian Heather Cox Richardson — she describes herself as a “Budding Curmudgeon.”

Richardson: Totally. Eisenhower was very much in the mold of Lincoln and Roosevelt. They believed that the government had a role in keeping the economic playing field level. They put it out there again and again that it’s very important that every man has the ability to work and to be sure that he gets the fruits of his own labor without it being taken away and given to monopolists, industrialists, or financiers through the manipulation of laws.

In order to make that happen, Eisenhower believes that, first of all, you’ve got to pay down the national debt because otherwise people’s taxes are going to be going into servicing the debt, so they’re not going to be seeing anything for their money. He keeps tax brackets up as high as 91 percent. If you’re over a certain amount [of income], that surplus is taxed at 91 percent.

The other thing that all three of those guys wanted is for the government to invest in infrastructure that would enable people to use natural resources in such a way that they could profit. Lincoln is behind the railroads, Teddy Roosevelt’s behind cleaning up the cities and putting down roads, and making infrastructure work in such a way that individuals have access to the ability to rise.

All three of those guys firmly believed in education. And all three of them wanted to guarantee that the government did not privilege wealthy people.

AF: Do you think that Republicans turned against certain ideas specifically because Democrats such as Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Delano Roosevelt backed them or successfully implemented them?

Richardson: The ’20s are actually my favorite section of that book because that’s the period when the Republicans really get to put in place their program of supporting big business and believing that everything is going to trickle down. They really have a free hand: they have control of Congress, they have the White House, they have businessmen everywhere. And it looks GREAT…on paper. Then when the shit hits the fan, they don’t know what to do.

So I find it fascinating now that people are trying to resurrect Coolidge and Hoover as somehow the heart of the party. They were in a way, but only for a piece of it that never worked.

Wilson essentially inherited the momentum that Teddy Roosevelt picked up. But because he was a Democrat, the Republicans straight out of the box say, we’re not going to work with you because you’re a traitor. Even though he did things that TR had backed, they were never going to work with him.

It kind of brings us full circle, the idea that if a Republican does it, it’s loyal and great for the union; if a Democrat does it, it must somehow be treasonous. Obamacare is Romneycare. One was backed by the American Enterprise Institute, the other one is going to take us all straight to hell.

Blake Maddux is a freelance journalist and regular contributor to DigBoston and The Somerville Times. He recently received a master’s degree from Harvard Extension School, which awarded him the Dean’s Thesis Prize in Journalism. A native Ohioan, he moved to Boston in 2002 and currently lives with his wife in Salem, Massachusetts. He will be teaching a class during the spring term on the First Amendment in American History at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education in Cambridge, MA.

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