Turns out I’m in Abraham Lincoln’s Republican Party. And boy, it was a lot different than today’s Republican Party. Heather Cox Richardson, a Yarmouth native and professor of history at Boston College, has written a captivating new book, “To Make Men Free: A History of the Republican Party.”
Actually, I’m in the Republican Party that Maine Congressman Israel Washburn helped organize in 1854. Washburn invited about 30 antislavery representatives to meet. At that time they were members of several different political parties, but they left the meeting calling themselves Republicans, agreeing to stand against the spread of slavery in the west.
Along came the amazing Abraham Lincoln, who “believed that the government must respond to popular desire for it to do work that was too big for individuals.” Nominated for president at the 1860 Republican convention, Lincoln’s platform took us back to the Declaration of Independence, and called for policies to advance national development. They “endorsed tariffs to protect every branch of the economy; the distribution of land to promote farming; legislation to protect the equal rights of immigrants; the clearing of rivers and harbors for maritime trade; and the construction of a transcontinental railroad.”
Once elected, Lincoln and congressional Republicans enacted a new income tax of 3 percent on the wealthy whose annual income exceeded $800. As Richardson notes, “In March 1862, Congress began debating a sweeping tax bill that would change American revenue policies forever.” It was a graduated income tax, designed to distribute the tax burden evenly and, in addition to tariffs, to promote national economic growth.
I was particularly pleased to hear that, “By fall 1862, to fund a war of unprecedented scope, the Republicans had changed the country’s entire system of finance and revenue. They had divorced the Treasury from eastern bankers, resting it instead on the farmers, miners, fishermen, and small business people they believed were the backbone of the American economy.
“Every American had a stake in the government and an interest in making sure the Union survived and prospered,” writes Richardson.
Brilliant! Lincoln and his Republican Party also “put the muscle of the national government behind education. Information was key to increasing production, they maintained, and thus imperative for the nation.”
They even created public universities. And they built the transcontinental railroad. Democrats opposed all of this, including the railroad, claiming that economic development “was beyond the scope of the federal government.”
There’s more to this amazing story, including important contributions by Maine’s James G. Blaine. Unfortunately, it didn’t take long for others to steer the Republican Party away from the initiatives and beliefs of Lincoln and the party’s founders. But every once in a while, they returned to the party’s roots.
I have always identified with Teddy Roosevelt, the greatest conservationist to serve as president. During Teddy’s tenure, Richardson writes, “progressive Republicans insisted that government clean up the cities, protect worker safety, inspect food, and support education.” Old Guard Republicans resisted, and it was Democrats who implemented many of these initiatives.
Alas, the Old Guard’s policies brought us a devastating depression, and it took Democrat FDR’s New Deal to pull us out of it. But then along came Republican Dwight Eisenhower, who returned my party to its roots and “reshaped Lincoln’s vision for the modern world. In Eisenhower’s hands, an active American government would promote a strong middle class, just as Lincoln had planned, but its reach would not be bounded by the nation’s borders; under Eisenhower, America would promote prosperity across the globe.”
Eisenhower “explained that the new economy had created two great needs. First, he said, individuals must have safeguards against disasters created by forces outside their control. Second, the government must perform certain indispensable social services. It must cover people suffering from unemployment, old age, illness, and accident. It must protect them from unsafe food and drugs. It must address the needs for health care and housing. And, just as Lincoln and Roosevelt had insisted, it must promote education.”
Given his military history, perhaps Eisenhower’s most astonishing speech expressed concern about the arms race. “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed,” he said. Remarkable.
“Eisenhower’s first step was to rein in the federal deficit so that tax money would not be swallowed by interest payments on the debt. Eager to balance the budget, he got Congress to extend taxes that had been scheduled to expire and to chop the defense budget. In 1954, the Republicans passed an overhaul of the tax laws: Congress provided for a progressive income tax ranging from 20 percent on incomes under two thousand dollars up to 91 percent on incomes over two hundred thousand dollars. In 1956, Eisenhower presided over a balanced budget, the last Republican president in the twentieth century to do so.”
And with the help of Democrats in Congress, Eisenhower created a Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, and expanded Social Security to about 10 million additional people. He even established the federally funded highway system.
Richardson’s final sentence in this book is hopeful: “Forced to adapt to a changing nation, in this century, perhaps the Republican Party will find a way to stay committed to the ideals of its founders.”
As a lifelong Republican, I can only hope that she is right.