It began as a coalition of anti-slavery "Conscience Whigs" and Free Soil Democrats opposed to the Kansas-Nebraska Act, submitted to Congress by Stephen Douglas in January 1854. The Act opened Kansas Territory and Nebraska Territory to slavery and future admission as slave states, thus implicitly repealing the prohibition on slavery in territory north of 36° 30′ latitude, which had been part of the Missouri Compromise. This change was viewed by Free-Soil and Abolitionist Northerners as an aggressive, expansionist maneuver by the slave-owning South.
The new party went well beyond the issue of slavery in the territories. It envisioned modernizing the United States — emphasizing giving free western land to farmers ("free soil") as opposed to letting slave owners buy up the best lands, expanded banking, more railroads, and factories. They vigorously argued that free-market labor was superior to slavery and the very foundation of civic virtue and true republicanism - this is the "Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men" ideology.
Historians have explored the ethnocultural foundations of the party, along the line that ethnic and religious groups set the moral standards for their members, who then carried those standards into politics. The churches also provided social networks that politicians used to sign up voters. The pietistic churches emphasized the duty of the Christian to purge sin from society. Sin took many forms—alcoholism, polygamy and slavery became special targets for the Republicans.
In Reconstruction, how to deal with the ex-Confederates and the freed slaves, or freedmen, were the major issues. By 1864, Radical Republicans controlled Congress and demanded more aggressive action against slavery, and more vengeance toward the Confederates. With the election of Ulysses S. Grant in 1868, the Radicals had control of Congress, the party and the Army, and attempted to build a solid Republican base in the South using the votes of Freedmen, Scalawags and Carpetbaggers, supported directly by U.S. Army detachments. Republicans all across the South formed local clubs called Union Leagues that effectively mobilized the voters, discussed issues, and when necessary fought off Ku Klux Klan (KKK) attacks.
Grant supported radical reconstruction programs in the South, the Fourteenth Amendment, and equal civil and voting rights for the freedmen. Most of all he was the hero of the war veterans, who marched to his tune. The party had become so large that factionalism was inevitable; it was hastened by Grant's tolerance of high levels of corruption typified by the Whiskey Ring.
The "GOP" (short for Grand Old Party, as it was now nicknamed) split into factions in the late 1870s. The Stalwarts, followers of Senator Roscoe Conkling, defended the spoils system. The Half-Breeds, who followed Senator James G. Blaine of Maine, pushed for reform of the Civil service. Independents who opposed the spoils system altogether were called "Mugwumps." In 1884 Mugwumps rejected James G. Blaine as corrupt and helped elect Democrat Grover Cleveland; most returned to the party by 1888.
As the Northern post-war economy boomed with industry, railroads, mines, and fast-growing cities, as well as prosperous agriculture, the Republicans took credit and promoted policies to keep the fast growth going. The Democratic Party was largely controlled by pro-business Bourbon Democrats until 1896. The GOP supported big business generally, the gold standard, high tariffs, and generous pensions for Union veterans. By 1890, however, the Republicans had agreed to the Sherman Anti-Trust Act and the Interstate Commerce Commission in response to complaints from owners of small businesses and farmers. The high McKinley Tariff of 1890 hurt the party and the Democrats swept to a landslide in the off-year elections, even defeating McKinley himself.
Foreign affairs seldom became partisan issues (except for the annexation of Hawaii, which Republicans favored and Democrats opposed). Much more salient were cultural issues. The GOP supported the pietistic Protestants (especially the Methodists, Congregationalists, Presbyterians, and Scandinavian Lutherans) who demanded Prohibition. That angered wet Republicans, especially German Americans, who broke ranks in 1890-1892, handing power to the Democrats.
Cultural issues, especially prohibition and foreign language schools became important because of the sharp religious divisions in the electorate. In the North, about 50% of the voters were pietistic Protestants (Methodists, Scandinavian Lutherans, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Disciples of Christ) who believed the government should be used to reduce social sins, such as drinking.
The election of William McKinley in 1896 is widely seen as a resurgence of Republican dominance and is cited as a realigning election.
The Progressive Era (or "Fourth Party System") was dominated by Republican presidents, with the sole exception of Democrat Woodrow Wilson, 1913-1921. McKinley promised that high tariffs would end the severe hardship caused by the Panic of 1893, and that the GOP would guarantee a sort of pluralism in which all groups would benefit. He denounced William Jennings Bryan, the Democratic nominee, as a dangerous radical whose plans for "Free Silver" at 16-1 (or Bimetallism) would bankrupt the economy.
McKinley relied heavily on finance, railroads, industry and the middle classes for his support and cemented the Republicans as the party of business; his campaign manager, Ohio's Mark Hanna, developed a detailed plan for getting contributions from the business world, and McKinley outspent his rival William Jennings Bryan by a large margin. This emphasis on business was in part mitigated by Theodore Roosevelt, McKinley's successor after assassination, who engaged in trust-busting. McKinley was the first president to promote pluralism, arguing that prosperity would be shared by all ethnic and religious groups.
Theodore Roosevelt, who became president in 1901, had the most dynamic personality of the era. Roosevelt had to contend with men like Senator Mark Hanna, whom he outmaneuvered to gain control of the convention in 1904 that renominated him and he won after promising to continue McKinley's policies. More difficult to handle was conservative House Speaker Joseph Gurney Cannon.
Roosevelt achieved modest legislative gains in terms of railroad legislation and pure food laws. He was more successful in Court, bringing antitrust suits that broke up the Northern Securities Company trust and Standard Oil. Roosevelt moved left in his last two years in office but was unable to pass major Square Deal proposals. He did succeed in naming his successor Secretary of War William Howard Taft who easily defeated Bryan again in the 1908 presidential election.
President Teddy Roosevelt watches GOP team pull apart on tariff issue
The tariff issue was pulling the GOP apart. Roosevelt tried to postpone the issue but Taft had to meet it head on in 1909 with the Payne-Aldrich Tariff Act. Eastern conservatives led by Nelson W. Aldrich wanted high tariffs on manufactured goods (especially woolens), while Midwesterners called for low tariffs. Aldrich tricked them by lowering the tariff on farm products, which outraged the farmers. Insurgent Midwesterners led by George Norris revolted against the conservatives led by Speaker Cannon. The Democrats won control of the House in 1910, as the rift between insurgents and conservatives widened.
In 1912 Roosevelt broke with Taft and tried for a third term. He was outmaneuvered by Taft and lost the nomination. Roosevelt led his delegates out of the convention and created a new party, the Progressive, or "Bull Moose" ticket in the election of 1912. Few party leaders followed him except Hiram Johnson of California. The Roosevelt-caused split in the Republican vote resulted in a decisive victory for Democrat Woodrow Wilson, temporarily interrupting the Republican era.
The party controlled the presidency throughout the 1920s, running on a platform of opposition to the League of Nations, high tariffs, and promotion of business interests. Warren G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover were resoundingly elected in 1920, 1924, and 1928 respectively. The breakaway efforts of Senator Robert LaFollette in 1924 failed to stop a landslide for Coolidge, and his movement fell apart. The Teapot Dome Scandal threatened to hurt the party but Harding died and Coolidge blamed everything on him, as the opposition splintered in 1924.
The pro-business policies of the decade seemed to produce an unprecedented prosperity—until the Wall Street Crash of 1929 heralded the Great Depression. Although the party did very well in large cities and among ethnic Catholics in presidential elections of 1920-24, it was unable to hold those gains in 1928. By 1932 the cities—for the first time ever—had become Democratic strongholds.
Hoover, by nature an activist, attempted to do what he could to alleviate the widespread suffering caused by the Depression, but his strict adherence to what he believed were Republican principles precluded him from establishing relief directly from the federal government.