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Divided We’ve Stood – A Brief History of GOP Conflict

by JASON M. SHEPHERD
Feb. 20, 1999

It seems that the Democrats and the National Press Corp have already written the obituary for the Republican Party. Riding high on a wave of a presidential acquittal and public opinion poll eminence, the Democrats are poised to extract revenge on a seemingly deeply divided GOP.

Democrats see the clash of the Republican Party’s right and moderate branches as the death throws of a party headed towards annihilation. The Clintons and their disciples gloat over the very public infighting that their opponents have engaged themselves in in the wake of their failure to remove the president from office. With rapturous delight, the Democrats eagerly await November 7, 2000 when they expect to maintain control of the White House and recapture the Congress sending the GOP into political limbo.

Almost equal to the euphoria and demurity of the Democrats is the melancholia and confusion that the Grand Old Party feels. The moral base is dejected at the moderates who handed the President his victory, and the moderates feel alienated by the rabble on the right who, against the “will of the American people” pushed forward the President’s impeachment . The feeling is that the marriage between the more metropolitan economic conservatives and the more bucolic and suburban social conservatives is nearing disintegration. This union has formed the backbone of the Republican Party. Now, the ideological strain is set to snap it creating a crippled beast that the left is all too eager to put out of its misery.

The moderates bemoans the religious right as spoilers and busy-bodies who are only concerned with prying into other’s personal lives. They wonder how it came to be that they gained such a stranglehold on the party. The right bemoans the moderates as perverts of the principles of the party. They wonder why the moderates are still in the Republican Party. Both sides see this as a new problem, a cancer that has in recent years invaded the bowels of the GOP and now threatens to destroy it from within.

Political pendants cast it as a freshly written final chapter in the story of a party that has not kept up with the changing of times and has fallen behind the modern era; a party in the aftermath of a crushing political defeat at the hands of the opposing party’s president.

The veil of history, however, reveals an astonishing revelation. This is not a new chapter in the GOP’s existence, but a familiar tune that has been played before. The struggle between the religious right and moderate ends of the party began as soon as the Republican Party became the majority party in America, in 1860.

As the Civil War was ending in 1865, the issue that divided the party was Reconstruction. The Radical Republicans on the far right clashed with the moderates over the issue of Civil Rights. The Radicals wanted to institute far-reaching changes designed to elevate freed slaves. The moderates wanted a less aggressive agenda. The split was sown back together when the Republicans were united against President Andrew Johnson’s unwillingness to support any program except general emancipation. The result was not only Johnson’s eventual impeachment and near conviction, but the Republican fractions teamed up to pass a congressional program that gave blacks citizenship, equal rights, and the vote.

The Republican Party did not stay together very long. The issue of economics over principles tore the party apart during the Gilded Age. The Gilded Age was made up of the decades following the Civil War. It was marked by materialism, unrelenting pursuit of profit, and business and government corruption. It was also a time when America was re-energizing itself. The nation was expanding West, the trans-continental railroad was opened, Americans had confidence in the country and its future. technology was changing the face of the nation and Americans took great pride in our technological progress. Writer and humorist Mark Twain dubbed the time the “Gilded Age” because, although on the surface the period seemed strong and prosperous as if made of gold, there was nothing but the blackness of greed, corruption, and scandal underneath.

The much more moral right wing of the party was distraught at the seemingly endless corruption and exploitation perpetrated by the Grant Administration and consistently overlooked by the moderate, big-business, North-Easterners in the party. The right split from the party in 1872 and formed the Liberal Republican Party. The Liberal Republican Party joined with the Democrats and nominated New YorkTribune editor and publisher Horace Greeley for President. Greeley had written editorials calling for Johnson’s removal from office in 1868 and decried the corruption of President Grant’s administration. Greeley was easily defeated by Grant and the Liberal Republican Party disappeared. However, the Republicans would not be totally solidified until 1896.

After having lost three out of five* Presidential elections and only gaining a plurality in the other two, the Republicans found an issue that united the party and brought the nation in solidly behind them. 1896 found America in a depression with the topic of America’s currency system being hotly debated. The Democrats pushed for free coinage of silver while the Republicans championed the gold standard.
The issue elected William McKinley President and swept the Republicans into control of both Houses of Congress. The Republicans added to their gains in 1898 as America recovered from its depression. Americans started call the Republican Party, “The Grand Old Party” and the Republicans have used the nickname “GOP” ever since.

The next period of infighting came about in 1912. Former President Teddy Roosevelt was angered that his hand-picked successor, Vice-President William Howard Taft, was not carrying on Roosevelt’s progressive agenda. Roosevelt rallied the right wing of the party around him and formed the Bull Moose Party and ran against Taft in the 1912 election. A split GOP resulted in victory for Democrat Woodrow Wilson. The GOP regrouped after World War I and swept back in control in 1920. The GOP would remain unified and in control until the Great Depression would put the nation in Democrat hands in 1933. The Democrats would then control Congress for all but four years between 1933 and 1995.

The Republican Party has a long history of internal debate. Even the best of marriages will have an argument or two. Modern day Republicans only have to look back to the last time the GOP was America’s party to see that this debate is healthy and a defining part of what we stand for. The Republicans are not like the Democrats who will look the other way when it is politically expedient, but we hold our leaders accountable for their actions. When we look the other way, our party splits to correct the mistake and will always come back stronger for the lesson. There is a saying that those who do not take the time to study history are doomed to repeat it. The press and the Democratic Party are doomed to defeat if they think that intra-party debate is a sign of Republican’s weakeness rather than realizing it is what helps give the GOP its strength.

* In the election of 1876, the Republican candidate (Hayes) recieved less votes than his Democrat oppoenant, but since several electorial votes in the South were in dispute, the Democrats allowed the election to go to Hayes in exchange for the Republicans ending Reconstruction in the South.