Letters and Politics

A History of the Republican Party

With Heather Cox Richardson, professor of history at Boston College and author of the book To Make Men Free: A History of the Republican Party.

About the book:

A distinguished American historian traces the paradoxical evolution of the Republican Party—founded to give the poor equal opportunity, but too often aligned with the country’s elites.

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.


  • Jersey Cub

    Hi Mitch Jeserich,

    I really like your Letters and Politics show. As a historian I have seen you grow in knowledge exponentially. I particularly liked today’s show on the Republican Party since this is my area of specialty, particularly in the 19th century. However, I did want to correct one thing your guest from Boston College said. It was just not a slip of the tongue so to speak.

    Teddy Roosevelt gave up the run for the presidency in 1908 to go hunting big game in Africa. He certainly was a man of many contradictions.His desired successor was William Howard Taft. Roosevelt thought Taft was in total agreement with himself on domestic policy. Unfortunately, the likable Taft was a great dissimulator and fooled Roosevelt. After Taft was elected and Roosevelt begin to see the real Taft he felt betrayed. In the 1912 election Roosevelt attempted to get the Republican nomination but Taft had that locked up. Despite Roosevelt’s obvious popularity during the primary campaign, Taft still won the convention vote. It is at that point the Roosevelt and his supporters left the party convention and formed the Progressive Party. During the general election with both Taft and Roosevelt split the Republican vote allowing Wilson and the Democrats to win. Wilson by the way was an out and out white racist despite his progressive reputation. Another point Robert LaFollette was really the true progressive. He did not like Roosevelt for many reasons. He felt Roosevelt did not go far enough in reform. But primarily it was over imperialism. LaFollette was an anti-imperialist. He courageously tried to keep the U.S. out of World War 1. I hope this is a little helpful.

    Mike Hodas
    [email protected]

    • mayalibre

      Excellent, Mike, thank you.

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