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.
Heather Cox Richardson is professor of history at Boston College. Previously professor of history at the University of Massachusetts, she received her PhD in 1992 from Harvard’s Program in the History of American Civilization. She is the author of four books, including Wounded Knee: Party Politics and the Road to an American Massacre and West from Appomattox: The Reconstruction of America after the Civil War. She has appeared on a Bill Moyers documentary, “The Chinese in America,” and works with two educational consulting firms to train secondary school teachers and conduct public historical seminars. An OAH Distinguished Lecturer, she is also a member of both the editorial board of the journal American Nineteenth Century History and the national advisory board for the Tredegar National Civil War Center Foundation. She reviews books for popular media like the Chicago Tribune as well as a wide range of scholarly journals. (Basic Books)