It is my understanding that the Republican Party arose from the anti-slavery movement, and, more specifically, as a reaction against the 1854 repeal of the Missouri Compromise.

And yet, pretty early on (at least as early as the Reconstruction, if not earlier), the Republican Party became, roughly speaking, "the party of big business".

I imagine that the evolution of the GOP from the "anti-slavery" party into the "pro-business" one was motivated largely by the relative alignments of political interests at the time, but I would like to know, more specifically

the names of those most clearly responsible for bringing about this "re-positioning" of the GOP.

Please provide sources.

  • 18
    Why would anti-slave and pro-business be at odds?... Oct 22, 2012 at 7:01
  • 4
    @kjo: Your question implies that the evolution from the anti-slavery movement to the party of big business is odd. Otherwise, what would be the point of the question? The first part of Salmon P. Chase's quote free labor, free land, free men, refers to opposition to slavery and support of independent artisans and businessmen. Thus it could argued that the position of anti-slavery and pro-business (or free trade) are strongly correlated therefore eliminating the need to explain any re-positioning. Oct 22, 2012 at 11:39
  • 4
    I believe that the assumption that someone was responsible for a shift in politics weakens this question. I wonder if others agree that it would be a stronger question if it merely asked for a description of the events and causes, rather than for names.
    – MCW
    Oct 22, 2012 at 11:40
  • 3
    @MarkC.Wallace - We get rather a lot of questions here with bad assumptions embedded in them. I don't think that makes them bad questions. In fact, if its a common misapprehension, it makes it a good question. Of course good answers should start by pointing out/correcting the invalid premises of the question. (I hope that's what I did below).
    – T.E.D.
    Oct 22, 2012 at 22:38
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    BTW, when you speak of the "party of big business", I assume you don't consider the following as "big business": Big Law; Hollywood (which is both owned by, and heavily championed by, Democrars), or pretty much all entertainment industry, or Big Data (Facebook, Google et al) which tremendously benefit from tax laws supported by Democrats as far as offshore taxes.
    – DVK
    Mar 15, 2013 at 19:32

8 Answers 8


I would date the "turning" of the Republican party into a pro business party to William McKinley 1897-1901.

The Republicans dominated the Presidency for 72 years between 1861-1933. But this can be subdivided into two 36 year sub periods 1861-1896, and 1897-1932.

It's true, as one of the other respondendents pointed out, that the Republicans absorbed the remnants of the pro-business Whig party. Fundamentally, however, the Republican party of Abraham Lincoln was a LEFT party (up to 1896). Freeing the slaves and giving African Americans even a few civil rights was a radical "leftist" idea in its time. It was then opposed mainly by "Democrats." Postwar Republican Presidents such as Johnson, Grant, and Hayes were preoccupied by Reconstruction. Then Chester Arthur and Benjamin Harrison (Garfield served only one month.) focused on "Progressive" issues such as civil service reform and trust-busting (the 1890 Sherman Anti-Trust Act). Democrat Grover Cleveland was more pro business than the Republican Presidents (ditto for Samuel J. Tilden, who lost to Hayes by one electoral vote).

The shift toward business began with William McKinley, who was associated with pro business tariffs. His successor, Teddy Roosevelt (TR),was an (antitrust) "Progressive." William Howard Taft was a cipher, sometimes appearing to be Progressive, at other times being associated with pro business interets, like his fellow Ohioan Senator Joseph Fouthaker. (This confusion caused the split off of the "Bull Moose" Republicans under TR.) Certainly by the time of Calivn Coolidge, Republicans were associated with the quote "The business of America is business." (Harding was a nonentity.)

One may wonder how the originally "left" Republican party eventually became pro business. My guess is that it remained in power so long that it eventually became the "Establishment" party.

  • Left and Right are not very useful labels to distinguish the Republican and Democratic parties of the late 19th century. The two parties had significant policy differences, especially touching on monetary, taxation, and economic policy. In many ways both parties had to race to keep up with changes in social needs in a rapidly changing world. Jul 30, 2016 at 1:45
  • @PeterDiehr: Up to a point, what you say is true, but left and right was the way the question was framed, so I answered it as such.
    – Tom Au
    Jul 30, 2016 at 1:49
  • left and right do not appear in the OP. Jul 30, 2016 at 2:14
  • @PeterDiehr: No, he cast it in terms of antislavery and pro business. But the originally "radical" Republican party became less radical as time went on. Compare Andrew Johnson to Rutherford B. Hayes, to William McKinley.
    – Tom Au
    Jul 30, 2016 at 2:16
  • Andrew Johnson was barely a Republican, but I agree with the gist of the shift. Note that not all members of Lincoln's cabinet or party were radical Republicans. The reality cannot be boiled down to a few phrases, except during the campaigns! Jul 30, 2016 at 2:22

The Republican Party was always, since its founding, a "pro-business" party.

The party was formed from the remnants of the previous pro-business party, the Whig Party, when that party split over the expansion of slavery into the territories in the early 1850's.

The two platforms are not as disjoint as they may at first appear. Northern business interests did not like the labor market distortions caused by the existence of large amounts of unpaid slave labor. The party's first platform in 1856 was in large part an economic one: (wikipedia)

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

Once slavery had been ended, and the Republican Party gave up on trying to push civil rights in the defeated South (in the wake of the election of 1876), that only left the "pro-business" platform of the party standing.

Here, according to wikipedia, is what that looked like in the late 19th Century:

The GOP supported business generally, hard money (i.e., the gold standard), high tariffs to promote economic growth, high wages and high profits, generous pensions for Union veterans, and (after 1893) the annexation of Hawaii. The Republicans supported the pietistic Protestants who demanded Prohibition. As the northern post-bellum economy boomed with heavy and light industry, railroads, mines, fast-growing cities and prosperous agriculture, the Republicans took credit and promoted policies to sustain the fast growth

  • Nice quote - can you give us the link? I'd like to read more in the article.
    – MCW
    Oct 22, 2012 at 18:56
  • ...done. Added an extra quote from a whole page on the subject too: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/…
    – T.E.D.
    Oct 22, 2012 at 19:23
  • Huh? Now, the Prohibition part seems way way way schitzo in that quote (I'm not saying it's factually wrong, but logically wrong - a pro-business party should not favor prohibiting a large chunk of the economy).
    – DVK
    Nov 4, 2012 at 0:04
  • @DVK - I didn't write it, so not my fault. If you're curious how prohibition fit into their program, I'd suggest either asking that as a question, or picking up and reading the excellent Last Call, which goes into the politics of Prohibition in detail.
    – T.E.D.
    Nov 4, 2012 at 2:19
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    "Of course once slavery had been ended, and the Republican Party disclaimed any further concerns for civil rights" dead wrong, straight out of the "democratic peoples' party" propaganda sheets.
    – jwenting
    May 9, 2014 at 6:53

I'm not sure that anyone is responsible for this shift; I rather suspect that politics is stochastic more often than planned. I'm not sure that it is possible to give an answer that a panel of objective observers would agree with. With those caveats in mind, I'd offer the following description of events.

I think the dominant player is FDR. FDR built a political machine that dominated US politics.

African Americans moved into the Democratic Party during Roosevelt's time. After Roosevelt took office in 1933, New Deal legislation sailed through Congress at lightning speed. In the 1934 midterm elections, 10 Republican senators went down to defeat, leaving them with only 25 against 71 Democrats. The House of Representatives was split in a similar ratio. Wikipedia's history of the Republican Party.

As the last couple of sentences point out the Democratic party grew at the expense of the Republican party. The few minutes of research I have available to me don't permit me to discover whether the GOP tried to preserve the party's record on civil rights, what strategies (if any) they tried, and why those strategies were ultimately ineffective. I suspect without any particular evidence that the issues that brought FDR to power and kept him there were, in the short term, perceived as more important to critical segments of the electorate than civil rights.

Nelson Rockefeller and Barry Goldwater are cited as the visionaries for the resurgence of the Republican Party. Both supported civil rights, and Rockefeller had a fairly strong and positive civil rights record. Goldwater in his 1964 election campaign made a strategic decision that federalism and states rights were more important than the Civil Rights Act.

In 1964, Goldwater ran a conservative campaign that emphasized "states' rights".[16] Goldwater's 1964 campaign was a magnet for conservatives since he opposed interference by the federal government in state affairs. Although he had supported all previous federal civil rights legislation and had supported the original senate version of the bill, Goldwater made the decision to oppose the Civil Rights Act of 1964. His stance was based on his view that the act was an intrusion of the federal government into the affairs of states and that the Act interfered with the rights of private persons to do or not do business with whomever they chose. Wikipedia attributes this assertion to Donaldson.

You could therefore argue that Goldwater is responsible for the shift, but I think that oversimplifies the process of politics.

Note with emphasis. I've done my best to be as neutral and academic as possible, since discussions of political priorities and agendas tend to get heated. I'm not so arrogant as to assume that "my best" is the same as "fully successful", so I'm throwing this open to community wiki in the hopes that anyone who can tell the story better will revise.

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    I always found it amusing that "states rights" used to be a rallying cry for the slave states prior to the Civil War. But your assertion is correct in my understanding of the parties, this shift was evolutionary and not the work of one person at one specific instance of time.
    – MichaelF
    Oct 22, 2012 at 12:19
  • I would argue that the change in "state's rights" is not just amusing, it is a powerful observation on the nature of politics in a democratic society. But that is a subject for discursive discussion, not H:SE Q&A.
    – MCW
    Oct 22, 2012 at 12:22
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    One is indeed forced to admit that proponents of "States Rights" historically have not come out looking very good. There's probably the germ of several good questions in there.
    – T.E.D.
    Oct 22, 2012 at 16:05
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    @T.E.D. - The fact that Hitler significantly improved economic conditions and made the trains run on time is not a reason to support totalitarian state. Similarly, the fact that anti-state-rights people used the power of the federal state to bust up slavery is not a reason to throw out the idea that state-power (as opposed to a fully centrally governed) system is a good idea politically. </Godwin>
    – DVK
    Nov 4, 2012 at 0:08
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    Mussolini is the train conductor, not Adolph.
    – Oldcat
    May 7, 2014 at 0:30

Both parties were pro-business for most of the 19th century. As one example, in 1894 Democratic President Grover Cleveland sent in Federal troops to break up the Pullman Strike. The question, then, is is when did Republicans become the sole beneficiaries of business support?

The turning point was 1896, when the Democrats nominated the populist William Jennings Bryan. No respectable businessman would support Bryan. McKinley's campaign manager Mark Hanna saw the opportunity:

Fear [of Bryan] proved highly profitable for McKinley's campaign manger Mark Hanna...Through the fall he received a flood of donations and then systematically assessed more among the nation's important businessmen, many of whom had never before involved themselves seriously in politics. By such a thorough entwining of their needs for political service with the Republican need for campaign funds, Hanna and these agitated contributors inaugurated one of the most significant arrangements in modern politics, which would set broad but firm boundaries around the Republican party as it acted in national affairs.

... After 1896, such magnates as John McCall of New York Life Insurance, Henry H. Rogers of Standard Oil, and Edward Harriman began both to contribute more consistently and to grant funds for a party rather than a man. They were attempting to buy a good reputation, to incline all important party members in their favor instead of stringing a few as company puppets...The managers of the Republican party, which was almost the exclusive beneficiary, were naturally delighted.

Bryan and Hanna were so successful at realigning the coalitions of the two parties that the 1896 election is considered to be a pivotal realigning election, ushering in the Fourth Party System. Business became associated with the Republicans, which in the 1900s led to unions and the Democrats tightening their bonds.

Quote from Robert H. Wiebe's The Search for Order, 1877-1920


The Republican Party remained more responsive than Democrats to issues of civil rights throughout the Great Depression. The Republicans were not forced to choose between their reputation as the "Party of Lincoln" and the "Party of Business" until the 1940s, due to the establishment of agencies like the Fair Employment Practices Committee in 1941. Unlike anti-lynching bills (which the GOP overwhelmingly supported), the FEPC and legislation like it would restrict the freedom of action of business. Forced to choose between African Americans and business, the GOP overwhelmingly chose business.

Northern Democrats saw this as an opening to further the gains FDR had made with African American voters in the late 1930s, and so African Americans were increasingly incorporated into the (northern) Democratic coalition. By the late 1960s, this decision led to the gradual exodus of white southerners from the Democratic coalition, eventually cementing the Democratic Party's reputation as the party of civil rights.

From my other answer, the timeline for the "party of business" looks like this:

  • Both parties are "parties of business" until 1896
  • Republicans became THE party of business after 1896

The time line for the "anti-slavery"/civil rights party looks like this:

  • Republicans are the party of civil rights from founding through 1940
  • Northern Democrats begin moving toward civil rights positions in the 1930s and 1940s
  • Republicans decisively choose business over civil rights in the 1940s and 1950s
  • Democrats become THE party of civil rights in the late 1960s (though southern Dems lag)
  • Southern Dems align with Northern Dems on civil rights issues in the late 1970s and 1980s

My source for this is the single best source I have found on this issue: the political scientist David Karol's chapter on "the politics of race" in his 2009 book Party Position Change in American Politics: Coalition Management.

  • 1
    mind that the GOP never chose "against blacks". They are colour blind, would support a black as much as a white person. What they won't do is give that black preferential treatment because of the colour of his skin. IOW they're not racist against non-black people, which in the eyes of pro-black pressure groups makes them racist against blacks... How times have changed...
    – jwenting
    Sep 1, 2015 at 18:05
  • The chapter I cited is actually quite good on this. It goes over Democratic politicians and Republican politicians individually and shows how their voting records changed on civil rights issues over the century as the source of their votes changed. It's pretty convincing that the party switch had less to do with first principles ("color blindness") and more to do with responsiveness to constituents.
    – two sheds
    Sep 1, 2015 at 22:52
  • An interesting example is that Goldwater had a more liberal voting record than most Democrats on racial policy until the 1960s. But he realized that the GOP was losing black support in the South while gaining white support, leading to his famous line that the GOP should "go hunting where the ducks are"--i.e. pursue the Southern Strategy. At that point he stopped supporting the major civil rights bills.
    – two sheds
    Sep 1, 2015 at 23:16

The Wikipedia article on the U.S. Democratic Party cites JFK and LBJ next to FDR (whom @Mark C. Wallace cited above) in this context. I have read biographies of all three Presidents, and based primarily on evidence from Robert Caro's The Years of Lyndon Johnson I would vote for LBJ's case being the strongest even among those three. Here's an excerpt from the introduction of Book Three: Master of the Senate (2002):

Icons of the fight for social justice -- the Humphreys and Douglases and Lehmans and the generations of liberal senators before them, eloquent, courageous senators, men of principles and ideals -- had been trying for decades to pass a civil rights bill, with absolutely no success. It was not until Lyndon Johnson, who had never before fought in their cause, picked up the banner of civil rights that it was carried at last nearer to its goal. It took a Lyndon Johnson, with his threats and deceits, with his relentlessness with which he insisted on victory and the savagery with which he fought for it, to ram that legislation through. As I wrote in the second volume of this work, "Abraham Lincoln struck off the chains of black Americans, but it was Lyndon Johnson who led them into voting booths, closed democracy's sacred curtain behind them, placed their hands upon the lever that gave them a hold on their own destiny, made them, at last and forever, a true part of American political life." His great voting rights legislation, the supreme accomplishment of his life and his career, would be passed during his presidency, of course; it was then that he most firmly took the hands of black Americans. But he first reached for their hands not as President, but in the Senate.

  • I'm not sure I understand this argument. It doesn't appear to be about the Republican party, or about pro (or even anti) business policies.
    – T.E.D.
    Oct 23, 2012 at 20:15
  • T.E.D., good point. I realize now that my response has (at least :) two weaknesses in the present form: 1) It subsumes too much under "in this context". I could remedy this by explaining e.g. why I argue specifically about LBJ's role. 2) It ignores the fact that @kjo was specifically asking about early developments ("at least as early as the Reconstruction"). This may be fatal and indeed suggest my withdrawal/deletion of the answer. Since I'm new to the forum, may I please ask: is a revised answer that addresses "later" developments of interest to kjo and folks following this question or not?
    – Drux
    Oct 24, 2012 at 4:56
  • This answer is only half complete - the other half would be how alienated social conservatives from the Democratic Party ("Dixiecrats") found a new home with Goldwater and Nixon's "Southern Strategy," and how this was accelerated with LBJ's agressive pursuit of Civil Rights. Oct 24, 2012 at 12:15
  • @RI Swamp Yankee thx for your response. Now I am a bit confused how this (while true -- LBJ quote: "We have lost the South for a generation") is about the Republican party's conjectured (early) turn from an "anti-slavery" party into a "pro-business" party, i.e. how this is in the context of this question (as I now understand it).
    – Drux
    Oct 26, 2012 at 7:04

The slavery abolitionists' objections prior to the demise of the Federalist Party focused on the disparity of Congressional representation between the northern states and the slave owning southern states, since the 'three-fifths clause' in the original Constitution favored slave owners' voting rights (but not the slaves themselves) while ignoring the wealth of other forms of property in the north.

Thomas Jefferson, of the Democratic-Republicans and a slave owner/"keeper of a shadow family", in letters to John Adams, of the Federalists, stated that the slaves could not possibly be freed without military occupation - a plan Abraham Lincoln and the Republicans followed faithfully, even in the issuing of The Emancipation Proclamation. The border states which were already under Union Army control at the start of the war were exempt from freeing their slaves and the District of Columbia, among other places, was a slave locality until the ratification of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. http://www.archives.gov/historical-docs/document.html?doc=9&title.raw=13th+Amendment+to+the+U.S.+Constitution%3A+Abolition+of+Slavery

Jefferson, Madison, and numerous other slave holders acknowledged both the evils of slave owning on the children of slave owners, and the inefficiency of slaves due to a lack of economic rewards and the need to supervise them constantly. By freeing them (many of whom suffered smallpox and other diseases when the British first attempted to do so as an act of war during The Revolution, as well as suffering in camps run by the Union Army), sending them back to work for wages "in their place", the ultimate outcome was to make them work far harder for what was likely a drop in living standards.

Abolition was incredibly good for business while freeing up some labor to be brutalized by the rapidly industrializing businesses in the Northeast.


The reason the Republican party became the most influential anti-slavery party has less to do with altruism than profit.

The large corporations and owned businesses had long been known to fight unions by the use of anti-immigrant divisiveness. "No Irish Need Apply" is an example. The technique was used to threaten manual laborers with the specter of cheap black and immigrant workers taking jobs from white men.

The motive was unclear, and the newly minted Republican Party got the support of abolitionists, "temperance", and anti-child worker movements, i.e., "The High Moral Ground."

The threat of cheaper labor is one that business had long used to keep wages low. The idea that not just slaves, but Irish (the Potato Famine of the 1840s), German (refugees from the Revolution of 1849), created an underclass of jobless, eager to thwart laborers attempts to organize unions.

The failure of "Reconstruction," which lasted less than a decade before the Republicans sold out to the slave-owning class of the former Confederate states (by removing Federal Troops and returning power to the elite), is a major scandal that has been swept under the carpet.

It was the first but by no means the last in which wealthy industrialists made common cause with rich plantation owners. Both sought cheap labor. There is no validity whatever that the Republican party was anything but a way to achieve that goal.

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