Review by Choice Review
Richardson (history, Boston College) sees the history of the Republican Party as three waves of progressivism, led by Presidents Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and Eisenhower and driven by a vision of government as the guarantor of individual opportunity for all. Each wave broke against the shoals of absolute property rights, leading to the transformation of the Republicans into the party of the rich. One of Richardson's interesting findings is the recurrence over 150 years of some of the same arguments; she dates the current Republican claim that democracy is threatened if rent-seeking poor people can vote back to a speech by Senator James Henry Hammond (D-SC) in 1859. Richardson writes with a broad brush, in a popular style and with a polemical tone. She cites her own book West from Appomattox (2007) for some of the more controversial points. Nevertheless, the book's strong narrative will hold students' attention and provide a basis for discussion. General readers will find it interesting as well. Summing Up: Recommended. General readers and undergraduate students --John C. Berg, Suffolk University
Copyright American Library Association, used with permission.
Review by New York Times Review
AMERICA DOES NOT have a broken political system. It has a broken political party: the Republicans. In 1962, the political scientist James Q. Wilson wrote that parties "perform, to some degree, at least three functions in a democratic government. They recruit candidates, mobilize voters and assemble power within the formal government." Today's Republican Party is pretty good at mobilizing voters. But it has ceded much of its control over candidate recruitment to extreme activists who dominate the primaries - activists who often care more about ideological purity than about governing. Ideologues, once in government, proudly ignore the blandishments and threats with which party leaders once induced followers to follow. When House Speaker John Boehner has less sway over his caucus members than they have over him, there is not much he can do to "assemble power." Unable to make a deal even when doing so would serve the party's interests, for instance on immigration reform, Boehner occupies himself with struggling to manage his unruly caucus and suing President Obama, and the wheels of compromise lose traction as Congress sinks into an ooze of dysfunction. The party establishment is fighting back - with some success. But the outcome remains very much an open question. Nothing, then, could be more timely than a history of the Republican Party. By reminding us that the party was not always broken, such a history might offer some insight on how to make repairs. As it turns out, however, "To Make Men Free," by Heather Cox Richardson, only halfway delivers: It is longer on history than insight. The book begins, as it should, with Abraham Lincoln and his compatriots, who founded the Republican Party amid the wreckage of the short-lived Whigs. The Whigs, in turn, traced their ideological lineage to the Federalists of the founders' era, and in particular to the big-government conservatism and economic nationalism of Alexander Hamilton. In the founders' day, Hamilton was fiercely opposed by Thomas Jefferson, who feared self-aggrandizing government and creeping centralization of power. (As president, Jefferson actually governed like a Hamiltonian - but that's another story.) From that day to this, the contest between Jefferson and Hamilton has continued; and, to a large extent, it has been waged within the Republican Party. Both sides are conservative. Both support enterprise and economic freedom. Both, unlike the political left, believe that equality comes from freedom, rather than the other way around. But the two factions are at daggers drawn over government's role, which one side sees as indispensable, the other as insidious. Richardson, a historian at Boston College, is at her best charting, over a century and a half, the twists and permutations as Republicans of many eras waged their internecine battles. The visionary activism of Lincoln and the Radical Republicans gives way to the laissez-faire, anti-labor ideology of the Gilded Age. Reacting to the political and economic failures of the likes of Benjamin Harrison, Theodore Roosevelt swings the party back toward Hamiltonian muscularity, a tradition that endures today in the politics of George W. Bush and John McCain. The Jeffersonian wing storms back to power in the 1920s, establishing a counternarrative carried forward by Calvin Coolidge, Robert Taft, Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan and lately the Tea Party - itself partly a reaction to Bush's Wall Street bailout, Medicare expansion, deficits, wars and other Hamiltonian ventures. Just at the moment, the Jeffersonians are running riot in the party, aided by the strategic discovery that they can win (as they see it) merely by obstructing. Remember, though, that all of the party's presidential nominees since 1988 have been closer to the Hamiltonian wing. Concluding her book, Richardson wonders if the Hamiltonians might yet come out on top. "Forced to adapt to a changing nation," she muses, "in this century, perhaps, the Republican Party will find a way to stay committed to the ideals of its founders." Richardson does less than she might to answer her question, because too often her own ideals get in the way of properly understanding those of the Republicans. She sees Lincoln and his early Republican colleagues as fighting a life-or-death battle against - you were going to say slavery? No: Their preoccupation was with growing economic inequality and the rise of a wealthy oligarchy, which, she believes, the Constitution failed to guard against. "Lincoln asserted that the Declaration of Independence rather than the Constitution embodied America's fundamental principle: equality." Lincoln, in her telling, "founded the Republican Party to guarantee that a few wealthy elites would not control government at the expense of hard workers." This is a peculiar reading of Lincoln. The idea that the Constitution was the propertied class's counterrevolution against the equality-minded Declaration dates back a century, to the historian Charles A. Beard; but it has not worn well, and Lincoln certainly did not subscribe to it. His core value was liberty, which he saw both the Declaration and the Constitution as serving, albeit in different ways. In an 1861 fragment, he likened the Declaration to an "apple of gold," and the Constitution to a silver picture framing the apple, "made not to conceal, or destroy, the apple; but to adorn, and preserve it." He did believe in federal support for education and infrastructure: By making the working man more autonomous and more productive, public investment and public-spirited government activism would promote both freedom and prosperity. Lincoln, Richardson points out, advanced that idea with land-grant colleges, homesteading and the transcontinental railroad; Theodore Roosevelt followed him with antimonopoly suits, railroad regulation and proposals for urban schools and parks; Eisenhower took his turn with the interstate highway system and the creation of the department of health, education and welfare. Yet each advance by Republican modernizers fomented a backlash from the anti-government wing, whose goal, in Richardson's telling, was to establish the primacy of property and profits over labor and opportunity. Laissez-faire Republicans, in her view, were (and are) little more than shills for American oligarchs, from the days of the Southern slaveholders down to the present. On her reading, Barry Goldwater's "The Conscience of a Conservative" made the claim, as expressed by Richardson, that "unless voters took the country back to the founding principles of protection of property by a wealthy elite, America would continue to become a totalitarian state." Conservatives like Goldwater, Ronald Reagan and William F. Buckley "promised to turn the clock back to the days before the Civil War." And so on. This may be an accurate account of limited-government conservatism as seen by Moveon.org or Occupy Wall Street, but it is a distorting lens through which to examine the past. Richardson seems determined to cast the Republican Party's history as a morality play pitting egalitarian, pro-government good guys against plutocratic, anti-government bad guys. Alas, her insistent reductionism obstructs the much richer, more complex and interesting story that her factual narrative tells when she (too rarely) lets it speak for itself. And you would never know, reading her book, that there was a serious intellectual case, or indeed any case, for small-government conservatism. The idea that an overweening federal government is a threat to both freedom and equality (not to mention prosperity) goes back to Jefferson, James Madison, Patrick Henry and some other fairly respectable personages. You can disagree with them, or with Coolidge or Reagan or Friedrich Hayek or Milton Friedman or George Will, but to dismiss them as nothing more than mouth-pieces of the wealthy and big business is to indulge in the sort of anti-intellectualism that Richardson accuses conservatives of harboring. "To Make Men Free" proffers a readable and provocative account of the many paths that Republicans have taken to their current state of confusion. Still, it misses an opportunity. Good history is a portal to the past; if only the author had checked her politics at the door. JONATHAN RAUCH is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
Copyright (c) The New York Times Company [February 25, 2015]
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review
Under President Lincoln, Congress passed the first income tax, encouraged immigration, and strengthened the Federal government; Theodore Roosevelt urged business regulation; Eisenhower supported government funding of schools, roads, and hospitals. Sadly, writes Richardson, Boston College professor of history ( Wounded Knee: Party Politics and the Road to An American Massacre ), in this opinionated history, upon these figures' exit from the scene, their party reversed course to take up its role as the protector of the rich. Lincoln and his Republican contemporaries believed government should promote individual economic advancement, but their successors (well before the Russian revolution) denounced such thinking as socialism and communism. In the first decade of the 20th century, a new generation of Republican progressives supported TR's reforms, but by the 1920s their influence was minuscule. Eisenhower's popularity gave middle-of-the-road modern Republicanism a short-lived cachet, but, Richardson argues, the subsequent half century has seen the party harden into a defender of jingoism, privilege, and property under the banner of Movement Conservatism. The election of Barack Obama, a Democrat, signaled a return to the vision of Republicans Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and Eisenhower, just as it revealed the hollow core of the twenty-first-century Republican Party. Richardson aptly ends by wondering if the modern Republican Party will find a way to stay committed to the ideals of its founders. (Oct.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Review by Kirkus Book Review
A new history of the Republican Party as a relentless pull by big-business interests has cast it farther and farther from its noble founding principles. How did the party of Abraham Lincolndedicated to checking the spread of Southern "Slave Power" in the West and to expanding the vision of freedom and opportunity among the larger pool of poor and newly emancipatedbecome the party of the rich and entitled? Richardson (History/Boston Coll.; Wounded Knee: Party Politics and the Road to an American Massacre, 2010, etc.) makes a bold, pertinent argument that the Republican Party has always been beset by contradictions within its core as a result of the founding tension between the belief in equality of opportunity and the protection of property. She focuses on three presidents who have been true to the original Republican causeLincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhowerand three periods following progressive legislation eras that saw a reactionary swerve back to pro-business policies and a resulting economic crash: 1893, 1929 and 2008. The party emerged in reaction to the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, threatening to spread slave power into what Northerners hoped would be a West open to "poor but hardworking, ambitious young men." Harkening back to Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence, the Republican Party embraced "the first principles of republican government" and broke with "schemes of aristocracy," namely the concentration of wealth among the upper few. Lincoln's assassination, followed by Andrew Johnson's undercutting of Reconstruction, saw the beginning of the reactionary turn back to obstructionism and narrow business interests. Richardson systematically delineates how the "trickle down" economic approach never worked, yet was continually pushed by rogue elements of the party. A hard-hitting study that will surely resonate with ongoing attempts to regenerate the GOP. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.
Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.