Eric Foner on the Possibility of a GOP Breakup


Is it the end of the Republican Party as we know it?  Historians have been talking about it. Eric Foner is one of them.

Here is a taste of Foner’s interview with Janell Ross at The Washington Post.

So, there have been a lot of stories written about tensions inside the GOP and the possibility of a very, very messy convention, a nomination fight or even a fracture. Have we ever been here before?

FONER: Well, it depends what you mean by a “fracture.” If you mean events that totally destroyed a major party and created a new one, the last time that happened would have been in the 1850s. Before that, the country had two major political parties: the Democrats and the Whigs. Since then, we have had basically two major parties — the Democratic and Republican Parties — with some short-lived breakaway and one-election-cycle movements that sometimes deeply influenced election outcomes. But we have not seen an actual party die or a new one born and continue since 1854.

Isn’t that when and how the Republican Party itself was born?

Yes. In the 1850s, there were a lot of things creating a lot of conflict inside both parties. Somehow, the Democratic Party managed to hang together. The Whigs didn’t, and out of that came the Republican Party.

I think most people know that the major issue — the issue that ultimately killed the Whig Party in the United States — was the question of what was happening with slavery. There were very few people advocating the immediate abolition of slavery at the time. The issue was really whether or not slavery would be extended to the territories out West. There were some other issues tied to this. But at the time you had two parties — the Democrats and the Whigs — which competed with each other in every region of the country.

There were Northern Whigs who differed on a lot of things. For example, some believed in a high tariff and others believed in a low tariff. But lying beneath that, for just about everyone in the party, was the sense that the South had dominated the federal government since the drafting of the Constitution. Most of the presidents had, at that point, been from Southern, slave-holding states. There were a lot of people who felt that the South had too much political influence at the federal level, in part because slave labor gave it some distinct economic advantages [i.e. free labor].

That’s why, in its earliest days, the Republican Party was a Northerners’ party representing northern political and economic interests and the North’s position on the expansion of slavery.

Of course, once you say that, you have to also acknowledge two things. Slavery proved to be the issue that the political system could not handle, or the issue that could not be resolved within the political system. It was a question eventually settled by Civil War. And you also have to say that the Republican Party we’ve discussed is not, of course, what the party is today, when a lot of its voters are down South.