In 1872 and 1912, a liberal or progressive faction of the Republican party broke away to organize their own party and nominate a candidate for president.
In these two election years, reform-minded Republican politicians and their supporters were determined to enact their policies or protect their legislation. Blocking their path, however, was the main Republican body, equally determined to press its views and led by a sitting president running for reelection. Third parties grew out of the faultlines.
Before the scandals of Ulysses S. Grant’s administration became known, there were already grumblings among some Republicans. Grant’s Civil Service Commission did not stop unqualified cronies from getting government jobs. Also, Grant pursued annexation of Santo Domingo (Dominican Republic) and supported the independence movement in Cuba. These developments, along with the continued military presence in the Reconstruction South, drew the ire of some Republicans.
One of those Republicans, Missouri senator Carl Schurz, called for a convention of like-minded liberal Republicans in 1872. Meeting in Cincinnati, the liberals hammered out a platform:
- Civil service reform- merit replacing political patronage
- One-term presidency
- Equal rights under the law
- Supported Reconstruction amendments
- Amnesty for former confederates
- Withdrawal of troops from the south
- Opposed expansionist foreign policy
In a heated six ballot fight, New York editor Horace Greeley beat out Charles Francis Adams for the presidential nomination. Later, he was nominated by the Democrats as well.
The mudslinging between the Grant and Greeley camps was thick. Grant was called a drunk and a dictator. Greeley was called a flake and a traitor. But Grant had several advantages: a good economy and an efficient organization of government workers doubling as campaign workers. The Liberal Republicans were low on funds and bickered with each other. It was a landslide: Grant won 55% of the popular vote, with a 286 – 66 electoral college victory.
Forty years later, the Republican party would again experience division. President William Howard Taft, acquiescing to conservative senator Nelson Aldrich, signed the Payne-Aldrich bill, which unexpectedly increased tariffs. Also, Taft appointed Richard Ballinger as Secretary of the Interior, who favored exploitation of natural resources. He then dismissed ardent conservationist Gifford Pinchot as Chief Forester. These actions combined angered some Republican senators and ex-president Theodore Roosevelt, who believed his progressive policies were being undone by Taft.
At the Republican convention in Chicago, party regulars aligned with Taft controlled the national and credential committees. They awarded most of the contested delegates to Taft, denying Roosevelt the nomination. Angry progressives bolted the convention and organized the Progressive party. At their convention in August, Roosevelt easily captured the nomination. The platform contained:
- Conservation of natural resources
- Woman’s suffrage
- Limits on campaign spending
- Right to organize unions
- Eight hour work day and six day week
- Safer workplaces
- Unemployment, old age, and sickness insurance
Despite Roosevelt’s popularity, it was an uphill climb for the Progressives. According to James Chace, the party mainly appealed to urban voters. Rural and far west voters were not enamored of the paternalistic approach to government favored by the Progressives. The Progressives split the potential Republican vote (Taft and Roosevelt totaled 50%) and gave Democrat Woodrow Wilson the presidency.
These uprisings in the Republican party in 1872 and 1912, creating third parties, were the extreme. The forty years in between was a persistent skirmish pitting the forces of reform and the conservative regulars. For instance, in 1884, the Mugwump Republicans voted for Democrat Grover Cleveland in the name of civil service reform. In the end, the regulars solidified control by 1912.
- Chace, James, 1912, Simon and Schuster: New York, 2004.
- harpweek.com, 1872: Grant v. Greeley.