Between 1900 and 1930, in both the White House and in Congress, the Republican Party was the dominant political party. The Republican Party’s long domination of national politics began with the crucial realigning election of William McKinley in 1896 and his reelection in 1900. In both elections, he narrowly defeated his populist Democratic challenger, William Jennings Bryan. Bryan and the Democratic Party had strong support in the South and Midwest among farmers, agrarian radicals, reformers, and populists; somewhat less securely, the party also held the loyalty of many immigrant groups. While the Republicans also had support among agrarian reformers, their strength came from support in northern cities, among eastern financial and business interests, and among middle-class men.
Mark Hanna, the chair of the National Republican Committee, solicited large campaign contributions from financial and business leaders. Hanna and McKinley viewed the great industrialists as the country’s natural leaders and gave them unprecedented access to the White House. Other financial conservatives, including Nelson Aldrich, Thomas Reed, and Thomas Platt helped shape the party’s support of the gold standard, in opposition to Democratic support of silver and more lenient economic policies. The triumph of the fiscal conservatives came in 1900 with the passage of the Currency (or Gold Standard) Act; industrial and agricultural interests also placed maintaining protective TARIEES on the Republican political agenda as a major priority. The support of the nation’s financial and business communities was one of the consistent themes of the party’s electoral success. The party also tended to oppose American involvement in foreign affairs, to be financially conservative, and to view the role of the federal government as one of supporting industry and the general prosperity.
Relying on these issues, the Republican Party dominated the presidency and Congress between 1900 and 1930. It won presidential elections in 1900, 1904, 1908, 1920, 1924, and 1928, losing only in 1912 and 1916 to Democratic candidate WooDRow Wilson. The party also controlled the House of Representatives between 1900 and 1911 and from 1919 until 1932 and the Senate from 1900 to 1913 and again from 1919 to 1932. The party often had a large majority in both the House and the Senate, which gave it complete control over both the executive and legislative branches.
The dominance over the legislature was matched by control over the judiciary. At the national level, the party had a tremendous impact on the makeup of the Supreme Court. Of the 21 Supreme Court justices appointed between 1898 and 1932, Republican presidents appointed 18. They had a similar impact on the appointment of federal judges. The party used this control to shape federal policies on a wide range of issues, including international trade, foreign policy, labor relations, conservation, and domestic affairs. In general the party tended to support protective tariffs, and Republicans authored the historic Payne-Aldrich Tariff Act in 1909 and the Hawley-Smoot Tariff of 1930. In general, the party also tended to favor employers in labor disputes and made an effort to keep government intervention to a minimum.
The extent to which the party maintained the support of financial and business leaders varied. Under the presidencies of Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, the party was at least partially responsive to progressive demands for restraints on the power of national corporations and the new industrial elite. Roosevelt earned a reputation as a trustbuster for taking on John D. Rockefeller and Standard Oil. Roosevelt also signed progressive federal legislation such as the Meat Inspection Act (1906) and the Pure Food and Drug Act (1906). As president, Taft continued Roosevelt’s policy of trust busting and presided over the passage of the Sixteenth Amendment establishing a federal income tax. Nevertheless, Roosevelt and Taft remained strong supporters of free enterprise and big business, advocating the use of executive powers to correct only the most flagrant abuses.
The extent to which the federal government sought to police industry, support reforms, and control the economy caused a rift in the party between 1908 and 1916. Prior to 1900, agrarian radicals and progressive reformers had for a long time influenced the party. During the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt, the party’s midwestern progressives and eastern financial and business backers maintained an uneasy truce. Roosevelt supported business growth, but he sought to regulate monopolies and supported limited progressive reforms. Progressives grew increasingly frustrated, despite Roosevelt’s tentative commitment to a program of reform. Conservative Old Guard Republicans maintained a firm control over Congress and blocked important reform legislation during much of the decade. A key obstacle was the conservative Speaker of the House Joseph Cannon. Using his control over the Rules Committee, he controlled the House of Representatives with an iron fist from 1903 to 1911.
Between 1909 and 1913, William Howard Taft initiated even more antitrust suits than trustbuster Roosevelt, but progressives in the Republican Party quickly became disenchanted with Taft’s leadership. When Taft fired the head of the U. S. Forest Service, Gifford Pinchot, developed closer ties with the party’s Old Guard, and refused to oppose Cannon’s control over the House, progressives organized to take control of the party. In June 1911, Senator Robert La Follette, California governor Hiram W. Johnson, and others formed the National Progressive Republican League. La Follette prepared to challenge Taft for the party presidential nomination in 1912. By 1910, however, Roosevelt had become convinced that Taft was too closely tied to business interests and the Old Guard. When Roosevelt announced that he too would seek the Republican nomination in 1912, Taft used his control of the party machinery to gain the nomination. With Taft’s renomination secure, progressives bolted the party and formed the Progressive Party with Roosevelt as their presidential candidate. Roosevelt outpolled Taft in the general election, but Democratic candidate Woodrow Wilson won the presidency. Most progressives rejoined the party by 1916, although some defected again to cast their ballot for Progressive Party candidate La Follette in the presidential election of 1924.
With the 1912 election of Democrat Woodrow Wilson, the Republican Party lost control of the federal government for the first time since 1896. Wilson proved to be a very effective president, winning reelection in 1916 over Republican nominee Charles Evans Hughes. He helped the Democratic Party maintain control over the House and Senate until 1919. Republican opposition to Wilson’s peace program following the end of World War I revitalized the party. Led by Henry Cabot Lodge, Old Guard Republicans and isolationists, including some western progressives, opposed the peace treaty. Fearing that international coalitions would serve only to entangle the country in foreign conflicts, they vehemently opposed the provision of the Treaty of Versailles that required the United States to join the new League of Nations. Republican opposition ensured that the peace treaty with Germany was not ratified (a treaty officially ending the war with Germany was not signed until 1921).
With the wave of labor disputes and the economic depression that followed the war, the Republican Party was able to regain control of Congress and the presidency by promising “a return to normalcy.” Warren G. Harding handily defeated Democratic nominee James M. Cox, winning 60 percent of the popular vote. The Republican Party continued its national dominance throughout the 1920s, winning every presidential election and controlling both the House and the Senate. Republican presidents Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Herbert Hoover championed fiscal conservatism, a smaller role for the federal government, lower taxes, and an emphasis on continued industrial development and economic growth. On that platform, they retained power until the economic crisis of the 1930s.
Further reading: John D. Hicks, The Republican Ascendancy, 1921-1933 (New York: Harper and Row, 1960); Charles O. Jones, The Republican Party in American Politics (New York: Macmillan, 1965); George H. Mayer, The Republican Party, 1854-1964 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1964).