Liberal Republicans definition

A fledgling 19th century organization has served as the foundation for conservatism in American politics today.

Ulysses S. Grant was preparing to run for a second term as president in 1872. He had been strongly supported by the Republican Party in his first presidential campaign four years earlier, but by this time, many Republicans had become disillusioned by the rampant corruption taking place within his administration. These detractors formed a new group called the Liberal Republican Party.

The party derived its name from the classical definition of “liberal, ” which in 19th century terms meant smaller, more limited government. The Liberals supported reducing the size and scope of the federal government, lowering taxes, embracing free market economic principles, and battling corruption.

The Liberal Republican Party included Democrats and Republicans, and even holdovers from the defunct Whig Party. They all had different reasons for joining the party, but they generally agreed that government corruption must be stopped and there must be a return to the nation’s founding principles of limited national government and increased local self governance.

The movement was predicated on the notion that anyone could succeed in America through hard work, regardless of their race, gender, or economic status. The Liberals opposed government favoring special interests over the people, but they also opposed people who demanded special favors from the government. And they opposed people using the government to redistribute wealth rather than earn it themselves.

Liberal Republican campaign poster

At the 1872 national convention, party leader Carl Schurz said, “We want the overthrow of a pernicious system; we want the eradication of flagrant abuses; we want the infusion of a loftier spirit into our political organism; we want a Government which the best people of this country will be proud of.” The idea that this new party would be above the muck of politics was immediately compromised when a backroom deal was made to nominate Horace Greeley for president.

Greeley was the editor of the influential New York Tribune, and although he shared the Liberals’ zeal for reform, he didn’t share many of the same principles as his party. For instance, Greeley supported high tariffs (i.e., taxes) on imported goods while the Liberals favored lowering taxes. Greeley had also supported alcohol prohibition and communism for a time, which directly conflicted with the Liberals’ devotion to individual liberty. In choosing Greeley, the Liberals compromised their principles in the hopes that he was famous enough to defeat Grant in the presidential election.

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