History of WVGOP
Although the national Republican party emerged in 1854, our ideals and values have developed over centuries. Henry II in the 1180s enacted the Assize of Arms, not just requesting but requiring that all good citizens carry arms for the protection of their nation. Alone among monarchs in Europe, Henry II trusted rather than feared his people. The 1600s saw a series of British kings attempt, but fail to establish tyranny. When the last of them, James II, was overthrown, British leaders recognized that an armed population could not only defend against invasion, but could also protect its freedom at home as well. British political philosophers in the 1600s speculated on the reasons for the existence of government. Some argued that government existed to protect life while others reasoned its primary role lay in protecting property. These ideas end up being primary themes in the Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights, two of our most important expressions of freedom.
The Declaration of Independence expresses that men and women have the right to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness (originally stated as property.) Republicans recognize, as did the Founding Fathers, that rights come not from the government, but from God as part of His design for the natural world. The stated right to life reflects that Republicans cherish the unborn. Rights to liberty and property are also recognized as essential in a world constantly trying to restrict freedom and tax the rewards of our labor.
By the 1850s those that love liberty and sought to expand economic sought to create a movement that could challenge the power of the Democratic Party. Many Democrats since the founding of the Constitution had reasonably argued about state versus federal power. The 1850s saw the extremist fringe of their party growing in stature. It sought to declare that the enslavement of blacks was a positive good. Republicans from the party’s very beginnings placed a high value on human liberty and made abolition of slavery one of its most valued principles.
Some successfully tarnished the infant Republican movement with the label “extremist.” Therefore Virginia provided a hostile home for the early party, even in the western counties. This did not prevent a courageous few from standing for their principles. Wheeling Intelligencer editor Archibald Campbell consistently defended Republican principles despite the risk to his business and perhaps even his life.
That risk to life only increased in the next decade. When Civil War came to western Virginia, it brought with it a breakdown of law and government along with violence. Those that traveled to Richmond in May, 1861 to vote against Virginia secession fled from that city due to threats on their life. They and other western Virginians made their way to Wheeling to create a government loyal to the Union. Within a year they decided to start the process of creating a new state.
The Civil War’s impact helped the Republican Party establish itself in the state and around the nation. Besides trying to win the war, President Abraham Lincoln and a Republican Congress reshaped the destiny of the United States. Some of the changes brought to the US during this early period of Republican rule include construction of a transcontinental railroad, establishing America’s system of land grant universities, giving even the poor opportunities to own their own land in the West, freeing the slaves, and building a diversified industrial economy. To those in West Virginia, the Republican Party was synonymous with supporting one’s country. The Civil War saw the Republican Party establish itself in strength across the northern and central parts of the state. Early Republican leaders such as Senator Waitman T. Willey and Governor Arthur I. Boreman worked for their state and their country. In doing so, they built a firm foundation for the party to thrive.
West Virginia’s Civil War experience defined that of the early Republican Party. Counties and families found themselves at odds with each other. The Boggs family of Pendleton County had one brother as head of the Confederate County Court while his brother led the Union Home guards in the northern part of the county. To this day northern Pendleton County remains a GOP stronghold. The friction between sections was too much for Hampshire and Hardy. Republicans in the western sections of these counties split off after the war to create Mineral and Grant respectively. They are today Republican majority areas.
With the help of laws that restricted the political activities of former Confederates, Republicans controlled the state until the early 1870s. Unfortunately they did not use the time to develop a positive vision for the state’s future. When the Confederates once again exercised their right to vote and hold office, they almost destroyed the very existence of the party in the state.
In the 1870s the party situation degenerated to the point that the party endorsed a Democrat for governor. However the seeds of its gradual revival already had sprouted. A charismatic former Union officer worked to reconstruct the shattered base of the GOP from his base in Clarksburg. Major Nathan Goff Jr. had spent time in Richmond’s notorious Libby Prison and his travails received the personal recognition of President Lincoln. At this point, according to historian Gordon McKinney, Republicans in Appalachia tended to organize along military lines. Republican clubs mobilized supporters, formed bands, raised money, turned out voters, and recruited speakers. In such an atmosphere a Union veteran with speaking ability and charisma could work to great effect.
Goff led the party until the end of the 1880s. He carefully used the power of federal patronage and growing dissatisfaction with the divided Democratic Party to strengthen the state GOP. Goff himself was elected to Congress and even served as Secretary of the Navy for a short stint. Most importantly Goff developed ideas and a vision that voters could support and that could mobilize the active. In 1888 he ran for governor and apparently won by a little over 100 votes. Such a narrow margin inevitably invited a challenge although Goff declared victory. Two Democrats quarreled over which one ought to temporarily hold office until the question was answered. The Democratic Legislature appointed a commission that disallowed just enough voted to give Goff’s opponent the victory. Although Goff was nationally recognized as West Virginia’s “truly elected governor,” he lost the election and control of the party.
In 1888 newcomer Stephen B. Elkins moved to the state from New Mexico. For many years he invested in building railroads in the state and had also married the daughter of West Virginia Democratic leader Henry Gassaway Davis. Davis had served as a US Senator, but sometimes quietly supported GOP candidates. Elkins maneuvered his way into authority with money and skill, but served as an extraordinarily effective leader.
Above most other considerations, Elkins valued party harmony. He displaced Goff, but made sure the former congressman’s years of service were compensated when Elkins arranged hiss appointment to the federal judiciary. Goff resented his replacement but rarely worked against Elkins. Likewise, Elkins worked hard to soothe the feelings of those that supported Goff for many years.
Elkins took an effective West Virginia Republican Party and transformed it into a dominant political force. He exercised a quiet style of leadership that concentrated on the prevention of party dissention. The most serious issue facing Elkins lay in the dispensation of patronage. Until the early 1900s, political leaders handed out jobs such as US Marshall, US Attorney, postmaster, collector of internal revenue, and other positions as rewards for the party faithful. Obviously Elkins would have more applicants than jobs and those not employed walked away resentful. Additionally GOP elected officials each traditionally dispensed within their districts, but sometimes were denied that privilege. The president had final say on jobs and often had his own ideas as to whom he wanted to employ. In all cases, the party leader got blamed by those left out. Somehow Elkins navigated this and other issues with such dexterity that his tenure as party leader gave West Virginia Republicans their most dominant period in history.
This period of dominance lasted beyond Elkins himself. It also survived the national tumult surrounding the presidential election of 1912. When the national party nominated incumbent William Howard Taft, challenger and former president Theodore Roosevelt created his own party. Nationally Republicans faced serious obstacles because even state and county organizations divided. West Virginia still succeeded in electing Republican governor Henry Hatfield, who immediately settled a violent coal strike in Kanawha County.
Republicans dominated the state government for the most part until the Great Depression. Nationally Republicans represented prosperity and economic strength through the 1920s. However the instability that lingered in Europe after World War I combined with protectionist trade policies and other factors to bring on the Great Depression. The immediate response was to raise protective tariffs, which had been the prescription to solve economic distress for over a century. The world economy had changed in the industrial era and protectionism backfired. Around the world tariffs raised and American production plummeted. In 1932 hard times helped sweep Democrats into office on the state and national levels.
By 2009 the Democrats will have controlled the state legislature for seventy-six years. The foundations of their power emerged in the first few years of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. Republicans watched helplessly in the 1930s as Matthew Neely moved in and used New Deal patronage to construct a powerful Democratic machine. County machines such as the one developed by the Chafins in Logan County also benefited from the influx of federal money and jobs. The flower fund and other abuses of power occurred at alarming levels.
For decades West Virginians remained loyal to the Democratic Party out of gratitude for the New Deal. This was augmented by increasing corruption. The promise of jobs and payouts kept many loyal. John F. Kennedy’s primary campaign raised the sleaze to a new level according to recent histories written by Dr. Alan Loughry among others. Tens of thousands of dollars poured into the hands of Democratic Party bosses. Republicans had to battle against the legitimate and illegitimate obstacles erected in their path, but still achieved a few notable successes. Unfortunately the longer Democrats remained in control of the Legislature, the more the state lagged behind in every indicator of prosperity and development.
In 1956 Cecil Underwood won election to the Governor’s Mansion. He was the youngest governor in state history; forty years later he was elected again and became the oldest governor in state history. Underwood’s most significant accomplishment lay in leading West Virginia through the easiest desegregation process of any Southern state. At the national level Republicans fought tenaciously for desegregation and civil rights against Democratic opposition. Underwood was one of many that believed in the ancient right of liberty for all men and women and proved himself to be one of West Virginia’s most significant governors in its history.
The next Republican governor emerged in the 1960s and worked hard to help West Virginia try to return to its more prosperous past. Arch Moore Jr. was a war hero and a former congressman. His dedication, hard work, and creativity helped to obtain for West Virginia much that we take for granted now. Moore’s influence gained West Virginia hundreds of miles more interstate highway than we otherwise would have received. He also responded swiftly when confronted with disaster. The Buffalo Creek disaster elicited a strong response by the governor. However his most memorable performance may have come from his leadership in the flood of 1985 during his third term. Moore personally supervised recovery efforts and wrung as many dollars as possible from federal disaster efforts.
Moore’s leadership and charisma earned him vast amounts of support. While his work impressed large numbers of Democrats, the Republican Party had difficulty gaining on any other front during the 1970s and 80s. Meanwhile the Republican Party experienced its own transformation. A party that had backed isolationism in the 1930s tended to grow more supportive of stronger foreign policy positions by the 1960s. The Democratic Party meanwhile fell increasingly into the hands of 1960s era radicals who ignored traditional social issues and embraced quasi-Marxist economics. In the 60s and 70s former actor Ronald Reagan began his slow march towards the White House. Reagan promoted ideals based upon moral values, liberty, and anti-Communism. Although these values failed to impress West Virginia voters in 1980, Reagan won in a landslide. The Mountain State, as in the second term of Nixon, voted for the GOP incumbent.
Since the 1980s West Virginia politicians of both parties have scrambled to embrace the social ideals promoted by Reagan. Economic issues and the debate over unions have formed the ideological battleground between the parties in West Virginia. Since 2000 there is increasing evidence that true Republican sentiment has grown. For the first time in decades the Mountain State voted for a Republican presidential nominee that was not an incumbent. George W. Bush has since proved to be one of the most popular national Republicans in the state in recent memory. He was enthusiastically elected to a second term by an overwhelming majority of West Virginia voters. Congresswoman Shelley Moore Capito enjoys tremendous support in both GOP and Democratic areas of her district. The 2004 election of Betty Ireland to the office of secretary of state also demonstrates that Republicans with principles and dedication can succeed in a state still dominated by the Democratic Party.
In the twenty-first century the West Virginia Republican Party is poised to move forward. With unity, innovative ideas, and support, the party can continue to expand its base. George W. Bush’s repeated visits to the state underscore the importance that West Virginia carries in a nation now very evenly divided between the two parties.
The past demonstrates to the present that a Republican future is possible. It took only twenty-five years from the GOP to move from almost non-existence to dominance in the late 1800s. The same result is probable now as more and more people realize that West Virginia demands a step forward that only the state Republican Party can provide.