The November 2011 60 Minutes/Vanity Fair poll revealed that only 51% of Republicans knew that the abbreviation G.O.P. stood for “Grand Old Party.” The results were even worse among independents (47%) and Democrats (38%).
In 2009 the Wall Street Journal issued an internal memo ending the use of G.O.P. as an abbreviation for the Republican Party because it “may seem baffling (or even spin-doctored) to some new readers” and “even among people who know that G.O.P. refers to the Republican Party, many may not know that it stands for Grand Old Party.” It was a regrettable concession to political illiteracy. And while not everyone knows about the Grand Old Party, and far fewer know the Republicans were also called the Gallant Old Party, hardly anyone knows that the appellation was wrested from the original G.O.P., the Democrats.
The name Republican as applied to the contemporary party can reliably be traced to an organizational meeting in Ripon, Wisconsin on March 20, 1854, the traditional party founding. At that time it was not grand or old, and barely a party. The Democratic Party is certainly older, though its grandeur is in the eye of the beholder. It originated in the late 1820s after the end of the “Era of Good Feelings,” though some trace it back to the party caucus founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1792, known today as the Democratic-Republicans but at the time called only Republican.
The Democrats attracted the G.O.P. label before the Republicans had ever fielded a presidential candidate. On July 3, 1856 the abolitionist newspaper the Wellsborough, Pennsylvania Agitator, noted sarcastically, “If the grand old democratic party is only accommodating enough to dissolve the Union it will be a great relief to the free north, whose resources have always been expended to nourish and perfect slavery.” But it was also traditional at the time to use the term to refer to the venerable Whig Party, which had collapsed in the mid-1850s. In 1856 an anonymous former Whig party stalwart wrote, “In addressing the public under the appellative of an ‘Old Clay Whig,’ I have divested myself of my individuality, and have spoken in the name of that grand old party, which, under the lead of the noble [Henry] Clay, attained to greatness only to perish at his death, under the repeated blows of old Abolitionism, and modern Know-Nothingism.”
Democrats frequently used the expression “grand old party” during the Civil War. In December 1861 the Democratic-leaning Prairie Du Chien Wisconsin Courier proclaimed, “However we may differ with some as regards the present war and desire its vigorous prosecution… we know only the Democracy, and the grand old party that has ever battled under its banners for popular rights, and all the privileges allowed by the Constitution.” On February 24, 1863, Democratic Congressman John B. Steele of New York defended the party from charges of treason brought because its southern wing was the motive force behind the Confederacy. He said on the floor of Congress, “I am one of those men who have always belonged to that political organization called the Democratic party; that party, sir, which has a history, and was known, recognized, and respected all over the vast extent of this mighty Republic…. And when wicked and designing men conceived the nefarious purpose of dividing and destroying the Government of their fathers, these double traitors found it necessary, before making the attempt, to betray and strike down that grand old party.”
Clement Vallandingham, a leading anti-war Democratic Congressman from Ohio, frequently referred to his “grand old party.” In an August 2, 1862 address at Dayton, Ohio, he responded to critics who called him a traitor for his “Copperhead” beliefs. “If they mean that I am a Democrat,” he said, “devoted to the principles and policy, and faithful to the organization of that grand old party which made this country what it is, and am for the old Constitution and the old Union, then I am disloyal, and bless God for it.” In 1863 the congressman was arrested for “declaring sympathies for the enemy” and tried by a military tribunal, which became the subject of an important Supreme Court habeas corpus case, Ex Parte Vallandingham. He was deported to the Confederacy but made his way back to the United States via Canada in time to throw his support behind former Union commanding General George McClellan for the 1864 Democratic presidential nomination. On September 24, 1864 in Sydney Ohio Vallandingham said of McClellan, “Make him your President — the President of the Democratic Party— the grand old party that preserved this Union for three and seventy years.”
Other examples abound. In August, 1863 the Daily Milwaukee News reported on a state Democratic party convention, claiming that the “grand old democratic party has at last regained the high ground it never should have abandoned.” An article in the Placerville, California Mountain Democrat from 1867 about the state Democratic convention waxed about the “old soldiers who have gallantly fought the battles of the grand old party for many years, true and brave alike in victory or defeat.”
The Republicans did not begin to make their bid to take over the G.O.P. brand until the 1870s. The expression “gallant old party,” which was used to refer to the Republicans as early as 1873, stresses the role the party played in prosecuting the Civil War, and implies that the Democrats were something other than heroic. But Republicans used “grand old party” even earlier. In June, 1870 the Estherville Iowa Northern Vindicator declared, “the grand old party goes right along overcoming obstacles and winning victories, entirely oblivions that any such concern as a Democratic party has an existence.” Two months later the Freeport Illinois Journal used the term in a report on party struggles in the state: “Republicans cannot afford to be fighting one another. We ought to reserve our Strength for the common cause in which we are engaged, and rally like a band of-brothers around the grand old party of liberty that we all love.” Republic Magazine in 1873 referred to the Republicans in separate articles as “the grand old party,” “the grand old party of freedom,” and “the grand old party of human rights.”
The abbreviation G.O.P. arose as a matter of convenience. In 1931, T.B. Dowden took credit for the invention when he was a young typesetter for the Cincinnati Gazette in 1884. He was setting a front-page story that ended with the words “Grand Old Party” but he did not have enough room, so the final copy read, “The Hon. James G. Blaine will address the meeting on the ‘Achievements of the Gop.’”
But G.O.P. had come on the scene at least a few years earlier, referring to the Democrats. In 1882 the Memphis Avalanche reported on appeals by southern Democratic stump speakers to “stand by the grand old party,” and the paper reduced the expression to “g.o.p.” likewise to save type-space. Tennessee’s Republican Governor Alvin Hawkins, then running for reelection, tried to appropriate the abbreviation for his campaign, but the Avalanche advised that the Republicans should instead be the party of “g,m.i.—great moral ideas.” In the same year the American magazine noted that some Republicans “decline to rally to cries about the ‘Grand Old Party!’ because they know that the ‘G.O.P.’ cry is copyright with the Democrats, and that ‘P.M.P.,’ the ‘Party of Moral Principle,’ is the only genuine Republican brand.”
As the 19th Century waned the Democrats gradually gave up on their Grand Old Party trademark and in the 20th Century G.O.P. became solidly identified with the Republicans. Somehow P.M.P. and G.M.I. never quite caught on, and good thing too since those acronyms would have given modern-day detractors openings to slam the Republicans as “pimps” and “gimmies.”