Here’s a good rule of thumb for studying the history of American political parties: Forget what you know about the present. A century ago, Republicans were likely to be the country’s big-government progressives, its advocates of civil rights and social reform. Democrats were often small-government conservatives, especially in the one-party stronghold of the Solid South. The electoral map looked radically different, with a swath of blue below the Mason-Dixon line and a block of red in the Northeast. Just about the only things that have stayed the same are the party names: Democrat vs. Republican, locked in eternal electoral combat.
In “To Make Men Free,” Boston College historian Heather Cox Richardson sets out to tell half of the story about how we got from there to here. “The journey,” she notes dryly, “has not been straightforward.”