The Harvard Republican Club, the oldest college Republican club in the nation, was established in 1888 to counter the recently formed Harvard Tariff Reform Association. Espousing the free trade rhetoric of Democratic presidential candidate Grover Cleveland, the tariff reform association projected the deceptive impression that free traders dominated Harvard. This misleading image piqued Republicans, who retained a plurality of support among Harvard students. To proclaim Harvard’s true political disposition, 817 students formed the Harvard Republican Club. The members, who included 3 Harvard Law Review editors, the managing editor of the Harvard Crimson, the president of the Harvard Art Club, and the treasurer of the Hasty Pudding, characterized themselves as “faithful students, with a special interest in economic and historic subjects.” They resolved to constitute a “formidable phalanx” and warned their free trade adversaries to “gird yourselves with the strongest armor that your stronghold afford you!”
From the outset, the Harvard Republican Club received the backing of prominent figures in the Republican establishment. Theodore Roosevelt, Class of 1880, lauded the club for “keeping Harvard where she belongs.” Congressman Henry Cabot Lodge, Senator George Hoar, and Governors George Robinson and John Long publicly avowed their support of the Harvard Republican Club at its first general meeting. The meeting, held on November 2, 1888 at the Tremont Temple in Boston, was declared by the Boston newspapers to be one of the largest political gatherings in Massachusetts history, with over 4,500 people in attendance.
The club maintained a conspicuous public presence. It celebrated the election of Benjamin Harrison to the presidency in 1888 by donning caps and gowns and proceeding through Harvard Square. When the club repeated this ritual in 1900 on behalf of William McKinley and his vice president, Theodore Roosevelt, one participant was Theodore Roosevelt’s distant cousin and Harvard Republican Club member, Franklin Roosevelt.
Refashioned as the Harvard Young Republican Club and dubbed the “West Point of Republican Politics” by 1948 president William Rusher, later publisher of the National Review, the club carried on its mission to communicate that “There are some Republicans at Harvard.” This objective became all the more imperative when John Kennedy’s election to the presidency and his appointment of numerous Harvard graduates to cabinet posts buttressed the image of a liberal university. To challenge the depiction of Harvard as a Democratic stronghold, 1962 club president Peter Wallison led a delegation of members to Washington, where they spoke at a press conference hosted by GOP Senator Kenneth Keating.
The fateful 1964 primary struggle between Nelson Rockefeller and Barry Goldwater engendered a fierce divide in the club. As both camps tapped supporters, membership swelled to a record 400. Though the club splintered into two separate groups, the Harvard Republican Club and the Harvard Radcliffe Republican Association, in the 1980s, it reunited in 1998 and now boasts a membership of over 800.
– Keith MacLeod, HRC Historian (’03-’04)
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