Radical Republicans

The Radical Republicans were a faction of American politicians within the Republican Party of the United States from around 1854 (before the American Civil War) until the end of Reconstruction in 1877. They called themselves "Radicals", with a goal of immediate, complete, permanent eradication of slavery, without compromise. They were opposed during the War by the moderate Republicans (led by United States President Abraham Lincoln), and by the pro-slavery and anti-Reconstruction Democratic Party as well as liberals in the North during Reconstruction. Radicals led efforts after the war to establish civil rights for former slaves and fully implement emancipation. After weaker measures in 1866 resulted in violence against former slaves in the rebel states, Radicals pushed the Fourteenth Amendment and statutory protections through Congress. They disfavored allowing ex-Confederates officers to retake political power in the South, and emphasized equality, civil rights and voting rights for the "freedpeople", i.e. people who had been enslaved by state slavery laws within the United States.[1]

Radical Republicans
Leader(s)Senator John C. Frémont (Calif.)
Senator Charles Sumner (Mass.)
Representative Thaddeus Stevens (Pa.)
President Ulysses S. Grant (Ohio)
Founded1854 (1854)
Dissolved1877 (1877)
Merger ofEx-Free Soilers
Succeeded byStalwarts
National affiliationRepublican Party

During the war, Radical Republicans opposed Lincoln's initial selection of General George B. McClellan for top command of the major eastern Army of the Potomac and his efforts to bring seceded Southern states back into the Union as quickly and easily as possible. Lincoln later recognized McClellan's weakness and relieved him of command. The Radicals passed their own reconstruction plan through the Congress in 1864, but Lincoln vetoed it and was putting his own presidential policies in effect by virtue as military commander-in-chief when he was assassinated in April 1865.[2] Radicals pushed for the uncompensated abolition of slavery, while Lincoln wanted to pay slave owners who were loyal to the Union. After the war, the Radicals demanded civil rights for freed US slaves, including measures ensuring suffrage. They initiated the various Reconstruction Acts as well as the Fourteenth Amendment and limited political and voting rights for ex-Confederate civil officials and military officers. They keenly fought United States President Andrew Johnson, a former slave owner from Tennessee who favored allowing Southern states to decide the rights and status of former slaves. After Johnson vetoed various Congressional acts favoring civil rights for former slaves, they attempted to remove him from office through impeachment, which failed by one vote in 1868.

The Radical coalition

The Radicals were heavily influenced by religious ideals, and many were Christian reformers who saw slavery as evil and the Civil War as God's punishment for slavery.[3]:1ff. The term "radical" was in common use in the anti-slavery movement before the Civil War, referring not to abolitionists, but to Northern politicians strongly opposed to Slave Power.[4] Many and perhaps a majority had been Whigs, such as William Seward,[5] a leading presidential contender in 1860 and Lincoln's Secretary of State, Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania, as well as Horace Greeley, editor of the New-York Tribune, the leading Radical newspaper. There was movement in both directions: some of the pre-war Radicals (such as Seward) became less radical during the war, while some prewar moderates became Radicals. Some wartime Radicals had been Democrats before the war, often taking proslavery positions. They included John A. Logan of Illinois, Edwin Stanton of Ohio, Benjamin Butler of Massachusetts, Ulysses S. Grant of Illinois and Vice President Andrew Johnson (Johnson broke with the Radicals after he became President).

The Radicals came to majority power in the Congress in the elections of 1866 after several episodes of violence led many to conclude that President Johnson's weaker reconstruction policies were insufficient. These episodes included the New Orleans riot and the Memphis riots of 1866. In a pamphlet directed to black voters in 1867, the Union Republican Congressional Committee stated:

[T]he word Radical as applied to political parties and politicians ... means one who is in favor of going to the root of things; who is thoroughly in earnest; who desires that slavery should be abolished, that every disability connected therewith should be obliterated.[6]

The Radicals were never formally organized and there was movement in and out of the group. Their most successful and systematic leader was Pennsylvania Congressman Thaddeus Stevens in the House of Representatives. The Democrats were strongly opposed to the Radicals, but they were generally a weak minority in politics until they took control of the House in the 1874 congressional elections. The moderate and conservative Republican factions usually opposed the Radicals, but they were not well organized. Lincoln tried to build a multi-faction coalition, including radicals, conservatives, moderates and War Democrats as while he was often opposed by the Radicals, he never ostracized them. Andrew Johnson was thought to be a Radical when he became President in 1865, but he soon became their leading opponent. However, Johnson was so inept as a politician he was unable to form a cohesive support network. Finally in 1872, the Liberal Republicans, who wanted a return to classical republicanism,[7] ran a presidential campaign and won the support of the Democratic Party for their ticket. They argued that Grant and the Radicals were corrupt and had imposed Reconstruction far too long on the South. They were overwhelmingly defeated and collapsed as a movement.

On issues not concerned with the Slave Power, the destruction of the Confederacy, the eradication of slavery and the rights of the Freedmen, Radicals took positions all over the political map. For example, Radicals who had once been Whigs generally supported high tariffs and ex-Democrats generally opposed them. Some men were for hard money and no inflation while others were for soft money and inflation. The argument, common in the 1930s, that the Radicals were primarily motivated by a desire to selfishly promote Northeastern business interests, has seldom been argued by historians for a half-century.[8] On foreign policy issues, the Radicals and moderates generally did not take distinctive positions.[9]


After the 1860 elections, moderate Republicans dominated the Congress. Radical Republicans were often critical of Lincoln, who they believed was too slow in freeing slaves and supporting their legal equality. Lincoln put all factions in his cabinet, including Radicals like Salmon P. Chase (Secretary of the Treasury), whom he later appointed Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, James Speed (Attorney General) and Edwin M. Stanton (Secretary of War). Lincoln appointed many Radical Republicans, such as journalist James Shepherd Pike, to key diplomatic positions. Angry with Lincoln, in 1864 some Radicals briefly formed a political party called the Radical Democracy Party,[10] with John C. Frémont as their candidate for president, until Frémont withdrew. An important Republican opponent of the Radical Republicans was Henry Jarvis Raymond. Raymond was both editor of The New York Times and also a chairman of the Republican National Committee. In Congress, the most influential Radical Republicans were U.S. Senator Charles Sumner and U.S. Representative Thaddeus Stevens. They led the call for a war that would end slavery.[11]

Reconstruction policy

Opposing Lincoln

The Radical Republicans opposed Lincoln's terms for reuniting the United States during Reconstruction (1863), which they viewed as too lenient. They proposed an "ironclad oath" that would prevent anyone who supported the Confederacy from voting in Southern elections, but Lincoln blocked it and once Radicals passed the Wade–Davis Bill in 1864, Lincoln vetoed it. The Radicals demanded a more aggressive prosecution of the war, a faster end to slavery and total destruction of the Confederacy. After the war, the Radicals controlled the Joint Committee on Reconstruction.

Opposing Johnson

After the assassination of United States President Abraham Lincoln, Vice President Andrew Johnson became President. Although he appeared at first to be a Radical,[12] he broke with them and the Radicals and Johnson became embroiled in a bitter struggle. Johnson proved a poor politician and his allies lost heavily in the 1866 elections in the North. The Radicals now had full control of Congress and could override Johnson's vetoes.

Control of Congress

After the 1866 elections, the Radicals generally controlled Congress. Johnson vetoed 21 bills passed by Congress during his term, but the Radicals overrode 15 of them, including the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and four Reconstruction Acts, which rewrote the election laws for the South and allowed blacks to vote while prohibiting former Confederate Army officers from holding office. As a result of the 1867–1868 elections, the newly empowered freedmen, in coalition with carpetbaggers (Northerners who had recently moved south) and Scalawags (white Southerners who supported Reconstruction), set up Republican governments in 10 Southern states (all but Virginia).


The Radical plan was to remove Johnson from office, but the first effort at the impeachment trial of United States President Andrew Johnson went nowhere. After Johnson violated the Tenure of Office Act by dismissing Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, the House of Representatives voted to impeach him, but he escaped removal from office by the Senate by a single vote in 1868, though he had lost most of his power.[13]

Supporting Grant

General Ulysses S. Grant in 1865–1868 was in charge of the Army under President Johnson, but Grant generally enforced the Radical agenda. The leading Radicals in Congress were Thaddeus Stevens in the House and Charles Sumner in the Senate. Grant was elected as a Republican in 1868 and after the election he generally sided with the Radicals on Reconstruction policies and signed the Civil Rights Act of 1871 into law.[14]

The Republicans split in 1872 over Grant's reelection, with the Liberal Republicans, including Sumner, opposing Grant with a new third party. The Liberals lost badly, but the economy then went into a depression in 1873 and in 1874 the Democrats swept back into power and ended the reign of the Radicals.[15]

The Radicals tried to protect the new coalition, but one by one the Southern states voted the Republicans out of power until in 1876 only three were left (Louisiana, Florida and South Carolina), where the Army still protected them. The 1876 presidential election was so close that it was decided in those three states despite massive fraud and illegalities on both sides. The Compromise of 1877 called for the election of a Republican as President and his withdrawal of the troops. Republican Rutherford B. Hayes withdrew the troops and the Republican state regimes immediately collapsed.[16]

Reconstruction of the South

During Reconstruction, Radical Republicans increasingly took control, led by Sumner and Stevens. They demanded harsher measures in the South, more protection for the Freedmen and more guarantees that the Confederate nationalism was totally eliminated. Following Lincoln's assassination in 1865, Andrew Johnson, a former War Democrat, became President.

The Radicals at first admired Johnson's hard-line talk. When they discovered his ambivalence on key issues by his veto of Civil Rights Act of 1866, they overrode his veto. This was the first time that Congress had overridden a President on an important bill. The Civil Rights Act of 1866 made African Americans United States citizens, forbade discrimination against them and it was to be enforced in Federal courts. The 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution of 1868 (with its Equal Protection Clause) was the work of a coalition formed of both moderate and Radical Republicans.[11]

By 1866, the Radical Republicans supported federal civil rights for freedmen, which Johnson opposed. By 1867, they defined terms for suffrage for freed slaves and limited early suffrage for many ex-Confederates. While Johnson opposed the Radical Republicans on some issues, the decisive Congressional elections of 1866 gave the Radicals enough votes to enact their legislation over Johnson's vetoes. Through elections in the South, ex-Confederate officeholders were gradually replaced with a coalition of freedmen, Southern whites (pejoratively called scalawags) and Northerners who had resettled in the South (pejoratively called carpetbaggers). The Radical Republicans were successful in their efforts to impeach United States President Andrew Johnson in the House, but failed by one vote in the Senate to remove him from office.[11]

The Radicals were opposed by former slaveowners and white supremacists in the rebel states. Radicals were targeted by the Ku Klux Klan, who shot to death one Radical Congressman from Arkansas, James M. Hinds.

The Radical Republicans led the Reconstruction of the South. All Republican factions supported Ulysses Grant for President in 1868. Once in office, Grant forced Sumner out of the party and used Federal power to try to break up the Ku Klux Klan organization. However, insurgents and community riots continued harassment and violence against African Americans and their allies into the early 20th century. By the 1872 presidential election, the Liberal Republicans thought that Reconstruction had succeeded and should end. Many moderates joined their cause as well as Radical Republican leader Charles Sumner. They nominated New-York Tribune editor Horace Greeley, who was also nominated by the Democrats. Grant was easily reelected.[17]

The end of Reconstruction

The so-called "Liberal Republicans" (more conservative than the Radicals), along with Democrats, argued in 1872 that the Radical Republicans were corrupt and accepted bribes (notably since 1869, during the Grant administration). These opponents of the Radicals demanded amnesty for all ex-Confederates, thus restoring their right to vote and hold public office. Foner's history of Reconstruction pointed out that sometimes the financial chicanery was as much a question of extortion as bribes. By 1872, the Radicals were increasingly splintered and in the Congressional elections of 1874, the Democrats took control of Congress. Many former Radicals joined the "Stalwart" faction of the Republican Party while many opponents joined the "Half-Breeds", who differed primarily on matters of patronage rather than policy.[18]

In state after state in the South, the so-called Redeemers' movement seized control from the Republicans until in 1876 only three Republican states were left: South Carolina, Florida, and Louisiana. In the intensely disputed 1876 United States presidential election, Republican presidential candidate Rutherford B. Hayes won through the Compromise of 1877 (a corrupt bargain): he obtained the electoral votes of those states, and with them the presidency, by committing himself to removing federal troops from those states. Deprived of military support, Reconstruction came to an end. "Redeemers" took over in these states as well. As white Democrats now dominated all Southern state legislatures, the period of Jim Crow laws began, and rights were progressively taken away from blacks.


In the aftermath of the Civil War and Reconstruction, new battles took place over the construction of memory and the meaning of historical events. The earliest historians to study Reconstruction and the Radical Republican participation in it were members of the Dunning School, led by William Archibald Dunning and John W. Burgess.[19] The Dunning School, based at Columbia University in the early 20th century, saw the Radicals as motivated by an irrational hatred of the Confederacy and a lust for power at the expense of national reconciliation.[19] According to Dunning School historians, the Radical Republicans reversed the gains Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson had made in reintegrating the South, established corrupt shadow governments made up of Northern carpetbaggers and Southern scalawags in the former Confederate states, and to increase their power, foisted political rights on the newly-freed slaves that they were allegedly unprepared for or incapable of utilizing.[20] For the Dunning School, the Radical Republicans made Reconstruction a dark age that only ended when Southern whites rose up and reestablished a "home rule" free of Northern, Republican, and black influence.[21]

In the 1930s, the Dunning-oriented approaches were rejected by self-styled "revisionist" historians, led by Howard K. Beale along with W.E.B. DuBois, William B. Hesseltine, C. Vann Woodward and T. Harry Williams.[22] They downplayed corruption and stressed that Northern Democrats were also corrupt. Beale and Woodward were leaders in promoting racial equality and they reevaluated the era in terms of regional economic conflict.[23] They were also hostile towards the Radicals, casting them as economic opportunists. They argued that apart from a few idealists, most Radicals were scarcely interested in the fate of the blacks or the South as a whole. Rather, the main goal of the Radicals was to protect and promote Northern capitalism. which was threatened in Congress by the West; if the Democrats took control of the South and joined the West, they thought, the Northeastern business interests would suffer. They did not trust anyone from the South except men beholden to them by bribes and railroad deals. For example, Beale argued that the Radicals in Congress put Southern states under Republican control to get their votes in Congress for high protective tariffs.[24][25]

The role of Radical Republicans in creating public school systems, charitable institutions, and other social infrastructure in the South was downplayed by the Dunning School of historians. Since the 1950s, the impact of the moral crusade of the Civil Rights Movement led historians to reevaluate the role of Radical Republicans during Reconstruction, and their reputation improved.[26] These historians, sometimes referred to as neoabolitionist because they reflected and admired the values of the abolitionists of the 19th century, argued that the Radical Republicans' advancement of civil rights and suffrage for African Americans following emancipation was more significant than the financial corruption which took place. They also pointed to the African Americans' central, active roles in reaching toward education (both individually and by creating public school systems) and their desire to acquire land as a means of self-support.[27]

Historians have long puzzled over why most Republicans—even extreme abolitionists—gradually lost interest in the fate of the freedmen after 1868. In 2004, Richardson argued that Northern Republicans came to see most blacks as potentially dangerous to the economy because they might prove to be labor radicals in the tradition of the 1871 Paris Commune or Great Railroad Strike of 1877 and other violent American strikes of the 1870s. Meanwhile, it became clear to Northerners that the white South was not bent on revenge or the restoration of the Confederacy. Most of the Republicans who felt this way became opponents of Grant and entered the Liberal Republican camp in 1872.[28]

Notable Radical Republicans


  1. Trefousse, Hans (1991). Historical Dictionary of Reconstruction. pp. 175–76.
  2. William C. Harris, With Charity for All: Lincoln and the Restoration of the Union (1997), pp. 123–70.
  3. Victor B. Howard (13 January 2015). Religion and the Radical Republican Movement, 1860-1870. University Press of Kentucky. ISBN 978-0-8131-6144-0.
  4. Trefousse (1969), p. 20.
  5. Trefousse (1969), p. 6.
  6. Pamphlet bound into Shelby Moore Cullom (1867). Speech of Hon. Shelby M. Cullom, of Illinois, on Reconstruction: Delivered in the House of Representatives, January 28, 1867. pp. 1–2.
  7. Andrew L. Slap (3 May 2010). The Doom of Reconstruction: The Liberal Republicans in the Civil War Era. Fordham Univ Press. pp. 21–. ISBN 978-0-8232-2711-2.
  8. Stanley Coben (June 1959). "Northeastern Business and Radical Reconstruction: A Re-examination". Mississippi Valley Historical Review. 46 (1): 67–90. doi:10.2307/1892388. JSTOR 1892388.
  9. Trefousse (1969), pp. 21–32.
  10. "1864: Lincoln v. McCVlellan". HarpWeek: Explore History. Retrieved 2010-05-31.
  11. Trefousse, Thaddeus Stevens: Nineteenth-Century Egalitarian (2001)
  12. Senator Chandler, a Radical leader, said the new president was "as radical as I am"; Blackburn (1969), p. 113; also McKitrick, Andrew Johnson and Reconstruction (1961) p. 60.
  13. Michael Les Benedict, The Impeachment and Trial of Andrew Johnson (1999)
  14. Brooks D. Simpson, The Reconstruction Presidents ch. 5, 6 (2009)
  15. Trefousse (1969)
  16. Scroggs (1958)
  17. Hesseltine, Ulysses S. Grant: Politician (1935)
  18. John G. Sproat, "'Old Ideals' and 'New Realities' in the Gilded Age," Reviews in American History, Vol. 1, No. 4 (Dec., 1973), pp. 565–70
  19. Foner, p. xi.
  20. Foner, pp. xi–xii.
  21. Foner, p. xii.
  22. Howard K. Beale (1940). "On Rewriting Reconstruction History". American Historical Review. 35 (4): 807–827. JSTOR 1854452.
  23. T. Harry Williams (1946). "An Analysis of Some Reconstruction Attitudes". Journal of Southern History. 12 (4): 469–486. JSTOR 2197687.
  24. Howard K. Beale (1930). "The Tariff and Reconstruction". The American Historical Review. 35 (2): 276–294. doi:10.2307/1837439. JSTOR 1837439.
  25. LaWanda Cox, "From Emancipation to Segregation" in John B. Boles and Evelyn Thomas Nolan, eds. Interpreting Southern History (1987), pp. 199–253
  26. Cox, "From Emancipation to Segregation" (1987), p. 199
  27. Hugh Tulloch, The Debate on the American Civil War Era. (1999); Thomas C. Holt, "Reconstruction in United States History Textbooks." Journal of American History 1995 81(4): 1641–51.
  28. Heather Cox Richardson, The Death of Reconstruction: Race, Labor, and Politics in the Post-Civil War North, 1865–1901 (2004)
  29. Trefousse (1969), p. 13.
  30. Trefousse (1969), p. 15.
  31. Philip B. Lyons (24 October 2014). Statesmanship and Reconstruction: Moderate versus Radical Republicans on Restoring the Union after the Civil War. Lexington Books. pp. 289–. ISBN 978-0-7391-8508-7.
  32. Trefousse (2014), p. xvii.
  33. Trefousse (1969), p. 7.
  34. Trefousse (2014), p. xv.
  35. Trefousse (1969), pp. 14–15.
  36. Melanie Gustafson (15 October 2001). Women and the Republican Party, 1854-1924. University of Illinois Press. pp. 31–. ISBN 978-0-252-02688-1.
  37. Trefousse (1969), p. 11.
  38. Grant was perceived by Radicals as either a Radical himself or sympathetic to their aims. Jean Edward Smith (2001). Grant. p. 444. ISBN 978-0-684-84926-3.
  39. Trefousse (1969), p. 14.
  40. Trefousse (2014), p. xvi.
  41. Trefousse (2014), p. xviii.
  42. Trefousse (1969), p. 12.
  43. Trefousse (1969), pp. 13–14.
  44. Trefousse (1969), pp. 12–13.
  45. Hans L. Trefousse (29 October 2014). The Radical Republicans. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. pp. 13–. ISBN 978-0-8041-5392-8.
  46. Albion W. Tourgée (10 April 2009). Bricks Without Straw: A Novel. Duke University Press. pp. 453–. ISBN 978-0-8223-9234-7.
  47. Trefousse (1969), pp. 10–11.
  48. Trefousse (1969), pp. 7–8.
  49. Reavis, L. U. (February 7, 1881). The Life and Public Services of Richard Yates, the War Governor of Illinois: A Lecture Delivered in the Hall of the House of Representatives, Springfield, Illinois, Tuesday Evening, March 1st, 1881. J.H. Chambers & Company. p. 30 via Google Books.

References and further reading

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Primary sources


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