Radical Republican

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The Radical Republicans comprised a powerful faction of American politicians in the Republican party during the American Civil War and Reconstruction eras, 1860-1877. They took a hard line against the Confederacy during the war and opposed Lincoln's "too easy" terms for reuniting the nation. By 1866 they supported federal civil rights for freedmen, and by 1867 set terms that allowed free slaves the right to vote in the South but not ex-Confederates. They fought with moderate Republicans, at first president Abraham Lincoln, and then in a fight to impeachment, his successor Andrew Johnson. Using as a base the Joint Committee on Reconstruction the Radicals demanded a more aggressive prosecution of the war and the faster destruction of slavery and Confederate nationalism. Lincoln generally outmaneuvered them, and they at first welcomed Johnson, who they thought was a radical.

But Johnson soon opposed them and the decisive Congressional elections of 1866 gave the radicals enough votes to enact their legislation over Johnson's vetoes. They replaced ex-Confederates with a Republican coalition of Freedmen, Carpetbaggers and Scalawags. They impeached Andrew Johnson in the House but failed by one vote to remove him from office.

During the war and the first part of Reconstruction, the leading Radicals were Thaddeus Stevens in the House and Charles Sumner in the Senate. After his election as president in 1868 Ulysses Grant became the leading Radical.

From the 1890s to the 1940s Radicals were denounced by historians of the Dunning School for being corrupt and violating the principles of democratic self government. In recent years they have been in favor among Neoabolitionist historians because of their work on behalf of Freedmen.


After the 1860 elections, moderate Republicans dominated the Congress. Radical Republicans were often critical of Lincoln, whom they felt was too slow in freeing slaves and supporting their 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 Radicals to key diplomatic positions, such as journalist James Shepherd Pike. An important Republican opponent of the Radicals was Henry Jarvis Raymond, editor of the New York Times and chairman of the Republican National Committee. In Congress the most influential Radicals during the war and Reconstruction were Senator Charles Sumner and Congressman Thaddeus Stevens, who died in 1868. They led the call for a total war, one that would destroy the economic base of the rebellion by freeing the slaves. slaves were bad to have.


During Reconstruction, Radical Republicans increasingly took control, led by Sumner and Stevens. They demanded harsher measures in the South, and more protection for the Freedmen, and more guarantees that the Confederate nationalism was totally eliminated. Following Lincoln's assassination in April, 1865, Andrew Johnson, a former War Democrat, became President. The Radicals at first admired his hard line talk, but soon discovered his lenience toward the South when Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1866 over Johnson's veto — the first time that Congress had overridden a President on an important bill.

The Civil Rights Act of 1866 made African Americans American citizens and forbade discrimination against them, with enforcement in federal courts. The 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution of 1868, (with its equal protection clause) was the work of a coalition of moderate and Radical Republicans. The Radical Republicans led the Reconstruction of the South and the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson. All Republican factions supported Ulysses S. Grant for president in 1868. In office he became the leader of the Radicals, and forced Sumner out of the party. Grant used federal power to shut down the Ku Klux Klan. By 1872 the Liberal Republicans thought that Reconstruction had succeeded and should end. Many moderates joined their cause as well as Radical leader Charles Sumner. They lost as Grant was easily reelected. In state after state in the south, the Redeemers movement seized control from the Republicans, until only three were left in 1876, South Carolina, Florida and Louisiana. Rutherford B. Hayes was a moderate Republican and when he became president after the Compromise of 1877, he removed federal troops and Redeemers took over. Liberal Republicans (in 1872) and Democrats argued the Radical Republicans were corrupt, in two senses: they accepted bribes (notably in the Grant Administration), and they violated the republican principle of government by the consent of the governed. Even supporters agree much of their motivation was political (creating a constituency beholden to the Republicans). Their goals (of civil rights and equal treatment for African-Americans following emancipation) were hailed by neoabolitionist historians who came of age in the 1960s and after, who charged that racism itself was the worst form of corruption and violation of republicanism.

Leading Radical Republicans


Secondary sources

  • Belz, Herman. Abraham Lincoln, Constitutionalism and Equal Rights in the Civil War Era Fordham University Press, 1998 online edition
  • Belz, Herman. Emancipation and Equal Rights: Politics and Constitutionalism in the Civil War Era (1978), pro-moderate. online edition
  • Belz, Herman. A New Birth of Freedom: The Republican Party and Freedman's Rights, 1861-1866 (2000) pro-moderate. [http://www.amazon.com/New-Birth-Freedom-Republican-Reconstructing/dp/0823220117/ref=sr_1_1/103-4827826-5463040?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1194842778&sr=1-1 excerpt and text search
  • Benedict, Michael Les. The Impeachment and Trial of Andrew Johnson (1999), pro-Radical. excerpt and text search
  • Castel, Albert E. The Presidency of Andrew Johnson (1979), balanced. excerpt and text search
  • Currie, David P., “The Civil War Congress,” University of Chicago Law Review, 73 (Fall 2006), 1131–1225.
  • Donald, David. Charles Sumner and the Rights of Man (1970) Major critical analysis. balanced perspective;
  • Donald, David. Lincoln (1996); important scholarly biography; pro-moderate. excerpt and text search
  • Epps, Garrett. Democracy Reborn: The Fourteenth Amendment and the Fight for Equal Rights in Post-Civil War America (2007)excerpt and text search
  • Goodwin, Doris Kearns. Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (2005), pro-moderate.
  • Foner, Eric. Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 (2002), major synthesis; takes Neoabolitionist viewpoint excerpt and text search
  • Harris, William C. With Charity for All: Lincoln and the Restoration of the Union (1997) Lincoln as moderate and opponent of Radicals.
  • Hesseltine; William B. Ulysses S. Grant: Politician (1935), postwar years. online edition
  • McFeely, William S. Grant: A Biography (1981). Pulitzer prize; pro-Radical and hostile to Grant. complete edition online
  • McKitrick, Eric L. Andrew Johnson and Reconstruction (1961); says Johnson was incompetent. excerpt and text search
  • Milton, George Fort; The Age of Hate: Andrew Johnson and the Radicals (1930), anti-Radical online edition
  • Nevins, Allan. Hamilton Fish: The Inner History of the Grant Administration (1936) Pulitzer Prize online edition vol 1; online edition vol 2
  • Randall, James G. Lincoln the President: Last Full Measure (1955) pro-moderate. excerpt and text search
  • Rhodes, James Ford. History of the United States from the Compromise of 1850 to the McKinley-Bryan Campaign of 1896. Volume 6 and 7 (1920) Pulitzer Prize
  • Stampp, Kenneth M. The Era of Reconstruction, 1865-1877 (1967); pro-Radical Neoabolitionist overview.
  • Simpson, Brooks D. Let Us Have Peace: Ulysses S. Grant and the Politics of War and Reconstruction, 1861-1868 (1991). excerpt and text search
  • Simpson, Brooks D. The Reconstruction Presidents (1998) excerpt and text search
  • Summers, Mark Wahlgren.The Press Gang: Newspapers and Politics, 1865-1878 (1994)
  • Trefousse, Hans. The Radical Republicans (1969) pro-Radical
  • Trefousse, Hans L. Thaddeus Stevens: Nineteenth-Century Egalitarian (2001)]. Standard biography excerpt and text search

online edition

  • Williams, T. Harry. Lincoln and the Radicals (1941) anti-Radical

Primary sources