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The Radical Republicans were a loose faction of American politicians within the Republican Party from about 1854 (before the American Civil War) until the end of Reconstruction in 1877.

During the war, Radical Republicans pushed for the abolition of slavery, and after the war supported equal rights for freedmen (the newly freed slaves), such as measures ensuring the right to vote. They also supported passage of the Reconstruction Acts, and reduced rights for ex-Confederate officers. The Radicals were vigorously opposed by the Democratic Party and sometimes by more moderate, and liberal Republicans as well.[1]

The Radical Republicans opposed President Abraham Lincoln's terms for reuniting the United States during Reconstruction, which began in 1863, which they viewed as too lenient. They proposed an "ironclad oath" (which Lincoln blocked) and the Wade-Davis Bill (which Lincoln vetoed) in 1864. However the Radicals did control the Joint Committee on Reconstruction, where they demanded a more aggressive prosecution of the war, the faster end to slavery and total destruction of the Confederacy.[2]

After the assassination of Lincoln, Vice President Andrew Johnson became president. Although he appeared at first to be a Radical,[3] he broke with them, and the Radicals and Johnson became embroiled in a bitter struggle. After Johnson violated the Tenure of Office Act by dismissing Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, the House of Representatives voted to impeach him; he escaped removal from office by the Senate by a single vote in 1868, but had lost most of his power. Ulysses S. Grant had been appointed Secretary of War "ad-interim" but returned the office after Stanton had been reinstated by 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 Reconstruction Acts and Force Acts, which rewrote the election laws for the South and allowed blacks to vote, while prohibiting most leading whites from holding office, if they had supported the Confederacy. As a result of 1867-68 elections, the newly empowered freedmen, in coalition with carpetbaggers (newcomers to the South) and Scalawags (white Southerners), set up Republican governments in 10 Southern states (all but Virginia). They were supported by the Radicals in Washington who sent in the Army to support the new state governments.

General Ulysses S. Grant in 1865-68 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; after the election he generally sided with the Radicals on Reconstruction policies (signing the Civil Rights Act of 1871 into law). The Republicans split in 1872 over Grant's reelection, with the "Liberal Republicans" opposing Grant with a new third party. The Liberals lost badly, but the economy went into a depression in 1873 and in 1874 the Democrats swept back into power.[1]

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 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 and he withdrew the troops; the Republican state regimes immediately collapsed.[4].


File:Henry Jarvis Raymond.jpg

Henry Jarvis Raymond.

After the 1860 elections, moderate Republicans dominated the Congress. Radical Republicans were often critical of Lincoln, whom 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[5] 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.[6]


File:Stevens thadee.jpg

U.S. Rep.
Thaddeus Stevens


U.S. Senator
Charles Sumner.

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 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 and forbade discrimination against them. 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.[6]

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 (called Scalawags), and northerners who had resettled in the South, (called Carpetbaggers). The Radical Republicans impeached Andrew Johnson in the House but failed by one vote in the Senate to remove him from office.[6]

File:Grant's last outrage in Louisiana .jpg

Grant's last outrage in Louisiana
in Frank Leslie's illustrated newspaper. With nation tired of Reconstruction, Grant remained the lone President protecting African American civil rights.
January 23, 1875

The Radical Republicans led the Reconstruction of the South. All Republican factions supported Ulysses S. Grant for president in 1868. Once in office, Grant forced Sumner out of the party. Grant used Federal power to try to break up the Ku Klux Klan organization. Insurgents, however, and community riots continued harassment and violence against African Americans and their allies into the early 20th century. By 1872 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 lost as Grant was easily reelected.[7]

In state after state in the south, the Redeemers movement seized control from the Republicans, until only three Republican states were left in 1876: South Carolina, Florida and Louisiana. Rutherford B. Hayes was a moderate Republican. When he became president after the Compromise of 1877, he ordered the removal of federal troops and Redeemers took over.

Liberal Republicans (in 1872) and Democrats argued the Radical Republicans were corrupt by the acts of accepting bribes (notably during the Grant Administration). These opponents of the Radicals demanded amnesty for all ex-Confederates, 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; in the Congressional elections of 1874 the anti-Radical Democrats took control of Congress. Many former radicals joined the "Stalwart" faction of the GOP, while many opponents joined the "Half-Breeds", but they differed primarily on patronage rather than policy.[8]


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.[9] The Dunning School, based at Columbia University in the early 20th century, saw the Radicals as motivated by a lust for power at the expense of national reconciliation and an irrational hatred of the Confederacy.[9] 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 support base, foisted political rights on the freed slaves that they were unprepared or incapable of utilizing.[10] 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.[11] Despite efforts by some historians such as W. E. B. Du Bois to provide the perspective of the freedmen, the Dunning School's negative view of Reconstruction and opposition to voting rights for African Americans was influential in textbooks for years.[12] In the 1930s, attempts by leftist historians to reevaluate the era in an economic light emphasizing class conflict. They were also hostile towards the Radicals, casting them as economic opportunists who sought to dominate the South by thrusting northern capitalism upon it.[13]

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, as well as the "Black Power" movement, led historians to reevaluate the role of Radical Republicans during Reconstruction. Their reputation improved.[14] 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.[15]

Historians have long puzzled over why most Republicans--even fire-eating abolitionists--gradually lost interest in the fate of the Freedmen after 1868. Richardson (2004) argues 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 1870 Paris Commune, or the labor radicals of the violent American strikes in 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[16].

Leading Radical Republicans[]

  • John C. Frémont: the 1864 U.S. presidential candidate of the Radical Republicans.
  • John Bingham: U.S. Representative from Ohio and principal framer of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.
  • William Gannaway Brownlow: publisher of the Knoxville Whig; Tennessee Governor; U.S. Senator
  • Benjamin Butler: Massachusetts politician-soldier; hated by rebels for restoring control in New Orleans.
  • Zachariah Chandler: U.S. Senator from Michigan and Secretary of the Interior under Ulysses S. Grant.
  • Salmon P. Chase: U.S. Treasury Secretary under President Lincoln; Supreme Court chief justice; sought 1868 Democratic nomination as moderate.
  • Henry Winter Davis: U.S. Representative from Maryland.
  • James A. Garfield: U.S. House of Representatives leader; less radical than others; U.S. President 1881.
  • Hannibal Hamlin: Maine politician; Vice President during Lincoln's first term.
  • William D. Kelley: U.S. Representative from Pennsylvania.
  • James H. Lane: U.S. Senator from Kansas, leader of the Jayhawkers abolitionist movement.
  • Thaddeus Stevens: Radical leader in the U.S. House of Representatives from Pennsylvania.
  • Charles Sumner: U.S. Senator from Massachusetts; dominant Radical leader in Senate; specialist in foreign affairs; broke with Grant in 1872
  • Benjamin Wade: U.S. Senator from Ohio; he was next in line to become President if Johnson was removed
  • Henry Wilson: Massachusetts leader; Vice President under Grant
  • Ulysses S. Grant: President of the United States, signed Enforcement Acts and Civil Rights Act of 1875; General of the Army of the United States, supported Radical Reconstruction and civil rights for African Americans.

See also[]


  1. 1.0 1.1 Trefousse (1969)
  2. Williams (1941)
  3. 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.
  4. Scroggs (1958)
  5. "HarpWeek: Explore History". Retrieved 2010-05-31. 
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 Trefousse, Thaddeus Stevens: Nineteenth-Century Egalitarian (2001)
  7. Hesseltine, Ulysses S. Grant: Politician (1935)
  8. John G. Sproat, "'Old Ideals' and 'New Realities' in the Gilded Age," Reviews in American History, Vol. 1, No. 4 (Dec., 1973), pp. 565-570
  9. 9.0 9.1 Foner, p. xi.
  10. Foner, pp. xi–xii.
  11. Foner, p. xii.
  12. Kenneth Potts, "W. E. B. Du Bois' Achievement as Historian: a Review Essay." History Teacher 1994 28(1): 13-30.
  13. Explicitly Marxist historians included Du Bois, Black Reconstruction (1935), and James S. Allen, The Battle for Democracy (1937). Also on the left (and influenced by Charles Beard were Horace Mann Bond, Howard Beale, Paul Lewinson, William B. Hesseltine, Roger W. Shugg, and C. Vann Woodward. LaWanda Cox, "From Emancipation to Segregation" in John B. Boles and Evelyn Thomas Nolan, eds. Interpreting Southern History (1987), 199-253; Peter Novick, That Noble Dream (1988) pp 233-4
  14. Cox, "From Emancipation to Segregation" (1987), p. 199
  15. 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): 1641-1651..
  16. Heather Cox Richardson, The Death of Reconstruction: Race, Labor, and Politics in the Post-Civil War North, 1865-1901 (2004)

References and further reading[]

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) online edition
  • Belz, Herman. A New Birth of Freedom: The Republican Party and Freedman's Rights, 1861-1866 (2000)
  • Benedict, Michael Les. The Impeachment and Trial of Andrew Johnson (1999)
  • Blackburn, George M. "Radical Republican Motivation: A Case History," The Journal of Negro History, Vol. 54, No. 2 (Apr., 1969), pp. 109-126 in JSTOR, re: Michigan Senator Zachariah Chandler
  • Castel, Albert E. The Presidency of Andrew Johnson (1979)
  • Donald, David. Charles Sumner and the Rights of Man (1970) Major critical analysis.
  • Donald, David. Lincoln (1996).
  • Goodwin, Doris Kearns. Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (2005).
  • Foner, Eric. Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 (2002), major synthesis; Bancroft Prize, Parkman Prize, Avery O. Craven Prize and Trilling Prize.
    • Foner, Eric. A Short History of Reconstruction (1990). ISBN 0-06-096431-6. abridged version
  • 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
  • McFeeley, William S. Grant: A Biography (1981). Pulitzer Prize.
  • McKitrick, Eric L. Andrew Johnson and Reconstruction (1961).
  • Milton, George Fort; The Age of Hate: Andrew Johnson and the Radicals (1930).
  • Nevins, Allan. Hamilton Fish: The Inner History of the Grant Administration (1936) Pulitzer Prize.
  • Randall, James G. Lincoln the President: Last Full Measure (1955).
  • 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) highhy detailed political narrative.
  • Richardson, Heather Cox. West from Appomattox: The Reconstruction of America after the Civil War (2007) excerpt and text search
  • Richardson, Heather Cox. The Death of Reconstruction: Race, Labor, and Politics in the Post-Civil War North, 1865-1901 (2004) excerpt and text search
  • Riddleberger, Patrick W. "The Break in the Radical Ranks: Liberals vs Stalwarts in the Election of 1872," The Journal of Negro History, Vol. 44, No. 2 (Apr., 1959), pp. 136-157 in JSTOR
  • Ross, Earle Dudley. The Liberal Republican Movement (1910) full text online
  • Scroggs, Jack B. "Southern Reconstruction: A Radical View," The Journal of Southern History, Vol. 24, No. 4 (Nov., 1958), pp. 407-429 in JSTOR
  • Stampp, Kenneth M. The Era of Reconstruction, 1865-1877 (1967).
  • Simpson, Brooks D. Let Us Have Peace: Ulysses S. Grant and the Politics of War and Reconstruction, 1861-1868 (1991).
  • Simpson, Brooks D. The Reconstruction Presidents (1998).
  • Summers, Mark Wahlgren.The Press Gang: Newspapers and Politics, 1865-1878 (1994)
  • Trefousse, Hans. The Radical Republicans (1969).
  • Trefousse, Hans L. Thaddeus Stevens: Nineteenth-Century Egalitarian (2001)].
  • Williams, T. Harry. Lincoln and the Radicals (1941).
  • Zuczek, Richard. Encyclopedia of the Reconstruction Era (2 vol 2006)

Primary sources[]

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