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The Radical Republicans were a faction of American politicians within the Republican Party from about 1854 (before the American Civil War) until the end of Reconstruction in 1877. They called themselves "radicals" and were opposed during the war by moderates and conservative factions led by Abraham Lincoln and after the war by self-styled "conservatives" (in the South) and "liberals" (in the North). Radicals strongly opposed slavery during the war and after the war distrusted ex-Confederates, demanding harsh policies for the former rebels, and emphasizing civil rights and voting rights for freedmen (recently freed slaves).
During the war, Radical Republicans often opposed Lincoln in terms of selection of generals (especially his choice of Democrat George B. McClellan for top command) and his efforts to bring states back into the Union. The Radicals passed their own reconstruction plan through Congress in 1864, but Lincoln vetoed it and was putting his own policies in effect when he was assassinated in 1865. 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 freedmen, such as measures ensuring suffrage. They initiated the Reconstruction Acts, and limited political and voting rights for ex-Confederates. They bitterly fought President Andrew Johnson; they weakened his powers and attempted to remove him from office through impeachment (they were one vote short). The Radicals were vigorously opposed by the Democratic Party and often by moderate and Liberal Republicans as well.
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 the Slave Power. Many, perhaps a majority, had been Whigs, such as William Seward, a leading presidential contender in 1860 and Lincoln's Secretary of State, Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania, and 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 more conservative during the war, while some prewar moderates became Radicals. Some wartime radicals had been conservative 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 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; 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. Johnson, however, was so inept as a politician he was unable to form a cohesive support network. Finally in 1872, the Liberal Republicans, most of them ex-radicals, 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, and 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. On foreign policy issues, the Radicals and moderates generally did not take distinctive positions.
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 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.
The Radical Republicans opposed 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" that would prevent anyone who supported the Confederacy from voting in Southern elections; Lincoln blocked it. 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.
After the assassination of Lincoln, Vice President Andrew Johnson became president. Although he appeared at first to be a Radical, 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.
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 (Northerners who had recently moved south) and Scalawags (white Southerners who supported Reconstruction), 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.
The Radical plan was to remove Johnson from office, but the first effort at impeachment 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; he escaped removal from office by the Senate by a single vote in 1868, but had lost most of his power.
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 and signed the Civil Rights Act of 1871 into law.
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.
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 withdrew the troops; the Republican state regimes immediately collapsed.
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.
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.
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.
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. Republican Presidential candidate Rutherford B. Hayes announced that he favored restoring "home rule" in these states, provided they promised to respect the rights of the freedmen. When Hayes became president in 1877 he ordered the removal of federal troops and Redeemers took over in these states as well.
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.
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. 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. 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. 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.
In the 1930s, Dunning approaches were rejected by self-styled "revisionist" historians led by Howard K. Beale along with William B. Hesseltine, C. Vann Woodward, and T. Harry Williams. They downplayed corruption and stressed that Northern Democrats were also corrupt. Beale and Woodward were leaders in promoting racial equality. They reevaluated the era in terms of regional economic conflict. 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, the Northeastern business interests would suffer. They did not trust anyone from the South except men beholden to them by bribes and railroad deals. Beale, for example, argued that the Radicals in Congress put Southern states under Republican control to get their votes in Congress for high protective tariffs.
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. 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.
Historians have long puzzled over why most Republicans—even extreme 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.