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Radical Republicans


RADICAL REPUBLICANS. The Radical Republicans were a wing of the Republican Party organized around an uncompromising opposition to slavery before and during the Civil War and a vigorous campaign to secure rights for freed slaves during Reconstruction.

In the late 1840s, before the Republican Party was created, a small group of antislavery radicals in Congress (including Salmon Chase and Charles Sumner in the Senate and Joshua Giddings, George Julian, and Thaddeus Stevens in the House) formed an unofficial alliance. They were ostracized at first, but as the decade wore on and the Fugitive Slave Law (1850), the Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854), and the Dred Scott decision (1857) seemed to prove to many northerners that the South was in fact conspiring against farmers and workers, their political fortunes improved. Radicals had already staked out the position to which moderates increasingly felt driven.

When the Republican Party was organized in 1854, it attracted antislavery advocates from the Free Soil and Democratic Parties and those left politically homeless by the collapse of the Whig Party. Many former Whigs wanted to turn the party into a new platform for their conservative economic policies, but the Radicals, who had belonged to all three antecedent parties, were determined to structure Republicanism around opposition to slavery. They largely succeeded. When secession came in the winter of 1860–1861, the Radicals refused to pursue a compromise that might head off violent conflict. They agitated for vigorous prosecution of the war, emancipation, and the raising of black regiments. Though they considered President Abraham Lincoln too moderate for their tastes, he appointed Radicals Salmon Chase and Edwin Stanton to his cabinet. Moreover, Lincoln often followed their recommendations, firing a succession of generals and issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, though he did so according to his own timetable and in his own more compromising style.

During Reconstruction the Radicals urged the full extension of rights, and especially the franchise, to blacks. But President Andrew Johnson imposed an extremely mild plan for Reconstruction that did not guarantee legal equality for freed slaves, and a majority of Republicans supported him at first. The southern states, however, exploited the leniency by using strict black codes to reduce former slaves to virtual servitude. Republican moderates again felt driven to the position already occupied by the Radicals, and Congress overrode presidential vetoes of the Freedmen's Bureau and the Civil Rights Act of 1866, and passed the Fourteenth Amendment (guaranteeing equality before the law), thus beginning the period of Congressional, or Radical, Reconstruction.

After President Ulysses Grant took office, the Radicals gradually lost influence. Their zealous yet unsuccessful campaign to remove Johnson from office had cast them as fanatics, and by the end of the decade, they were struggling against a fairly pervasive antiblack backlash and their own sense that they had done much of what they had set out to do. The Democrats won a majority in the House in 1874, and Reconstruction was ended in 1877.

Radicals finally pushed through the Fifteenth Amendment (1869), granting black men the franchise, but it would be another century before former slaves in the South were able to vote freely. Reconstruction stalled, and the racial climate got steadily worse, but for a brief moment around 1870, America looked something like what the Radical Republicans had imagined in 1854.


Foner, Eric. Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party before the Civil War. New York: Oxford University Press, 1970.

———. Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863– 1877. New York: Harper and Row, 1988.

Trefousse, Hans L. The Radical Republicans: Lincoln's Vanguard for Racial Justice. New York: Knopf, 1968.


See alsoCivil War ; Reconstruction ; Republican Party .

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