The Republican Party formed in the 1850s, a time of heated political debates throughout the country. Slavery in particular provoked passionate clashes of opinion, especially in light of the rapid westward expansion of the country. The particularly vocal and determined Republicans who were devoted to ending slavery came to be called the Radical Republicans.
Most Republicans were Northerners who supported the abolition of slavery. Before the American Civil War (1861–65) broke out in 1861, the Radical Republicans were determined to prevent the spread of slavery into new territories. When the Republican presidential candidate, Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865; served 1861–65), won the 1860 election, the Southern states moved to secede, or break away, from the Union. (See Secession .) The Radical Republicans, committed to the principle of freedom, did little to avert a war. They hoped to turn any conflict into a fight to abolish slavery.
In April 1861, just weeks after Lincoln took office, the Civil War broke out. Several Southern states seceded and withdrew their representatives from the federal government. As a result, the Radical Republicans gained the majority in both houses of Congress. Working it to their advantage, they pressed Lincoln to strongly discipline the South for its rebellious acts. They encouraged the confiscation of property, the raising of black troops, and creation of the state of West Virginia from rebellious Virginia . They also pushed to make the abolition of slavery a war goal.
Their aggressive stance toward the Southern states often brought the Radical Republicans into conflict with Lincoln. Under their influence, however, Lincoln set forth the Emancipation Proclamation to free the slaves in rebelling states. As a result, the Civil War became a moral war against slavery.
Tensions between Lincoln and the Radical Republicans heightened as the North moved closer to victory over the South and territories in the Confederate States of America fell under federal control. They disagreed sharply on the specific requirements for reintegrating Confederate states into the Union. The Radicals wanted to punish the Southern states, and they considered Lincoln's Reconstruction plans too generous. Lincoln, however, was assassinated only days after the Confederate surrender.
Andrew Johnson (1808–1875; served 1865–69) became president upon Lincoln's death. At first, the Radical Republicans viewed this as a welcome change. Expecting Johnson's approach to Reconstruction to be more in line with their views, the Radicals were immediately disappointed. His plan for Reconstruction was even more lenient than Lincoln's.
The Radicals in Congress moved to take charge and to redefine the process of Reconstruction. Johnson struggled throughout his presidency to assert some control but was generally unsuccessful. Political tension between Congress and the White House culminated in an attempt to impeach Johnson. Although he narrowly avoided impeachment, by the end of his term he was nearly powerless.
Throughout the period of Reconstruction, the Radical Republicans created several important pieces of legislation. The Reconstruction Acts made the right to vote available to all men, including blacks. This law evolved into the Fifteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution . The Radicals also passed legislation for the equal treatment of freedmen and the protection of blacks, which led to adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment .
The Radical Republicans were never a separate organization. They were politicians and activists within the larger party who were united in a common cause to rid the nation of slavery. Their power and influence slowly faded through Reconstruction, which ended in 1877. Without a uniting cause, the Radical Republicans then melted into other political forces.