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Radical Republicans
Civil War Encyclopedia >> Politics

Radical Republicans

In the 1850's and before, the abolition movement had a variety of believers generally divided into two categories, gradual and immediate, although this greatly understates the many varieties of abolition that existed. For example, within the believers of immediate abolition, some felt slaves should be paid for by the federal government and freed, in order to protect citizen's Fourth Amendment rights. Others believed that slavery was morally wrong (even if it wasn't legally wrong) and that abolition should be without renumeration.

When the Republican Party formed in 1854 many abolitionists, gradual and immediate, joined in hopes that they could work within a political structure to change the United States. Both Freesoilers and the Liberty Party were almost all abolitionists while the Northern Whigs, which made up the largest single group of the Republican Party were interested in correcting a wide range of problems they saw within the structure of America. Two groups of Democrats also joined the Republicans, remnants of the Barnburners and pro-abolition Democrats.

Charles Sumner and Thaddeus Stevens were the leaders of the Radical Republicans from the 1850's until the end of Reconstruction, and represented the two majority factions of the new Republican Party. Sumner was an anti-slavery Democrat while Stevens was a Northern Whig who was also anti-slavery. Radical Republicans in the Senate formed around Senator Sumner while those in the House looked to Stevens for leadership.

The first use of the term Radical Republicans in reference to the Sumner-Stevens faction appears in 1857, although at that time the first word was not capitalized. It was not until the start of Reconstruction, when the members of the group became well-defined, that it became common to capitalize the first word.

Just as the South had its fire-eaters, the North had outspoken abolition advocates and they were lumped into the early Radical Republican group. While opinions on other subjects varied widely, when it came to slavery they were united as immediate abolitionists and eschewed reimbursement for the loss to Southern slaveholders. Among this group were Benjamin Wade, a Massachusetts zealot most noted for his combative adherence to abolition and Henry Davis, a "Know-Nothing" who joined the Republican Party after Lincoln's victory in The Election of 1860.

In order to empower themselves during The Civil War, Radical Republicans in the Senate created the Select Committee on the Conduct of the War. House Radicals quickly realized what a good idea this was and decided to make it the Joint Select Committee on the Conduct of the War, commonly called the Committee on the Conduct of the War. While this committee was mostly a nuisance to Lincoln and his Generals, it did exert a good deal of power, especially in the Eastern Theater. When Ulysses S. Grant became General-in-Chief he originally intended to stay in the West, but when he witnessed the political climate in Washington D. C., Grant realized he needed to be in the East, in part due to the Committee.

Following the War the Radical Republicans again formed a Joint Select Committee called the Committee on the Condition of Affairs in the Late Insurrectionary States. This committee was never as powerful or fearful as the Conduct of the War committee and can be used to illustrate the waning power of the Radicals.

Following the death of Abraham Lincoln the Radicals were pitted against Conservative Democrat Andrew Johnson and normally could count on the Republican majority to vote with them. Frequently, however, the Radical Republicans had to tone down their rhetoric to gain a consensus. Other times, such as during the Impeachment of Andrew Johnson, the Radical Republicans could not keep all Republicans on their side; Seven voted against impeaching the sitting President.

In 1868, Ulysses S. Grant selected Radical Republican Schuyler Colfax as his Vice-President to ensure their support. During Grant's term, however, Reconstruction was ending and slavery was no a longer a subject to unite men on a common theme. During Grant's term the Radical Republicans tried to turn their attention towards the plight of industrialized labor conditions, but this was not yet the flashpoint issue like slavery. By the end of Grant's Administration the Radical Republican control had ended and the Republicans were divided into two groups, Stalwarts and Half-Breeds.

Among the more famous Radicals were Salmon P. Chase, Benjamin Butler, James Lane, Samuel Clarke Pomeroy, George S. Boutwell, John Covode, James Shepherd Pike, Edward H. Hobson, Henry Wilson, Zachariah Chandler, Andrew Jackson Hamilton, James Speed, and John C. Fremont, although the abandonment of Fremont by the Radicals during the Election of 1864 ended any association.

The term eventually gave rise to the term "radical Democrat." In The Old Guard, April, 1865, the term was defined: "A radical Democrat is more or less a Lincolnized Democrat. The nearer he approximates to the extreme theory of the right of the federal servant to wage war upon its sovereign masters, the States, the more radical he is. The more he is like Lincoln, Sumner, Wade, Seward, and all that cabal of war-begetting and war-supporting vagabonds." Neither Lincoln or Steward are generally considered to be Radical Republicans.

In addition to freeing the slaves, some commonality among Radical Republicans did exist on issues such as:

Freeman's Bureau
Ratification of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments
Senate approval of state constitutions before readmission
Impeachment of Roger Taney
Removal of Postmaster General Montgomery Blair
Impeachment of Andrew Johnson

Others who were sometimes considered Radical Republicans:
Horace Greeley: Considered a Radical Republican during the war he was less likely to be lumped in this group after the war and almost never following his guarantee of bail for Jefferson Davis. He disassociated himself with the Radical movement in 1872 when he ran for President under a liberal Republican/Democrat banner.
William Seward: Frequently lumped into the Radical Republican group because of his early anti-slavery views, by the time he joined the Republican Party in 1855 his views had moderated and almost no modern historians consider him to be a member of this group. Seward actually offered his resignation to Lincoln after an 1864 meeting between Lincoln and the Radical Republicans.

Outspoken critics of the Radical Republican movement:

James Alcorn: Post-war Mississippi Republican
Montgomery Blair: One of the most outspoken critics of the Radical Republicans, a vitriolic 1863 speech probably led to his ouster from the Cabinet in 1864 by Lincoln in exchange for Radical Republican support for Lincoln in the Election of 1864
Alvan Cullem Gillem:
Wade Hampton: Confederate Civil War general and post-war Senator
Andrew Johnson:
Millard Fillmore:
Henry Jarvis Raymond:

Links appearing on this page:

Abraham Lincoln
Benjamin Butler
Committee on the Conduct of the War
Election of 1864
Jefferson Davis
John C. Fremont
Salmon P. Chase
The Election of 1860
Ulysses S. Grant
Washington D. C.
William Seward

Civil War Encyclopedia >> Politics

Radical Republicans was last changed on - November 24, 2007
Radical Republicans was added on - November 23, 2007

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