What are the Radical Republicans?

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  • Written By: Jason C. Chavis
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 04 October 2019
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During the period in United States history known as the Civil War and Reconstruction, a political faction called the Radical Republicans claimed a wing of the Republican Party. From roughly 1854 to 1877, the Radical Republicans were essential in helping promote the ending of slavery and giving former slaves the right to vote. They were strongly opposed to the actions of the Democratic Party and President Abraham Lincoln's moderate section of the Republicans.

The United States Congress was taken over by a Republican majority with the election of 1860. With major political power, the Radical Republicans were able to leverage their faction to help drive the Union's movement for freeing the slaves. While Lincoln appointed many of them to key positions in his cabinet and diplomatic offices, a large swath of the wing was nonetheless opposed to the delay in emancipation. In particular, US Senator Charles Sumner led the faction and helped bring about the conflict that divided the nation.


In 1864, the divide between the more moderate and extreme Republicans grew with the presidential election. Many in the party formed their own candidacy under the banner of the Radical Democracy movement, putting John C. Fremont up for election. This faction imploded almost immediately and Lincoln repositioned himself with support from Andrew Johnson as his vice presidential candidate. The Radical Republicans further attempted to usurp the authority of the President on this issue, however, with the passage of the Wade-Davis Bill in both houses of Congress. This was intended to make it harder for the Confederate states to rejoin the Union, although it was vetoed by Lincoln.

With Lincoln's assassination, Johnson became President. Despite his association with the Radical Republicans, he quickly positioned himself as a moderate. Although Johnson attempted to stand up to the extreme wing of his party, he was nearly ousted by a Senate impeachment hearing in 1868. During this time, the radical elements of the Republicans took control of Congress and essentially turned Johnson into a lame duck leader amongst American politicians.

Before the collapse of the Radical Republicans in the 1870s, they were indispensable in the passage of many provisions that gave African-Americans the right to vote in the South. They also were successful in helping get Ulysses S. Grant elected to the presidency. He eventually signed the Civil Rights Act of 1871 that gave African-Americans protection against the Ku Klux Klan, among other provisions. Eventually, the faction split over the reelection of Grant and by 1874, the Democrats regained control of Congress.


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Post 3

@ceilingcat - The Republican party of today stands for the same principles that it always has: limited government, free markets, and individual liberties. In my opinion, there is nothing radical about that.

You even have Democrats who share similar values - pro-life and “blue dog” Democrats. Unfortunately, these factions of the Democratic party have been reduced to near oblivion as the far left has pushed for greater control of the Democratic party.

Survey after survey has shown that most Americans align themselves as more conservative than liberal, by a two to one margin. Therefore, in my opinion, it’s the far left that is out of step with the mainstream, not the Republicans.

As to your wish that Republican radicals were back again, consider that it was the Republicans who supported the Civil Rights Act of 1964, ensuring its passage, in greater measure than the Democrats did.

Post 2

@ceilingcat - There is a big difference between the "Radical" Republicans today and the ones during the Civil War.

One thing I find interesting is that one of their main goals was to be harsh on the former Confederacy. They wanted to make sure that there was no "confederate spirit" left, so to speak.

Well, I don't think it worked! People in the South still fly Confederate flags and say stuff like "the South will rise again!"

Post 1

Wow. It's amazing what a different 150 or so years can make. Back after the Civil War, Radical Republicans did the right thing and fought for African-Americans to have more rights.

Now, "Radical Republican" means something so much different. Now, the far rights crusades against allowing some of our citizens to marry and tries to infringe on our reproductive freedoms.

Am I the only one that wishes they would bring back the Civil War-era Radical Republicans?

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