Some members of the Republican Party were not only in favour the abolition of slavery but believed that freed slaves should have complete equality with white citizens. They also opposed the Fugitive Slave Act and the Kansas-Nebraska Act. This group became known as Radical Republicans. Members included Thaddeus Stevens, Charles Sumner, Joshua Giddings, Benjamin Wade, William D. Kelley, Owen Lovejoy, Henry Winter Davis, George W. Julian, John P. Hale, Benjamin Butler, Joseph Medill, Horace Greeley, Oliver Morton,John Logan, James F. Wilson, Timothy Howe, George H. Williams, Elihu Washburne, Schuyler Colfax, Zachariah Chandler, James Ashley, George Boutwell, John Covode, James Garfield, Hannibal Hamlin, James Harlan, John Andrew, Lyman Trumbull, Benjamin Loan, Wendell Phillips, Frederick Douglass, Charles Drake and Henry Wilson.
After the 1860 elections the Radical Republicans became a powerful force in Congress. Several were elected as chairman of important committees. This included Thaddeus Stevens (Ways and Means), Owen Lovejoy (Agriculture), James Ashley (Territories), Henry Winter Davis (Foreign Relations), George W. Julian (Public Lands), Elihu Washburne (Commerce) and Henry Wilson (Judiciary)..
Radical Republicans were critical of Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War, when he was slow to support the recruitment of black soldiers into the Union Army. Radical Republicans also clashed with Lincoln over his treatment of Major General John C. Fremont. On 30th August, 1861, Fremont, the commander of the Union Army in St. Louis, proclaimed that all slaves owned by Confederates in Missouri were free. Lincoln was furious when he heard the news as he feared that this action would force slave-owners in border states to join the Confederate Army. Lincoln asked Fremont to modify his order and free only slaves owned by Missourians actively working for the South.
When John C. Fremont refused, he was sacked and replaced by the conservative General Henry Halleck. The Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, William Fessenden, described Lincoln's actions as "a weak and unjustifiable concession in the Union men of the border states. Whereas Charles Sumner wrote to Lincoln complaining about his actions and remarked how sad it was "to have the power of a god and not use it godlike".
The situation was repeated in May, 1862, when General David Hunter began enlisting black soldiers in the occupied district under his control. Soon afterwards Hunter issued a statement that all slaves owned by Confederates in his area (Georgia, Florida and South Carolina) were free. Lincoln was furious and despite the pleas of Salmon Chase, the Secretary of the Treasury, the instructed him to disband the 1st South Carolina (African Descent) regiment and to retract his proclamation.
In the early stages of the American Civil War Lincoln only had one senior member of his government, Salmon Chase (Secretary of the Treasury), who was sympathetic to the views of the Radical Republicans. Later in the war other radicals such as Edwin M. Stanton (Secretary of War), William Fessenden (Secretary of the Treasury and James Speed (Attorney General) were recruited into his Cabinet.
Radical Republicans were also critical of Lincoln's Reconstruction Plan. In 1862 Benjamin Wade and Henry Winter Davis, sponsored a bill that provided for the administration of the affairs of southern states by provisional governors until the end of the war. They argued that civil government should only be re-established when half of the male white citizens took an oath of loyalty to the Union. The Wade-Davis Bill was passed on 2nd July, 1864, but Abraham Lincoln refused to sign it.
Despite their insistence that the white power structure in the South should be removed, most Radical Republications argued that the defeated forces should be treated leniently. Even while the American Civil War was going on Charles Sumner argued that: "A humane and civilized people cannot suddenly become inhumane and uncivilized. We cannot be cruel, or barbarous, or savage, because the Rebels we now meet in warfare are cruel, barbarous and savage. We cannot imitate the detested example."
After the war Horace Greeley advocated universal amnesty and actually put up the bail for his long-term enemy, Jefferson Davis. Lyman Trumbull and Hannibal Hamlin campaigned for better treatment of those Confederate leaders still in prison and James F. Wilson took up the case of the former vice-president, Alexander Stephens.
Radical Republicans were strongly opposed the policies of President Andrew Johnson and argued in Congress that Southern plantations should be taken from their owners and divided among the former slaves. They also attacked Johnson when he attempted to veto the extension of the Freeman's Bureau, the Civil Rights Bill and the Reconstruction Acts. However, the Radical Republicans were able to get the Reconstruction Acts passed in 1867 and 1868. Despite these acts, white control over Southern state governments was gradually restored when organizations such as the Ku Kux Klan were able to frighten blacks from voting in elections.
In November, 1867, the Judiciary Committee voted 5-4 that Andrew Johnson be impeached for high crimes and misdemeanors. The majority report contained a series of charges including pardoning traitors, profiting from the illegal disposal of railroads in Tennessee, defying Congress, denying the right to reconstruct the South and attempts to prevent the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment.
On 30th March, 1868, Johnson's impeachment trial began. Johnson was the first and only president of the United States to be impeached. The trial, held in the Senate in March, was presided over by Chief Justice Salmon Chase. The Radical Republicans played a leading role in the trial. Thaddeus Stevens was mortally ill, but he was determined to take part in the proceedings and was carried to the Senate in a chair.
Charles Sumner, another long-time opponent of Johnson led the attack. He argued that: "This is one of the last great battles with slavery. Driven from the legislative chambers, driven from the field of war, this monstrous power has found a refuge in the executive mansion, where, in utter disregard of the Constitution and laws, it seeks to exercise its ancient, far-reaching sway. All this is very plain. Nobody can question it. Andrew Johnson is the impersonation of the tyrannical slave power. In him it lives again. He is the lineal successor of John C. Calhoun and Jefferson Davis; and he gathers about him the same supporters."
Although a large number of senators believed that Johnson was guilty of the charges, they disliked the idea of Benjamin Wade becoming the next president. Wade, who believed in women's suffrage and trade union rights, was considered by many members of the Republican Party as being an extreme radical. James Garfield warned that Wade was "a man of violent passions, extreme opinions and narrow views who was surrounded by the worst and most violent elements in the Republican Party."
Others Republicans such as James Grimes argued that Johnson had less than a year left in office and that they were willing to vote against impeachment if Johnson was willing to provide some guarantees that he would not continue to interfere with Reconstruction.
When the vote was taken all members of the Democratic Party voted against impeachment. So also did those Republicans such as Lyman Trumbull, William Fessenden and James Grimes, who disliked the idea of Benjamin Wade becoming president. The result was 35 to 19, one vote short of the required two-thirds majority for conviction. A further vote on 26th May, also failed to get the necessary majority needed to impeach Johnson. The Radical Republicans were angry that not all the Republican Party voted for a conviction and Benjamin Butler claimed that Johnson had bribed two of the senators who switched their votes at the last moment.
The Radical Republicans campaign for equal rights for African Americans was not a popular cause after the American Civil War. In 1868 Henry Wilson argued that the issue cost the Republican Party over a quarter of a million votes in 1868. In the election that year several of the radicals lost their seats including the long-term leader of the group, Benjamin Wade.
When Ulysses S. Grant was elected the only Radical Republicans in his administration was Schuyler Colfax, his vice-president, George Boutwell (Secretary of the Treasury) and John Creswell (Postmaster General). Later, he found posts for George H. Williams (Attorney General) and Zachariah Chandler (Secretary of the Interior).
After the American Civil War a group of former soldiers from the Confederate Army founded the Ku Klux Klan. The first Grand Wizard was Nathan Forrest, an outstanding general during the war. During the next two years Klansmen wearing masks, white cardboard hats and draped in white sheets, tortured and killed black Americans and sympathetic whites. Immigrants, who they blamed for the election of Radical Republicans, were also targets of their hatred.
Radical Republicans in Congress urged President Ulysses S. Grant to take action against the Ku Klux Klan. After a campaign led by Oliver Morton and Benjamin Butler, Grant agreed in 1870 to instigated an investigation into the organization and the following year a Grand Jury reported that: "There has existed since 1868, in many counties of the state, an organization known as the Ku Klux Klan, or Invisible Empire of the South, which embraces in its membership a large proportion of the white population of every profession and class. The Klan has a constitution and bylaws, which provides, among other things, that each member shall furnish himself with a pistol, a Ku Klux gown and a signal instrument. The operations of the Klan are executed in the night and are invariably directed against members of the Republican Party. The Klan is inflicting summary vengeance on the colored citizens of these citizens by breaking into their houses at the dead of night, dragging them from their beds, torturing them in the most inhuman manner, and in many instances murdering."
Congress passed the Ku Klux Act and became law on 20th April, 1871. This gave the president the power to intervene in troubled states with the authority to suspend the writ of habeas corpus in countries where disturbances occurred. The passing of this legislation was the last substantial victory for the Radical Republicans in Congress.
In the 1870s several Radical Republicans, including Benjamin Wade, William D. Kelley, George W. Julian, Benjamin Butler, Henry Wilson and John Covode campaigned for the eight hour day and improved conditions for working people. However, they were now fairly isolated and were unable to persuade Congress to pass legislation to protect the emerging trade union movement.