Radical Republicans

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.

Radical Republicans in Government

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.

Andrew Johnson

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.

Impeachment and the Radicals

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.

Ku Klux Klan

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.

Primary Sources

(1) James Garfield, letter to Burke A. Hinsdale (15th January, 1861)

I do not now see any way this side a miracle of God which can avoid a civil war with all its attendant horrors. Peaceable dissolution is utterly impossible. Indeed, I cannot say as I would wish it possible. To make the concessions demanded by the South would be hypocritical and sinful. They would neither be obeyed nor respected. I am inclined to believe that the sin of slavery is one of which it may be said that "without the shedding of blood there is no remission. I believe the doom of slavery is drawing near - let war come - and the slaves will get a vague notion that it is waged for them.

(2) The conservative New York Herald published an article about the Radical Republications during the early part of the American Civil War (23rd July, 1861)

Who are they? They belong to that fanatical abolitionist clique who are labouring to divert this war from its legitimate objective into an exterminating crusade against Southern slavery.

(3) Zachariah Chandler, letter to Henry W. Lord (27th October, 1861)

Lincoln means well but has no force of character. He is surrounded by Old Fogy Army officers more than half of whom are downright traitors and the other one half sympathize with the South. One month ago I began to doubt whether this accursed rebellion could be put down with a Revolution in the present Administration.

(4) George Julian, speech in the Senate on the American Civil War (14th January, 1862)

This rebellion is a bloody and frightful demonstration of the fact that slavery and freedom cannot dwell together in peace. Why is it, that in the great centres of slavery treason is rampant, while, as we recede into regions in which the slaves are few and scattered, as in Western Virginia, Delaware, and other border States, we find the people loyally disposed toward the Union?

I know it was not the purpose of this administration, at first, to abolish slavery, but only to save the Union, and maintain the old order of things. Neither was it the purpose of our fathers, in the beginning of the Revolution, to insist on independence. The policy of emancipation has been born of the circumstances of the rebellion, which every hour more and more plead for it. I believe the popular demand now is, or soon will be, the total extirpation of slavery as the righteous purpose of the war, and the only means of a lasting peace.

When General Fremont proclaimed freedom to the slaves of rebels in Missouri, it was greeted with almost universal joy throughout the free States. The popular instinct at once recognized it as a blow struck at the heart of the rebellion. The order that rebels should be shot did not carry with it half the significance of this proclamation of freedom of their slaves. But the President at once modified it, so far as its anti-slavery features went beyond the Confiscation Act. Their slave property must be held as more sacred than any other property; more sacred than their lives; more sacred even than the life of the Republic. Could any policy be more utterly suicidal?

(5) Benjamin Wade, speech in the Senate (21st April, 1862)

If there is any stain on the present Administration, it is that they have been weak enough to deal too leniently with those traitors. I know it sprung from goodness of heart; it sprung from the best of motives; but, sir, as a method of putting down this rebellion, mercy to traitors is cruelty to loyal men. Look into the seceded States, and see thousands of loyal men there coerced into their armies to run the hazard of their lives, and placed in the damnable position of perjured traitors by force of arms.

(6) In his autobiography published in 1907 General Oliver Howard commented on the way that Abraham Lincoln treated General George McClellan during the early months of 1862.

Mr. Lincoln evidently had begun to distrust McClellan. There was growing opposition to him everywhere for political reasons. Think of the antislavery views of Stanton and Chase; of the growing antislavery sentiments of the congressional committee on the conduct of war; think of the number of generals like Fremont, Butler, Banks, Hunter, and others in everyday correspondence with the Cabinet, whose convictions were already strong that the slaves should be set free; think, too, of the Republican press constantly becoming more and more of the same opinion and the masses of the people really leading the press. McClellan's friends in the army had often offended the Northern press. In his name radical antislavery correspondents had been expelled from the army.

(7) Reverend George F. Noyes, was a supporter of the Radical Republicans and on 4th July, 1862, preached a sermon to the Union Army based at Fredericksburg, Virginia.

When a man puts a knife at my throat, and I succeed in conquering and hand-cuffing him, shall I be so foolish as at once to restore him to his former position, knife and all? Let every man's own common sense answer this question. The idea with some even at the North is, that the South is to be acknowledged as an equal nation if triumphant, while, if she is subdued after the great and fearful struggle, she is at once to be invited into a front seat, and at once admitted to all her old privileges.

(8) Charles Drake, speech in Jefferson City (1st September, 1863)

We are loyal Union men without any qualifications or conditions, and are not afraid to declare that we are, Radicals. That is, we are for going to the root of the infamous rebellion which has distracted our land for more than two years, and are for destroying that as well as the rebellion. The root is the institution of Slavery. From it the rebellion sprung, by it has been sustained, in it lives, and with it will die. And until that root is pulled up and destroyed, there is no hope of permanent peace in our country. Therefore I am for pulling it up, every fiber of it.

(9) Frederick Douglass, speech at the Antislavery Society in Philadelphia during the American Civil War (4th December, 1863)

I am one of those who believe that it is the mission of this war to free every slave in the United States. I am one of those who believe that we should consent to no peace which shall not be an Abolition peace. I am, moreover, one of those who believe that the work of the American Antislavery Society will not have been completed until the black man of the South, and the black men of the North, shall have been admitted, fully and completely, into the body politic of America. I look upon slavery as going the way of all the earth. It is the mission of the war to put it down.

I know it will be said that I ask you to make the black man a voter in the South. It is said that the coloured man is ignorant, and therefore he shall not vote. In saying this, you lay down a rule for the black man that you apply to no other class of your citizens. If he knows enough to be hanged, he knows enough to vote. If he knows an honest man from a thief, he knows much more than some of our white voters. If he knows enough to take up arms in defence of this Government and bare his breast to the storm of rebel artillery, he knows enough to vote.

All I ask, however, in regard to the blacks, is that whatever rule you adopt, whether of intelligence or wealth, as the condition of voting for whites, you shall apply it equally to the black man. Do that, and I am satisfied, and eternal justice is satisfied; liberty, fraternity, equality, are satisfied, and the country will move on harmoniously.

(10) Benjamin Wade, speech (9th January, 1865)

The radical men are the men of principal; they are the men who feel what they contend for. They are not your slippery politicians who can jigger this way or that, or construe a thing any way to suit the present occasion. They are the men who go deeply down for principle, and having fixed their eyes upon a great principle connected with the liberty of mankind or the welfare of the people, are not to be detached by any of your higgling.

Do you suppose we are now to back down and to permit you to make a dishonorable proslavery peace after all the bloodshed and all the sacrifice of life and property? It cannot be. Such revolutions never go backwards, and if God is just, and I think he is, we shall ultimately triumph. If, however, the President does believe as they say, and dare take the position they would ascribe to him, it is so much the worse for the President. The people of the United States are greater than the President. The mandate they have sent forth for the death and execution of this monster, slavery, will be persisted in. The monster must die, and die he shall.

(11) Benjamin Loan, letter to Charles Sumner (1st June, 1865)

Shall we acquiesce in the policy of the administration or shall we adhere to our former views that Congress alone is authorized to deal with the subject of reconstruction and that our safety and the peace of the country requires us to disenfranchise the rebels and to enfranchise the colored citizens in the revolted states and thereby confide the political power therein to local and therefore safe hands.

(12) Andrew Johnson, letter to William Sharkey, the governor of Mississippi (June, 1865)

If you could extend the elective franchise to all persons of color who can read the Constitution of the United States in English and write their names and to all persons of color who own real estate valued at not less than two hundred and fifty dollars and pay taxes thereon, and would completely disarm the adversary. This you can do with perfect safety. And as a consequence, the radicals, who are wild upon negro franchise, will be completely foiled in their attempts to keep the Southern States from renewing their relations to the Union.

(13) Jacob Howard, letter to a friend on African American civil rights (26th July, 1865)

I am weak enough to prefer my friends though back to my enemies though white. It is not to be denied that we have few friends in the rebel states but the blacks. If their former masters don't like to vote with them let them emigrate. The country would be better for it.

(14) Thaddeus Stevens, speech in Congress (3rd January, 1867)

Since the surrender of the armies of the confederate States of America a little has been done toward establishing this Government upon the true principles of liberty and justice; and but a little if we stop here. We have broken the material shackles of four million slaves. We have unchained them from the stake so as to allow them locomotion, provided they do not walk in paths which are trod by white men. We have allowed them the privilege of attending church, if they can do so without offending the sight of their former masters. We have imposed on them the privilege of fighting our battles, of dying in defense of freedom, and of bearing their equal portion of taxes; but where have we given them the privilege of ever participating in the formation of the laws for the government of their native land?

What is Negro equality, about which so much is said by knaves and some of which is believed by men who are not fools? It means, as understood by honest Republicans, just this much, and no more: every man, no matter what his race or colour; every earthly being who has an immortal soul, has an equal right to justice, honesty, and fair play with every other man; and the law should secure him those rights. The same law which condemns or acquits an African should condemn or acquit a white man.

(15) J. L. Alcorn, letter to Elihu Washburne (29th June, 1868)

Can it be possible that the Northern people have made the Negro free, but to be returned, the slave of society, to bear in such slavery the vindictive resentments that the satraps of Davis maintain today towards the people of the north? Better a thousand times for the Negro that the government should return him to the custody of the original owner, where he would have a master to look after his well being, than that his neck should be placed under the heel of a society, vindictive towards him because he is free.

(16) Henry Wilson, reaction to a comment made by Garrett Davis in Congress (1868)

He (Garrett Davis) that the struggle of the last eight years to give freedom to four and a half millions of men who were held in slavery, to make them citizens of the United States, to clothe them with the right of suffrage has cost the party with which I act a quarter of a million votes.

(17) Lydia Maria Child, letter to The Independent (19th August, 1869)

How is it that the Republican press is so lukewarm to support the Radicals? The radicals are the soul of the Republican Party. The ideas which they represent brought that party into existence; and it was the vitality thence derived which brought it out alive through the Rebellion.

(18) Benjamin Wade, letter to the Uriah Painter of the New York Times (1876)

You know with what untiring zeal I labored for the emancipation of the slaves of the South and to procure justice for them before and during the time I was in Congress, and I supposed Governor Hayes was in full accord with me on this subject. But I have been deceived, betrayed, and even humiliated by the course he has taken to a degree that I have not language to express. I feel that to have emancipated those people and then to leave them unprotected would be a crime as infamous as to have reduced them to slavery when they were free.