Radical Republicans were members of the Republican Party in the era of the American Civil War and Reconstruction. They took the lead in demanding the abolition of slavery and worked to ensure that Freedmen (freed slaves) would have complete equality with white citizens. In addition, they believed that punitive measures should be taken against the Southern States for seceding from the Union. The Radicals demanded, and sometimes got, more vigorous prosecution of the war against the Confederacy and a quicker end to slavery. They often opposed Abraham Lincoln, the leader of the moderate Republicans. The Radicals vehemently opposed President Andrew Johnson. They were reluctant to readmit the white South to full status during Reconstruction, and concentrated on giving civil rights, and the right to vote, to Freedmen (freed slaves). After Reconstruction collapsed in 1877 the remaining Radicals formed the "Stalwart" faction of the Republican Party. On economic issues, most were conservative and business-oriented.
The main leaders were Representative Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania and Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts. Another prominent figure was Sen. Zachariah Chandler of Michigan. Other Radical Republicans included and William H. Seward of New York and John C. Fremont of California.
They were not a political party, but more of a faction in the states, and an informal grouping among the Republicans in Congress. They began their rise to prominence in 1854, and after the election of 1860, they became a true force to be reckoned with when several of their members were given key committee chairmanships: 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).
Stevens was one of two Congressmen in July 1861 opposing the Crittenden-Johnson Resolution stating the limited war aim of restoring the Union while preserving slavery; he helped repeal it in December. In August, 1861, he supported the first law attacking slavery, the Confiscation Act that said owners would forfeit any slaves they allowed to help the Confederate war effort. By December he was the first Congressional leader pushing for emancipation as a tool to weaken the rebellion. He called for total war on January 22, 1862:
"Let us not be deceived. Those who talk about peace in sixty days are shallow statesmen. The war will not end until the government shall more fully recognize the magnitude of the crisis; until they have discovered that this is an internecine war in which one party or the other must be reduced to hopeless feebleness and the power of further effort shall be utterly annihilated. It is a sad but true alternative. The South can never be reduced to that condition so long as the war is prosecuted on its present principles. The North with all its millions of people and its countless wealth can never conquer the South until a new mode of warfare is adopted. So long as these states are left the means of cultivating their fields through forced labor, you may expend the blood of thousands and billions of money year by year, without being any nearer the end, unless you reach it by your own submission and the ruin of the nation. Slavery gives the South a great advantage in time of war. They need not, and do not, withdraw a single hand from the cultivation of the soil. Every able-bodied white man can be spared for the army. The black man, without lifting a weapon, is the mainstay of the war. How, then, can the war be carried on so as to save the Union and constitutional liberty? Prejudices may be shocked, weak minds startled, weak nerves may tremble, but they must hear and adopt it. Universal emancipation must be proclaimed to all. Those who now furnish the means of war, but who are the natural enemies of slaveholders, must be made our allies. If the slaves no longer raised cotton and rice, tobacco and grain for the rebels, this war would cease in six months, even though the liberated slaves would not raise a hand against their masters. They would no longer produce the means by which they sustain the war."
They were the great enemies of President Andrew Johnson, and after a sweeping victory in the Congressional elections of 1866 they had the votes to over-ride Johnson's vetoes and impose their own policies for Reconstruction. They tried twice to impeach Johnson, but failed by one vote.
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 launch an investigation into the organization, and the following year a grand jury reported that:
"There has existed since 1868, 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 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."
The passage of the Ku Klux Klan Act in April 1871, (which gave the President the authority to suspend habeas corpus in areas where disturbances occurred) marked the last substantial victory for the Radical Republican movement, ending their 17 years of remarkable political influence.
- Beale Howard K. The Critical Year: A Study of Andrew Johnson and Reconstruction. (1930)
- Belz, Herman. Emancipation and Equal Rights: Politics and Constitutionalism in the Civil War Era (1978) pro-moderate. online edition by a leading conservative historians
- Belz, Herman. Abraham Lincoln, Constitutionalism, and Equal Rights in the Civil War Era, (1998) 268 pgs. by a leading conservative historians online edition
- Belz, Herman. A New Birth of Freedom: The Republican Party and Freedman's Rights, 1861-1866 (2000) pro-moderate. by a leading conservative historians
- Benedict Michael Les. A Compromise of Principle: Congressional Republicans and Reconstruction 1863-1869. (1974)
- Cox, LaWanda C. Politics, principle, and prejudice, 1865-1866: dilemma of Reconstruction America (1963) online in ACLS E-books
- Donald, David Herbert. Charles Sumner and the Rights of Man (1970), Pulitzer prize winning biography
- Foner, Eric. Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 (1988) ISBN 0-06-015851-4. Pulitzer-prize winning history and most detailed synthesis of original and previous scholarship.
- Gienapp, William. Abraham Lincoln and Civil War America (2002), short biography online edition
- Hesseltine, William. Ulysses S. Grant: Politician. (1935). online edition.
- Mantell, Martin E. Johnson, Grant and the Politics of Reconstruction. (1973). online edition
- Milton, George Fort. The Age of Hate: Andrew Johnson and the Radicals. (1930). online edition, popular history; attacks Radicals
- Rhodes, James G. History of the United States from the Compromise of 1850 to the McKinley-Bryan Campaign of 1896. Volume: 6. (1920). 1865-72; Volume: 7. (1920). 1872-77; Highly detailed narrative by Pulitzer prize winner; argues was a political disaster because it violated the rights of white Southerners. vol 6 1865-1872 online; vol 7 online vol 6 online at Google.books vol 7 in Google.books
- Simpson, Brooks D. Let Us Have Peace: Ulysses S. Grant and the Politics of War and Reconstruction, 1861-1868 (1991).
- Stryker, Lloyd Paul; Andrew Johnson: A Study in Courage (1929) online version anti-Radical
- Trefousse, Hans L. Thaddeus Stevens: Nineteenth-Century Egalitarian (1997) online version
- James Albert Woodburn; The Life of Thaddeus Stevens: A Study in American Political History, Especially in the Period of the Civil War and Reconstruction. (1913) online version
- Barnes, William H., ed. History of the Thirty-ninth Congress of the United States. (1868) useful summary of Congressional activity.
- Blaine, James.Twenty Years of Congress: From Lincoln to Garfield. With a review of the events which led to the political revolution of 1860 (1886). By Republican Congressional leader who sometimes cooperated with the Radicals
- Fleming, Walter L. Documentary History of Reconstruction: Political, Military, Social, Religious, Educational, and Industrial 2 vol (1906). Uses broad collection of primary sources; vol 1 on national politics; vol 2 on states; volume 1 493 pp online and vol 2 480 pp online
- Memoirs of W. W. Holden (1911), North Carolina Scalawag governor
- Hyman, Harold M., ed. The Radical Republicans and Reconstruction, 1861-1870. (1967), collection of long political speeches and pamphlets.
- McPherson, Edward. The Political History of the United States of America During the Period of Reconstruction (1875), large collection of speeches and primary documents, 1865-1870, complete text online. [The copyright has expired.]
- Nicolay, John and John Hay, "The Wade-Davis Manifesto" Century (July 1889): pp 414–21 online version hoe Lincoln vetoes the Radical plan for Reconstruction; Nicolay and Hay were top aides to Lincoln
- Palmer, Beverly Wilson and Holly Byers Ochoa, eds. The Selected Papers of Thaddeus Stevens 2 vol (1998), 900pp; his speeches plus and letters to and from Stevens
- Palmer, Beverly Wilson, ed. The Selected Letters of Charles Sumner 2 vol (1990); vol 2 covers 1859-1874
- Woodburn 178-179