Radical Republicans During Reconstruction: Definition & Explanation

Instructor: David Lobb
Learn about the Radical Republicans during the Reconstruction Era. Develop an understanding of their role in the quest to rebuild the nation after the Civil War and test your knowledge with a short quiz.

Post War Rebuilding

The Reconstruction Era in the United States involved rebuilding the South after the end of the Civil War. However, issues that would go on to affect reconstruction cropped up before the war even ended. At the beginning of the war, western counties of Virginia refused to go along with the break away from the Union. In 1861, a loyal state government of Virginia was proclaimed and broke away, eventually becoming the state of West Virginia in 1863.


As Union forces advanced into more and more southern states, President Abraham Lincoln named military governors in states such as Tennessee, Arkansas, and Louisiana. In the same year West Virginia became a state, Lincoln formulated a plan for regular governments in those states and any others that might qualify. The plan leaned heavily towards providing amnesty for those states and pardon for its confederates who would swear to support the Union. Not all in the government agreed with Lincoln's plan, thinking that it was too lenient.

In the absence of any specific guidance for reconstruction in the Constitution, politicians disagreed as to where authority properly rested. Lincoln claimed the right to direct reconstruction under the clause that set forth the presidential pardon power. Republican congressmen however, argued Congress had the power to act. The reconstruction of the South would become the heart of an intense debate between the President and radicals of his own Republican Party in Congress.

Lincoln's Plan

A few conservative and most moderate Republicans supported Lincoln's program of immediate restoration. That is, after the war, southern states would be immediately brought back into union with the federal government.

Political Cartoon
Lincoln reconstruction

A small but influential group known as the Radical Republicans favored a sweeping transformation of southern society based on granting freed blacks full citizenship. The Radicals hoped to reconstruct southern society so as to mirror the North's emphasis on small-scale competitive capitalism, instead of the market agricultural base of the old planter class.

The Radicals also maintained that Congress, not the president, should supervise the reconstruction program. To this end they worked to pass the Wade-Davis Bill in 1864, which required that a majority of white male citizens declare their allegiance to the United States and take an oath to that effect before a state could be recognized again. Lincoln's plan had only called for 10% of the population to declare loyalty. The Wade-Davis Bill never became law, as Lincoln refused to sign it. Radicals accused Lincoln of usurping power.

On April 11, 1865, Lincoln offered his last public words on the subject of reconstruction. Speaking from the White House balcony, he pronounced that the Confederate states had never left the Union, they were simply out of 'practical relation' with it. The object of such language was to drive home the point that he wanted the states that had been in rebellion to become operational again, or back in synch with the Union. That same evening Lincoln went to Ford's Theater for a play. There, confederate zealot John Wilkes Booth shot him.

Assassination of Lincoln
lincoln assasination

The president died the next morning. Also attacked that night was Secretary of State William Seward. Vice-President Andrew Johnson had been targeted, but his attacker got cold feet and wound up drunk in the bar of Johnson's hotel.

Then Vice-President Andrew Johnson

Radicals and Reconstruction

Lincoln's death catapulted Johnson to the White House, and many Radical Republicans at first thought Johnson, unlike Lincoln, might side with their plan for reconstruction. They were mistaken. Johnson's loyalty to the Union sprang from a strict adherence to the Constitution. While he had similar objectives to Lincoln when it came to reconstruction, Johnson arrived there by a very different route.

Johnson, like many other whites at the time, found it hard to accept the growing Radical movements toward full citizenship for blacks. In the end, Johnson took a moderate, 'hands off' approach to reconstructing the governments of the South. At one point he went so far as to insist reconstruction, as a program, was unnecessary. He claimed, as Lincoln had, that the Confederate states had never really left the Union.

When Congress met in December of 1865, the first time since the end of the war, it could not deny that southern state governments were functioning. But there was a rub. The new southern governments looked remarkably like the old. New legislative members included the ex-vice president of the Confederacy, four Confederate generals, eight colonels, and a host of lesser rebels. These new southern legislatures also began passing repressive 'codes' to restrict the involvement of blacks in civic society.

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