Where did the term "Radical Republican" come from? I know that Radical Republicans is term for a group of Republicans in the early Republican party in the mid 1800s, but was the term used at the time or later added by historians? Did they take pride in the term or was it derogatory?

4 Answers 4


The term Radical Republican comes from the Dunning School (Burgess-Dunning School or Progressive School). This was the majority viewpoint from 1900-1950. It was derogatory. A "radical Republican" is motivated by vindictiveness, revenge and party politics, rather than national reconstruction, healing after the Civil War or a genuine motivation to help the freed slaves. Dunning was a historian who lived during Reconstruction and gave that term to the Congressional Republicans of that era.

As this school of histiography is discredited, finding objective information on it is very difficult. According to the Lew Rockwell Blog, Dunning used 5 classifications for Republicans: Presidential, Southern, Conservative, Moderate and Radical. So not all the Republicans were considered "radical" during Reconstruction. Thadeus Stevens was his usual example of a radical Republican.

Dunning identifies five basic theories considered by Congress for readmitting the Southern states into the Union. The first two, the "Southern" and the "Presidential," were quite similar. To simplify, President Lincoln and his successor, President Johnson, felt that secession did not change the Confederate states or their relation to the Union. So they should be readmitted as painlessly as possible by such devices as freeing slaves, nullifying secession and taking an oath of allegiance to the Union. Basically, this was the same plan put forth by Southern states. Many Conservative as well as Moderate Republicans probably could have accepted a version of these two theories.

At the other extreme, the Radical Republicans offered the "state suicide" theory and the "conquered-province" theory. The first, advocated by Charles Sumner, essentially maintained that Southern states had abdicated all rights they had under the Constitution and had therefore become territories subject to the jurisdiction of Congress. Consequently, Congress could dictate the specific conditions, however extreme, for a resumption of the designation of statehood. Sumner said of his theory that "for a while the freedman will take the place of the master, verifying the saying that the last shall be first and the first shall be last."

The "conquered-province" theory, put forth by Thaddeus Stevens, was similar to Sumner’s "state suicide" theory; however Stevens insisted that the Southern states should not even be considered territories. They were "belligerent enemies" of the Union, so placing them under military rule was justified as was subjecting them to "the absolute will of the United States government." Stevens also proposed that plantations be confiscated and divided up among the freedmen.


This term was the go-to term for the more deeply committed hard war Republicans by historians for the next 75 years or more. They tended to be the ones committed to winning the war, freeing the slaves, and assuring in Reconstruction that slaves were not essentially re-enslaved again.

They managed two out of three.

It was a 'thing' for a long time to try and draw a large distinction between Lincoln and this group, but I never found that too convincing. It always appeared to me it was a way to malign this first try at Civil Rights without saying it right out.

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    There was a fair amount of distance between Lincoln and the abolitionists in the late 1850's (the time of the Lincoln/Douglas debates). During the course of the Civil War, Lincoln shifted to a more radical abolitionist stance, moving closer to the "Radical Republicans". What you do not answer (and I don't know either), is the OP's questions: "Was the term used at the time or later added by historians?" and "Was it derogatory or did they take pride in it?"
    – Mike
    May 2, 2014 at 2:40
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    The term before the war to try and malign Republicans of any stripe was "Black Republicans" because they supposedly were for race mixing. And I did say that the term was in vogue by later historians. If it were used at the time, historians have expanded its meaning since it refers to nearly the entire leadership aside from (supposedly) Lincoln and Andrew Johnson.
    – Oldcat
    May 2, 2014 at 16:48

In the 1860s, the newly coined "Republican" party in the United Stages waged the Civil War 1) to preserve the Union and 2) to free (and empower) the black slaves.

Unlike mainstream Republicans like Abraham Lincoln, the "Radical" Republicans had those priorities reversed; empower the blacks first, come what may to Southern white opinion, and 2) to restore the Union only on punitive terms to the Southern states. Under the so-called Wade-Davis bill (which was never enforced), it would have required 50 percent of voters in the Southern states to allow readmittance into the Union, instead of President Lincoln's 10 percent. Under those circumstances, some states might not have rejoined the Union. Moreover, they were "ahead of their time" in wanting to give full voting privileges and full equality to African Americans, which was finally effected in the United States in the 1960s.



"it becomes our duty to maintain this provision of the Constitution against all attempts to violate it for the purpose of establishing Slavery in the Territories of the United States by positive legislation, prohibiting its existence or extension therein. That we deny the authority of Congress, of a Territorial Legislation, of any individual, or association of individuals, to give legal existence to Slavery in any Territory of the United States, while the present Constitution shall be maintained"

Remember the Republican party had only been in existence since the late 1850s. The term "Radical Republican" was simply a derogatory term for any republican who was against the expansion of slavery. Lincoln was an abolitionist he desired to end slavery by the only means possible, stopping its spread into the new territory thus gradually decreasing congressional power in the pro-slavery states. This is why the Democrats in the South rebelled when they realized a Republican was President. lastly, yes Lincoln's goal in the Civil War was to preserve the Union but the Confederate Democrats goal in the Civil War was to preserve slavery.

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