Understanding the American Republican Party of Reconstruction

We explain three different types of Republicans found in America during Civil War Reconstruction: moderate, conservative, and radical Republicans.[1][2][3]

Lincoln, the first Republican President, was a moderate Republican like Ulysses S. Grant. The moderate Republicans of Reconstruction took a centered stance on the South after the war. Meanwhile, Radical Republicans wanted stricter punishment of the Confederate ex-Democrat Rebels, and the Conservatives generally supported less reprimanding and quicker readmission into the Union for the South.[4]

  • Radical Republicans demanded civil rights for freedmen (freed slaves), such as measures for ensuring their voting rights (negro suffrage, or today in “PC”, black suffrage). The Radical Republicans generally were at the forefront advocating for various Reconstruction Acts, Reconstruction Amendments, and the limiting of political and voting rights for ex-Confederate civil officials, military officers, and soldiers. If anything gives “Military Reconstruction” its name, it is the policies led by the Radicals. The Radicals were the faction who led the fight against the War Democrat Southern Unionist Andrew Johnson (who took the Presidency after Lincoln was assassinated the week the Civil War ended). The Radicals ultimately led the charge that weakened Johnson and almost led to his impeachment (which failed by one vote in the Senate in 1868 after passing the House). This is to say, in the 1860’s, Radical Republicans weren’t the Tea Party as much as they were “progressive” Northern Social Justice warriors who wanted rights for all men and to see Southern Confederate leaders of Georgia and South Carolina hang for their treason and crimes against humanity [i’m purposely using rhetoric to drill the point in here]. They were not the Republicans of today in that sense.[5]
  • Conservative Republicans took the total opposite stance of their Radical counterparts. They sympathized with the more moderate ex-Confederate soon-to-be once-again-Democrats. They wanted the Confederates forgiven, and the Union restored. During Reconstruction and the Gilded Age some conservative Republicans can be said to have become what we call Redeemer, Carpetbagger, and Scallywag Democrats (although this group also included moderate business-minded Democrats from the north and south). We can here say that some of these Conservatives would have ideologically been Free Soilers before the war, they were those who didn’t approve of slavery, but didn’t want to go to war over the right for new expansion states to be slave states and those who cared more about business than social issues.
  • Moderate Republicans like Lincoln and Grant may have leaned Radical on some issues, after-all they led to war, but they didn’t fully support either the Radical or Conservative factions and instead mediated the two sides (and the different factions of Democrats). Moderate Republicanism is the most like the general Federalist and Whig ideology before the war (the parties that went on to become Republicans). In this respect Alexander Hamilton, the Adams’Daniel Webster, and Henry Clay were all generally “moderate Republicans” (or Federalists or Whigs in their time).

The hey-day of the above factions is during the Lincoln, Andrew Johnson, and Ulysses S. Grant administrations. By the time of Grant, Republicans are best thought of being in the Gilded Age Republican factions: Civil Service Half-Breeds and Crony Capitalist Stalwarts. Here we see two types of Republicans, one who wants social justice and one who is pro-business (and as a politician, that often means cronyist).

Reconstruction ended in a “corrupt bargain” (AKA Compromise of 1877) struck by Republicans over the 1877 election where the Republicans traded the end of Reconstruction for the Presidency. Then [speaking loosely] 100 years later, LBJ finally signed Civil Rights ’64 and Voting Rights ’65. This marked the true victory that had been fought for since the 1860’s and resulted in many of the Southern Conservative faction of the Democratic party becoming Republicans over time (full story is way more complex, but we tell it here).

TIP: Republican is a reference to a Republican form of government, Democrat is a reference to individual focused Democracy. Both are liberal ideologies. Forget about slavery and segragation for a second, and think about “the people, not the state, choosing who gets to do what”. Here you’ll see that the original Democrats were more for individual and states’ rights, and the original republicans more for elite state control and order. Add slavery back into the equation, now it makes the Republicans look like the social liberals… and… they were. They were, in many ways, “Teddy Roosevelt like social liberals” (social liberals who want to use the state to ensure social welfare and justice)… until Teddy left the party to run in the 1912 election and then Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover reshaped the party into a individual focused small government prior to FDR’s era. Remember though, there was a moment where there was only one major party, the Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans. We are all Democrats, Republicans, Federalists, and liberty loving liberals… we just don’t agree on specifics, you know like “federation vs. confederation”.

THE RACIST LOGIC OF THE OLD CONFEDERATES: “The Rich Elite Radical Republicans want negro suffrage to make the negro THE EQUAL of the poor white man! Then they will use those votes to rule both the negro and the poor white man! This is different than what we did with slavery, or the three-fifths, or the other compromises, because at least we actually cared for the negro and fought against the Northern big government for all [white] men.” <—- So even if this is true… doesn’t that make a modern welfare happy Democrat who had 93 percent of the black vote under Obama the “Rich Elite Social Liberal” of today. I mean, even by this racist old logic of the anti-Radical-Republican of the 1860’s, the parties “switched”… However, with accusations coming from both sides that limiting voting rights and fighting for voting rights (and later social programs) is about politics and votes, not social justice or social welfare, we can see how it is easy to get confused about what did and didn’t change over the years regarding the major political parties. Still, for my money, even considering the old Slave Power argument, it is hard to see the anti-slavery radicals as precursors to the modern conservative southern factions in the Republican party rather than a precursor to Rooseveltian social liberalism now found in the Democratic party. See Reconstruction and Negro suffrage published 1865.[6]

TIP: Radical is an insult used by Burke as far back as the late 1700’s and is still used today. It is a less friendly way to say “progressive“.

Radical Republicans From PBS’s Reconstruction: The 2nd Civil War.

TIP: At the top of the page is an image of an old anti-black suffrage / anti-radical Republican poster. Here we can see that the name “radical’ is given by opponents and that American war heroes like the radical Republican Union General John W. Geary were just about at the bottom of a conservative southern Democrat’s list. Below is another Geary poster to hammer that point home. Later, as the Republican party moved toward business interests, Geary fought against special interests as an political independent. It is past figures like these who help us to understand the parties in any era. This isn’t to say all white southern Democrats were white supremacists, it is to say however that radical Republicans were essentially progressives and an important issue of the day was black suffrage.

Racist Hiester Clymer campaign poster from 1866 "smearing" the eventual winner Union general John W. Geary.

Racist Hiester Clymer campaign poster from 1866 “smearing” the eventual winner radical Republican Union General John W. Geary.


  1. Civil War Reconstruction
  2. Civil War Reconstruction
  3. The Radical Republican Plan for Reconstruction: The Reconstruction Acts & Civil Rights Act
  4. Race and Voting in the Segregated South
  5. Radical Republican
  6. Reconstruction and Negro suffrage published 1865

"The Moderate, Conservative, and Radical Republicans of Reconstruction" is tagged with: Abraham Lincoln, American Politics, Left–right Politics, United States of America

What do you think?