The Moderate, Conservative, and Radical Republicans of Reconstruction

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 supported fewer reprimands and quicker readmission into the Union for the South.[4]

The Different Republican Factions of Reconstruction

More specifically the Republican factions of reconstruction were:

  • 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 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). In the 1860’s, Radical Republicans weren’t the Tea Party as much as they were “progressive” Northern Social Justice Warriors. They wanted rights for all men and wanted to see Southern Confederate leaders of Georgia and South Carolina hang for their treason and crimes against humanity. I’m purposely using rhetoric to make a point. They were not the Republicans of today in that sense. See one overview of the Radical Republican Plan for Reconstruction.[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. This group also included moderate business-minded Democrats from the North and South. Some of these Conservatives would have ideologically been Free Soilers before the war. They didn’t approve of slavery but didn’t want to go to war to establish the right for new expansion states to be slave states. They were also those who cared more about business than social issues.
  • Moderate Republicans like Lincoln and Grant may have tended toward being Radical on some issues, after-all they led to war, but they didn’t fully support either the Radical or Conservative factions. Instead, they 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. Those were the parties that went on to become Republicans. In this respect, Alexander Hamilton, John and John Quincy AdamsDaniel Webster, and Henry Clay were all “moderate Republicans” (or Federalists or Whigs in their time).

The Civil Service Half-Breed Republicans and Crony Capitalist Stalwart Republicans of the Gilded Age

Although the factions of Republicans can be found from Civil War to the end of Reconstruction, the heyday of the above factions was during the Lincoln, Andrew Johnson, and Ulysses S. Grant administrations.

By the time of Grant, although the factions still existed, Republicans were becoming 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 cronyism).

Simply, as the argument of Reconstruction ended (not the struggle, but the initial battle) key voter issues switched and the debate became more about stances on Gilded-Age business policy and less about reforming the south (after-all, in terms of economics, the redeemers were already doing that).

Reconstruction ultimately ended in a “corrupt bargain” or Compromise of 1877, which was struck by Republicans over the 1877 election. In the bargain Republicans traded the end of Reconstruction for the Presidency, and from then on we get an awkward 100 year lull. First we get Plessy v. Ferguson, and then black codes and Jim Crowe.

It isn’t until LBJ finally signed Civil Rights 1964 and Voting Rights 1965 that the battle the radical Republicans started saw real progress again.

It was Civil Rights that marked the true victory that had been fought for since the 1860’s, and perhaps it isn’t surprising that this resulted in many of the Southern Conservative faction of the Democratic party becoming Republicans over time. The 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 segregation 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 for individual and states’ rights, and the original Republicans more for elite state control and order. If you add slavery into the equation, it makes the Republicans look like the social liberals, which they were. They were, in many ways, “Teddy Roosevelt like social liberals” or social liberals who wanted to use the state to ensure social welfare and justice. When Teddy left the party to run in the 1912 election, Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover reshaped the party into a small government focused on the individual before FDR’s era. There was a brief time where there was only one major party, the Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans. Democrats, Republicans, Federalists, and liberty loving liberals are very similar. They don’t agree on specifics like “Federation vs. Confederation.”

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.”

Understanding the Old Confederate Anti-Republican Logic

The following paragraph is meant to illustrate the logic of the old Confederates, this is not my stance, this is just an example of the type of justification an anti-Radical Republican like Clymer might have given (see poster below for confirmation),

The Rich Elite Radical Republicans want Black suffrage so they can make African Americans THE EQUALS of the poor white man (in terms of political power). Those newly granted votes will be used to assert the Republican ideology, to ensure their rule, and to punish the south. With that the Republican elite will rule both the negro and the poor white man, stripping their liberties one-by-one. Their radical reconstruction policy and call for Negro suffrage isn’t a compromise like the three-fifths or the other compromises (which allowed the Democrats many political wins back during the early 1800’s by themselves being able to direct the votes of their slaves)… their social policy is just a thinly veiled attempt at taking control away from the states and ensuring Republican control of the central government.[6]

So, like it was with states’ rights and individual liberty being a justification for slavery pre-Civil War, the post-War logic of the Confederates is a little hard to grapple with today.

With that said, even if their logic was valid, doesn’t it make the modern Democratic Party, who had 93% of the black vote under Obama, into the “Rich Elite Radical Social Liberal” of today?

Even by the old logic of the anti-Radical-Republican of the 1860’s, the parties “switched”.

With accusations coming from both sides that limiting voting rights and fighting for voting rights (and later social programs) was about politics and votes, one has to seriously consider if there is truth to the claims (despite any theory of justice pointing to the answer being, “regardless, ALL CITIZENS ARE EQUAL IN RIGHT“).

All this to say, at the time, reconstruction and black suffrage was not seen as being concerned with social justice or social welfare, it was seen as an attack on poor rural whites (at least rhetorically).

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, even considering the old Slave Power argument (be it an argument against the three-fifths or against reconstruction in terms of “the black vote”), 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 the Rooseveltian social liberalism now found [mostly] in the Democratic party despite its Federalist roots… but with that said, there is always room for debate.

TIP: See Reconstruction and Negro suffrage published 1865

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. We can see that the name “radical” is given by opponents. American war heroes like the radical Republican Union General John W. Geary were at the bottom of a conservative Southern Democrat’s list. Below is another Geary poster that was intended to hammer that point home. Later, as the Republican party moved toward business interests, Geary fought against special interests as a political independent. It is past figures like these who help us to understand the parties in any era. Of course, not all white Southern Democrats were White Supremacists, but radical Republicans were 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.

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

Article Citations
  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

Author: Thomas DeMichele

Thomas DeMichele is the content creator behind,,, and other and Massive Dog properties. He also contributes to MakerDAO and other cryptocurrency-based projects. Tom's focus in all...

Leave a comment

We'll never share your email with anyone else.

You need to have your historical head examined. The Radical Republicans where the Progressives of their day. Ha