Aside From Their Push for Equal Rights, What Was the Ideology of the Radical Republicans?

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Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts

It is a common belief today that the Republicans of the time of Lincoln and the Civil War would be Democrats today. This makes sense at a cursory glance: if you look strictly from the Southern perspective of states’ rights, the modern left-wing conception of civil rights, and completely ignore where the respective parties stood on other issues or fail to contextualize the issues for their times. A prime example of failure to contextualize is the imposition of the income tax during the Civil War, which has led to modern leftists saying that Abraham Lincoln was progressive like them. The problem here is that the income tax was intended to fund the war and for no other purpose. Radical Republican Senator Charles Sumner, the man who was infamously beaten with a cane by Congressman Preston Brooks, stated on the matter, “There was an understanding, when it was established, that it should live only into the year 1870. It has now reached its natural death, and no resurrection ought to operate upon it. An income tax is a war tax. It ought not to be made a peace tax” (Sumner, 41). The income tax ultimately was repealed in 1872 and would not return until 1894, when it was included as part of the Democratic Wilson-Gorman Tariff and subsequently struck down by the Supreme Court. This is why the Constitution had to be amended to allow an income tax. Internal improvements were for helping the private sector expand across the country, not the creation of “make-work jobs”. The project costs were also not inflated by powerful unions and Davis-Bacon wages. I have taken the good time to examine how these people voted in Congress. Several issues stand as rightist positions:

. Support for higher tariffs (to fund internal improvements and protect growing American industry). While this isn’t the case today, the GOP stood for tariffs as a business-friendly policy up until the 1960s, and the leftist Americans for Democratic Action opposed high tariffs as late as 1970. Additionally, the two Socialist Party members of Congress in the 1910s and 1920s voted against high tariffs.

. Opposition to railroad regulation. This should go without saying.

. Support for selling generous amounts of public land to railroads and subsidizing construction to grow the nation. I could easily see modern-day leftists lobbying against the sale of public land for such a purpose under the guise of “environmental protection”.

. Support for a federal bankruptcy law favorable to northern creditors (and surprisingly enough, southern debtors).

. Opposition to inflationary monetary policy.

. Opposition to limiting workdays of federal employees to eight hours.

. Conviction of Andrew Johnson in the Senate for violation of the Tenure of Office Act.

I did not include slavery, as this stands as a fundamentally regional and partisan issue in this time. Radical Republicans were aligned based on their views on the subject of race and nothing else. When you take away matters of slavery and Reconstruction, what does this leave ideologically?

My findings:

The Republican Party was at its start a gathering of people with a common purpose: opposition to slavery. On other questions, there was a diversity of opinion and this became increasingly apparent as the 1860s came to a close. Some people who departed the party on ideological grounds in the 1870s included Senator Lyman Trumbull of Illinois and Congressman Benjamin F. Butler of Massachusetts, both who had been Democrats before the Civil War.

Among the most notable of the Radical Republicans…

. Senators Charles Sumner of Massachusetts and Zachariah Chandler of Michigan were rightists. From 45 key roll calls through 1863-1869 I tabulated for ideological purposes, Sumner averaged 90% and Chandler averaged 94% for rightist votes.

. Senator Benjamin Wade of Ohio was kind of a mixed bag despite being opinionated to the chagrin of his colleagues. He was highly supportive of railroad grants and opposed to restricting railroad rates but also supportive of currency inflation and organized labor. His scores average to 68% for the period 1863-69.

. Representative Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania was a Republican leftist. His scores average 35% for the period 1863-69. Where he went right was when he would go to bat for business interests in his state, including for railroad grants. He went left on currency inflation, higher pay for federal workers, opposition to federal bankruptcy laws, and even the reduction of some other tariffs.

. Representative Benjamin Butler scored a 42% in the 1867-69 Congress and he only got more leftist from there given his later affiliation with the Greenback Party, including a presidential run on its platform in 1884.

As for the Democrats? Think of them in this time as believers in the common man and the downtrodden, provided these people are white. The Democrats today don’t really identify with their party’s history, nor should they on their stances of race. However, economically and otherwise, many Democrats maintained stances that wouldn’t be unfriendly for Democrats today. For instance, the leading Copperhead Democrat during the Civil War, Clement Vallandigham of Ohio, would after the Civil War’s end endorse proposals such as a progressive income tax and civil service reform while abandoning his prior opposition to black suffrage. History is more complicated than what can be described in a tweet or cultural meme and it certainly isn’t true that the “parties switched”, the latter point I will never stop pushing on this blog.


Sumner, C. (1880). Charles Sumner; his complete works, volume 18. Norwood, MA: Norwood Press.

Retrieved from

Vallandigham, J. (1872). A life of Clement L. Vallandigham. Baltimore, MD: Turbull Brothers.

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