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 The income tax ultimately was repealed in 1872 and would not return until 1894, when it was included as part of the Democratic Wilson-Gorman Tariff and subsequently struck down by the Supreme Court.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.

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

  1. Here are some other interesting findings on the ideology of Radical Republicans:
    – George F. Hoar: strongly conservative, as you covered in a separate post
    – John A. “Black Jack” Logan: likely somewhat moderate, given his opposition to high tariffs and wavering stances on currency inflation as stated in “John A. Logan: Stalwart Republican from Illinois” (what’s interesting is that he later joined the conservative Stalwart wing of the GOP)
    – Henry Winter Davis: nationalist and earlier a Know Nothing; Britannica says he was conservative ( )
    – Roscoe Conkling: strongly conservative on economics and later leader of the Stalwarts
    – Lyman Trumbull: apparently liberal to left-wing, as you covered a separate post
    – James F. “Jefferson Jim” Wilson: likely conservative-leaning, supporting “moderation” among lower brackets of the income tax in addition to supporting railroad grants and “reasonable” protectionism
    – William B. Allison: likely moderate to moderate conservative, having supported railroad interests though not wholeheartedly backing high tariffs in addition to later compromising with pro-free silver advocates

    (also, out of topic though important to bring up: how come I can no longer access some of your older entries, including the series on how the Northeast became Democrat?)

  2. Yeah, John A. Logan I remember reading up about as for inflationary currency in the early 1870s and a major Stalwart and part of why the 1884 ticket was objectionable to reformers.

    You can no longer access them because I have taken them off; I am republishing enhanced versions of them on my new Substack, “Historica Americana”: I can provide old ones on request if there are more topics you’d like to read about before they are re-posted.

    1. I believe it was the fact that both Half-Breed Blaine and Stalwart Logan had opposed civil service reform which led to intraparty opposition from the “Mugwump” faction, which included cartoonist Thomas Nast of Harper’s Weekly. What I find interesting is that the Mugwumps essentially replaced the Half-Breeds (who had pushed through the Pendleton Act) as leading “reformers” within the party. According to Logan’s biography, it appears that most Stalwarts and Half-Breeds were satisfied with the ticket, with some exceptions. When Conkling in particular was asked to campaign on the pair’s behalf, his contempt for Blaine led him to respond: “I do not engage in criminal practice.” (Jones, p. 196) And on the other side, there was staunch Half-Breed George F. Edmunds of Vermont, who thought a true Half-Breed must support civil service reform and thus refused to back the ticket. Blaine supporters later tried to deny Edmunds re-election to no success.

      Also, thanks for mentioning your new website, which I’ll certainly follow up on. That reminds me, I remember a while ago when you were mentioning starting a YouTube channel with a colleague. How is that going?

      And about the old articles you took off, I liked your entries on “Racism and Tax Cuts…Are They Really Peas in a Pod?” in addition to “How the Northeast Became Democratic, Part IV: Maine (Sort of),” both of which I used as citations for an article on Frederick Hale.

  3. Its funny that Edmunds is regarded as a figure of integrity among multiple sources when former Senator Richard Pettigrew of South Dakota claimed in his book, Triumphant Plutocracy (1922), that he, Nelson Aldrich of Rhode Island, and Edward Wolcott of Colorado took bribes. I’m not sure what evidence he had for these claims though and none of the men were unable to answer the charges of their former colleague as they were dead by that time. Pettigrew also by that time had become a left-wing radical and so he may have seen campaign contributions as bribes.

    I spoke with my friend on the YouTube channel on Sunday. A software update served to delay the release of the videos, but he’s back on track with them. I have already written the scripts for the first eight episodes so its just a matter of time now on his end.

    If you wish to possess copies of those shoot me an email at and I’ll send them.

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