Reconstruction and Radical Republicans

The Reconstruction was a period in the U.S. history at the end of, and immediately after, the Civil War. Although the North won the military conflict, political and ideological differences had to be resolved. President Abraham Lincoln put forward a long-term plan to reintegrate the South states as a first step to achieving this reconciliation. However, before this plan could be fully realized, he was assassinated. As a result, president Andrew Johnson’s poor performance allowed a radical Republican faction to take the majority in Congress, accelerating the intended ideological and political changes. This faction’s reforms caused a strong backlash from the South, opposing the Radicals’ policy of emancipation and equal rights for the freed African Americans.

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Although the federal government had fully abolished slavery through the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, former Confederate legislatures were passing laws that would severely limit African Americans’ rights and freedoms. As Dunning (1962) provides the Northern views, these laws “preserved the substance though avoiding the name of slavery” (p. 55). Effectively, they were sidestepping the Amendment’s “except as a punishment for crime” clause by criminalizing certain acts (e. g. vagrancy laws) specifically for African Americans (U.S. Const. Amend. XIII).

This established a precedent for racial discrimination, which had to be corrected by the 14th and 15th Amendments ( Editors, 2019). As all the former Confederate states passed such laws, known as “black codes”, the South’s opposition to granting African Americans equal rights becomes evident.

From the southern legislator’s perspective, however, such laws were seen differently. According to Dunning (1962), they were meant “to bring some sort of order out of the social and economic chaos which a full acceptance of the results of war and emancipation involved” (p. 58). In their view, they were necessary to separate the freedmen as a distinct class (Dunning, 1907). Dunning (1907) argues that although some of those laws were oppressive, the primary fault with them was the failure to “consider… the prejudices of their conquerors” (p. 59). This argument exposes the ideological conflict at the core of the issue.

This situation is a challenging political issue, as, although emancipation and equal rights were necessary goals for further development of the U.S., the radical Republicans applied excessive pressure on the Southern states. Dunning’s note that the South was acting as the conquered side is particularly relevant, as that is the crucial element of the relationship between the former Confederate states and the Union. After their military victory in the War, the North was, in essence, imposing ideological conditions on their opponent. Therefore, any such pressure would likely be seen as unjust and deepen any interracial or political rifts that were already present. Thus, the South’s opposition was a reaction to the radical Republicans’ aggressive pushing of their legislation.

As these legal and ideological changes were forcibly pushed onto the Southern states, major violent incidents targeted local African Americans and Republicans. The fact that Republicans were targeted indicates that these acts were in significant part motivated by political reasons. Therefore, they can be seen as a continued response to the Congress’ requirement for Southern states to ratify the 14th Amendment to regain representation ( Editors, 2018). These inferences suggest that the political component was critical in the South’s reaction to the radical Republican reforms.

Similar to many radical reforms that seek to bring about major social or ideological changes, the ones forced by the radical Republicans during the Reconstructions have failed to consider their subjects’ response. In disenfranchising the Southern states’ leadership before giving them an opportunity to reintegrate into the Union, they created the conditions under which Southerners would view themselves as getting ideological demands unjustly forced upon them.

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These conditions led to increasing hostility against Republicans and African Americans, who were now an obvious target to associate with these demands. Thus, the Radicals’ attempts to integrate the former slaves as full citizens with equal rights as quickly as possible may have led to the opposite effects of continued discrimination against them.

A plan that focused on the reintegration of the Southern states would likely allow the political differences left by the War to be reconciled sooner. After that, the Union would be in a stronger position to advance further changes aimed at the integration of freedmen. Instead, the policies attempted to force a population that already perceived itself as unjustly maligned to rapidly change their ideology to one that opposes theirs.

The radical Republicans’ assumptions about the South were true to some extent, and the former Confederate states still held resentment towards the Emancipation. However, their actions did nothing to address this resentment, exacerbating it, instead. Although in the short term, this allowed them to provide the African American population with significant political, social, and economic gains, the long-term effect may have been the opposite.

Their radical reforms happened quickly, were forced upon a largely unwilling population, and left significant feelings of resentment not only towards the North, but towards the freedmen, as well. The former Confederate states could view the Radical policies as unjust to them, and freedmen as benefiting from this injustice. These factors led to the continued discrimination against African Americans, thus making the Radical plan a failure.


Dunning, W. A. (1962). Reconstruction: Political and Economic, 1865-1877. New York, NY: Harper & Row. Editors (2018). 14th Amendment. Web. Editors (2019). Reconstruction. Web.

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