“Anybody who would trash Lee and laud Lincoln is either stupid as a post or just plain evil,” said a sage reader. This applies in spades to anyone who would laud the Radical Republicans of 1865, as one TV GOP blonde has recently, and asininely, done.
The Radical Republicans, if you can believe it, considered Abraham Lincoln a moderate (a bad thing, in their book). Lincoln successor Andrew Johnson these fanatics branded a reactionary (punishable by obstruction and impeachment).
Praised these days by the blonde-ambition faction of the Republican Party, the Radicals were stars of America’s own Reign of Terror over the South, at the end of the War Between the States.
If the French Reign of Terror was led by the terrifying Robespierre and his Jacobins; its American equivalent was infused with the spirit of lunatics like John Brown. (His abolitionist activists snatched five pro-slavery settlers near Pottawatomie Creek, in 1856, and split the captives’ skulls with broadswords, in an act of biblical retribution gone mad.)
Thaddeus Stevens was another of their “inspirational” madmen, lauded in the annals of the Party of Reconstruction. In his biography of Stevens, Thaddeus Stevens: Nineteenth Century Egalitarian, historian Hans Trefousse even makes a brief reference to the Jacobin Club, a term reserved for the most extreme Republicans in Congress (p. 168). Other club members: Henry Winter Davis, Benjamin Butler, Charles Sumner, Benjamin Wade, Zachariah Chandler.
Although Republicans shared “the drive toward revolution and national unification” (the words of historian Clyde Wilson, in The Yankee Problem, 2016), the Radicals distinguished themselves in their support for sadistic military occupation of the vanquished Rebel States, following the War Between the States.
While assorted GOP teletarts may find the rhetoric of Radical Republicans sexy; overall, these characters are villains of history, for helping to sunder the federal scheme bequeathed by the Founding Fathers. In their fanatical fealty to an almighty central government, Radical Republicans were as alien to the Jeffersonian tradition of self-government as it gets.
Today’s Republicans should know that the Radical Republicans were hardly heartbroken about the assassination of Lincoln, on April 14, 1865.
A mere month earlier (March 4, 1865)—and much to the chagrin of the Radicals—Lincoln had noodled, in his billowing prose, about the need to “bind up the nation’s wounds and proceed with “malice toward none … and charity for all.”
Radical Republicans were having none of that charity stuff. They promptly placed their evil aspirations in Andrew Johnson. A President Johnson, they had hoped, would be a suitable sockpuppet in socking it to the South some more.
Alas, Johnson, a poor, white tailor from North Carolina, turned out, in today’s political nomenclature, to be something of a populist. In going against the Radical Republicans, the 17th president of the United States was the Trump of his time, up against the Rubio-McCain-Graham Radical Republicans. (Marco Rubio, incidentally, has gone as far as to rationalize the Antifa ruffians’ violence, tweeting: “When [an] entire movement [is] built on anger and hatred towards people different than [sic] you, it justifies and ultimately leads to violence against them.”)
When Johnson failed to deliver the radical changes Radical Republicans demanded, our 1865 Antifans accused him of being “tainted by Lincolnism.”
Let’s unpack this:
To rational and righteous individuals, Lincoln did a radical thing in prosecuting a fratricidal war in 1861. Did not the ignoble institution of slavery dissolve relatively uneventfully in most slave societies, around that time? Indeed, it did. Alone in all nations did the U.S. and Haiti share the dubious distinction of shedding blood, where other options presented themselves.
But to Radical Republicans, the late Lincoln had not been radical enough and Johnson had disappointed.
While number 17 was a Southern Unionist, President Johnson was, nevertheless, still a Democrat. Then as now, the Republicans were the party of the crony capitalist centralized State. Unlike the current Dems, 1861 Democrats were the party of states’ rights.
And it was proving a little harder to take the old republic of radical decentralization out of President Johnson.
Consequently, Johnson allowed “each of the Rebel States to determine its suffrage.” Remember, only the rights to life, liberty and property are inviolable natural rights. Not so the right to vote. The franchise is a grant of government privilege, never a natural right.
And it was to field hands that the Radicals gave the vote and, subsequently, governorship of the South. “Nearly four million slaves had been freed overnight. Very few of these were equipped to meet the rudimentary responsibilities of citizenship.” (A Complete History of the United States, by Clement Wood, p. 342.) Confessed one freedman: “I can’t read, I can’t write. We go by the [Union League’s] instructions. We don’t know nothing much.” (In their strong-arm, violent tactics, Union League members were most definitely the Antifa arm of Reconstruction-era Republicans.)
Is there any wonder that the South under Radical-Republican Reconstruction became a “howling Babylon of Corruption”? This was to be expected from the “riffraff of conquerors and conquered alike.” The planter class had been destroyed. “Many whites and Negroes of the new ruling class could not even sign their name,” attests historian William Miller.
In mitigation, the less-radical Lincoln had proposed that “the right to vote be given to the most capable [blacks].” Johnson’s advice was to give the vote to propertied blacks worth $250. (Wood, P. 349.)
Not unlike today’s Republicans and Democrats, the Radical Republicans of yore had sidelined a large segment of the white population in the South. Johnson had dared to flout congressional Radicals by showing some fairness to these vanquished Southerners.
“When the South came to elect its Senators and Representatives in 1865, it had but one class of men it would trust to turn to, and that was leading secessionists.” (Wood, P. 349.)
“Northerners were [being] asked by the Southern States to recognize, on terms of civic and official equality, confederate cabinets members, congressmen and brigadier generals.” (P. 346.) Radical Republicans set about preventing such charitable normalization.
During the lame-duck session of December 1865, the Radicals excluded “men elected in the rebel states.” Full-well did they know that the 14th Amendment was unconstitutional (A New History of the United States by William Miller, p. 220). Over Johnson’s veto and advice to the South to reject the rigged ratification process—the Radicals demanded the South ratify the 14th Amendments as a condition of representation in Congress.
Johnson’s riposte, bless him, was to accuse Republican Representative Thaddeus Stevens of “seeking to destroy the rights of Southern states” (Wood, p. 349). And with good reason:
The Supreme Court had ruled against the legality and constitutionality of martial law in the South. Against the SCOTUS’s ruling, the Radical Republicans went on to,
- “Throw out the governments of all confederate states (but Tennessee) and bring the South under military rule.” “Military governors backed by national troops” replaced governments whose formation Johnson allowed in 1865.” Twenty thousand “troops were quartered in the South,” shades of the reason an earlier generation of Americans fought the War of Independence.
- Radical Republicans next divested the SCOTUS of its constitutional role. They removed the constitutional jurisdiction of the Court over deciding—yea or nay—about martial rule over the South. Neither was the SCOTUS permitted to test the First Reconstruction Act.
- Radical Republicans also made the ratification of the 14th Amendment subject to a quid pro quo: If the Rebel States ratified it, they’d be let into the Union again.
- The Radicals “disqualified all trusted leaders of the Confederacy from holding either national or state office,” “branding them as criminals, depriving them of political rights at the same time that [they] gave civil rights” to all Africans.
In a word, white electors were largely disqualified.
“Having brushed aside the Court, the Radicals tried to subordinate the Executive.” These odious types turned to divesting the commander-in-chief of his constitutional authority and role.
These days, the Army ignores President Trump’s executive order as commander-in-chief, a precedent Radial Republicans may have helped cement, when they “forbade President Johnson to give the army orders except through [Generalissimo] Grant.”
The Radicals soon put in place new state constitutions which—wouldn’t you know it?—were liberal in the extreme, prescribing much of the publicly-funded miseducation that has propagandized America’s kids even since.
The nation’s schools soon became a conduit for the “dispensing of radical doctrine,” starting with the un-American Radical Republican orthodoxy.
So, Ms. Liz Wheeler, one can’t at once claim a commitment to the ideas of a decentralized constitution and regional autonomy yet twerk (politically) on TV for the Radical Republicans.
* My thanks to historian Dr. Boyd D. Cathey for useful comments and corrections.
† Historian Clyde Wilson corrects historian Clement Wood, quoted in the column: “The Southern states,” writes Dr. Wilson, “in the first elections after the war, did not elect ‘secessionists’ to office. In fact, they carefully elected, and Johnson appointed, men who had not been active secessionists.”
Ilana Mercer has been writing a weekly paleolibertarian column since 1999, and is the author of The Trump Revolution: The Donald’s Creative Destruction Deconstructed (June, 2016) & Into the Cannibal’s Pot: Lessons for America From Post-Apartheid South Africa (2011). Follow her on Twitter, Facebook, Gab & YouTube.