When Congress assembled in December 1865, Johnson announced that with loyal governments functioning in all the southern states, the nation had been reunited. In response, Radical Republicans, who had grown increasingly disenchanted with Johnson during the summer and fall, called for the dissolution of these governments and the establishment of new ones with “rebels” excluded from power and black men guaranteed the right to vote. Radicals tended to represent constituencies in New England and the “burned-over” districts of the rural North that had been home to religious revivalism, abolitionism, and other reform movements. Although they differed on many issues, Radicals shared the conviction that Union victory created a golden opportunity to institutionalize the principle of equal rights for all, regardless of race.

Thaddeus Stevens, leader of the Radical Republicans in the House of Representatives during Reconstruction.

The Radicals fully embraced the expanded powers of the federal government born during the Civil War. Traditions of federalism and states’ rights, they insisted, must not obstruct a sweeping national effort to protect the rights of all Americans. The most prominent Radicals in Congress were Charles Sumner, a senator from Massachusetts, and Thaddeus Stevens, a lawyer and iron manufacturer who represented Pennsylvania in the House of Representatives. Before the Civil War, both had been outspoken foes of slavery and defenders of black rights. Early in the Civil War, both had urged Lincoln to free and arm the slaves, and both in 1865 favored black suffrage in the South. “The same national authority,” declared Sumner, “that destroyed slavery must see that this other pretension [racial inequality] is not permitted to survive.”

Thaddeus Stevens’s most cherished aim was to confiscate the land of disloyal planters and divide it among former slaves and northern migrants to the South. “The whole fabric of southern society,” he declared, “must be changed. Without this, this Government can never be, as it has never been, a true republic.” But his plan to make “small independent landholders” of the former slaves proved too radical even for many of his Radical colleagues. Congress, to be sure, had already offered free land to settlers in the West in the Homestead Act of 1862. But this land had been in the possession of the federal government, not private individuals (although originally, of course, it had been occupied by Indians). Most congressmen believed too deeply in the sanctity of property rights to be willing to take land from one group of owners and distribute it to others. Stevens’s proposal failed to pass.

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