The Doom of Reconstruction: The Liberal Republicans in the Civil War Era

The Doom of Reconstruction: The Liberal Republicans in the Civil War Era

The Doom of Reconstruction: The Liberal Republicans in the Civil War Era

The Doom of Reconstruction: The Liberal Republicans in the Civil War Era


In the Election of 1872 the conflict between President U. S. Grant and Horace Greeley has been typically understood as a battle for the soul of the ruling Republican Party. In this innovative study, Andrew Slap argues forcefully that the campaign was more than a narrow struggle between Party elites and a class-based radical reform movement. The election, he demonstrates, had broad consequences: in their opposition to widespread Federal corruption, Greeley Republicans unintentionally doomedReconstruction of any kind, even as they lost the election. Based on close readings of newspapers, party documents, and other primary sources, Slap confronts one of the major questions in American political history: How, and why, did Reconstruction come to an end? His focus on the unintended consequences of Liberal Republican politics is a provocative contribution to this important debate.


The liberal republican movement doomed Reconstruction in 1872.* Given the background of the men who started the movement this is extremely ironic, for in the previous decade many of them had led efforts to reconstruct the South and help African Americans. For example, early in 1862 Massachusetts economist Edward Atkinson became secretary of the New England Freedmen's Aid Society, an organization that assisted recently freed slaves in South Carolina. As the war ended in 1865, journalist William Grosvenor publicly argued that the Union needed a continued military presence in the South because "we cannot justly leave the rights of the freedmen at the mercy of those who so long held them in slavery." Most of the liberal republicans agreed with Grosvenor. Newspapers sympathetic to the movement—The Nation, the Springfield Republican, the New York Evening Post, and the Chicago Tribune—all endorsed the First Military Reconstruction Act in Congress, while Lyman Trumbull drafted the 1866 Civil Rights Bill.

Carl Schurz, senator from Missouri, explained the liberal republicans' longstanding desire to reconstruct the South in a speech about how to create peace after the Civil War. Insisting that it was first necessary to remove the cause of the strife, Schurz proclaimed that the South had caused the conflict because "in the South there existed a peculiar interest and institution—namely, slavery and the aristocratic class government inseparable from involuntary labor, which in its very nature was antagonistic to the fundamental principles upon which our democratic system of government rests." He identified these fundamental principles in classical republican terms; they included public virtue, independent citizenship, and vigilance against tyranny. Such ideological expressions were not unusual for these men. For decades they had believed that the Southern slave system endangered republican government in the United States and had fought against it, helping to start the Free Soil Party in the 1840s and then the Republican Party in the 1850s.

Although they were members of the Republican Party during the Civil War, the liberal republicans only grudgingly compromised their republican ideology

* I use liberal republican in lowercase to indicate the movement and Liberal Republican
in uppercase to indicate the political party that was formed at the Cincinnati Conven
tion on May 1-3,1872.

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