The Civil War and Reconstruction Years
Generally belligerent toward the South, the Republicans were regarded by Southerners with mingled hatred and fear as sectional tension increased. They were successful in the elections of 1858 and passed over their better-known leaders to nominate Abraham Lincoln in 1860. The party platform in 1860 included planks calling for a high protective tariff, free homesteads, and a transcontinental railroad; these were bids for support among Westerners, farmers, and eastern manufacturing interests.
Lincoln's victory over Stephen A. Douglas, John C. Breckinridge, and John Bell was the signal for the secession of the Southern states, and the Civil War followed. Union military failures early in the war and conservative opposition to such measures as the Emancipation Proclamation caused the party to lose ground in the Congressional elections of 1862. But despite mutterings against his leadership, Lincoln, renominated on the Union (Republican) ticket in 1864, defeated Gen. George B. McClellan.
Although a separate ticket headed by the radical Frémont withdrew before the election in 1864, the cleavage within the party between radicals and moderates widened as the war progressed. Radicals such as Benjamin F. Wade, Henry W. Davis, Thaddeus Stevens, Charles Sumner, and Edwin M. Stanton advocated a punitive policy for the South, while Lincoln and the moderates were inclined to leniency. The division was made complete when, after Lincoln's assassination, his successor, Andrew Johnson, adopted a moderate program of Reconstruction. Johnson, a Jacksonian Democrat from Tennessee, had been added to the ticket in 1864 to strengthen the idea of a Union party. Ultimately his policies and attempts to implement them antagonized his supporters among the moderate Republicans and paved the way for the triumph of the radicals in the congressional elections of 1866. The height of radical power was reached in 1868 with the impeachment of Johnson, which was defeated by only a one-vote margin.
The nomination of the war hero Ulysses S. Grant assured Republican success over the Democrats led by Horatio Seymour in the presidential election of 1868. The radicals were supreme under Grant, but their excesses and the open scandals of the administration created a new schism, leading to the formation of the Liberal Republican party. Its candidate, Horace Greeley, although supported by the Democrats, was not popular enough to defeat Grant in 1872, and corruption became even more widespread.
The election of 1876 indicated that radical Republicanism had lost much of its popular support. The Democratic candidate, Samuel J. Tilden, received a popular plurality of over 250,000 votes, but the disputed electoral votes of Florida, South Carolina, and Louisiana, the only Southern states still under Republican control, were awarded to Rutherford B. Hayes, and the Republican was declared President-elect. With the election, however, Republican domination of the South and radical rule of the party were definitely ended.
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