For Constitution Day, which is September 17, I want to discuss the Radical Republicans. No, not Gym Jordan, Elise Stefanik, and many in the current GOP, who are indeed radical but not for justice.
On August 15, Professor Stephen E. Gottlieb, professor emeritus at the Albany Law School, presented a talk, Should We Abolish the Supreme Court? He referenced his book Unfit for Democracy. and The Case Against the Supreme Court by Erwin Chemerinsky.
Professor Gottlieb noted that those in his party who put Abraham Lincoln’s feet to the fire were labeled Radical Republicans. Gottlieb remembers this designation was offered as pejorative when he attended public school. My recollection of my school days is the same.
“The Radical Republicans were a group of politicians who formed a faction within the Republican party that lasted from the Civil War into the era of Reconstruction. They were led by Thaddeus Stevens in the House of Representatives and Charles Sumner in the Senate. The Radicals were known for their opposition to slavery, their efforts to ensure emancipation and civil rights for Blacks and their strong opinions on post-war Reconstruction.”
After engaging in a bloody Civil War, incrementalism was not on the minds of many Republicans, whose party was only about a decade old. “While President Lincoln wanted to fight the war largely for the preservation of the Union, the Radical Republicans believed the primary reason for fighting was for the abolition of slavery.”
The Civil War amendments
It would have been impossible for the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to have passed without the Radical Republicans. “The Civil Rights Act of 1866 was an effort by the Radical Republicans to reinforce the Thirteenth Amendment that abolished slavery and had been passed the year prior. With this Civil Rights Act, the radicals were also taking steps towards establishing citizenship for Blacks by defending their civil rights and granting them equal protection under the law. In 1867, they were successful in passing the Fourteenth Amendment, which granted citizenship to Blacks…
“New Reconstruction Acts were passed and called for each rebel state to draft a new constitution as well as ratify the new Fourteenth Amendment… Congress, meaning primarily Radical Republicans, would then have to approve these new state constitutions before readmitting the rebel state back into the Union… Furthermore, they deployed military troops to the South to maintain order and to protect the rights of Black citizens. In 1870, the Fifteenth Amendment was passed, granting Blacks the right to vote.”
The legislation inhibiting Andrew Johnson’s ability to remove his own cabinet members, which led to the impeachment of the President in 1868, was an overreach. While the Radical Republicans dominated the late 1860s, their power dwindled in the early 1870s. Corruption seeped into the party, including fights over civil service reform. Beyond that, figures like Sumner “believed that the era of Reconstruction was successfully completed and no longer needed Radical supervision.”
A century later
The justice that was supposed to have been codified in the 1860s and 1870s had been thwarted, in large part because of the Supreme Court’s decisions such as the “separate but equal” Plessy v. Ferguson (1896).
As a result, civil rights for Black people had to be relitigated, mainly in the 1950s and 1960s. It was addressed in legislation such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
But it was also manifest in decisions by the Warren Court (1953-1969), not only overtly about race (Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, Loving v. Virginia), but cases of justice regardless of race. Professor Gottlieb suggested that this period was the highlight of the Supreme Court’s history.
“In 1961, Mapp v. Ohio strengthened the Fourth Amendment’s protections by banning prosecutors from using evidence seized in illegal searches in trials. In 1963, Gideon v. Wainwright held that the Sixth Amendment required that all indigent criminal defendants be assigned a free, publicly-funded defense attorney. Finally, the 1966 case of Miranda v. Arizona required that all persons being interrogated while in police custody be clearly informed of their rights—such as the right to an attorney—and acknowledge their understanding of those rights—the so-called ‘Miranda warning.'”
This reminded me of the SCOTUS decision by the Roberts Court in June 2013, which “struck down a section of the Voting Rights Act, weakening a tool the federal government has used for nearly five decades to block discriminatory voting laws.” It was as though the justices decided that “we have overcome.”
Many, including me, were then SHOCKED when SCOTUS provided a significant victory for voting rights in 2023. “It handed down a 5-4 decision in Allen v. Milligan that preserves longstanding safeguards against racism in US elections, strikes down a gerrymandered congressional map in Alabama, and all but assures that Democrats will gain at least one congressional seat in the next election from that state.”
The arc of the moral universe is undoubtedly long. Whether it bends towards justice, I’m less confident.