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The Doom of Reconstruction

The Liberal Republicans in the Civil War Era


Andrew L. Slap


New York: Fordham University Press, 2006 [Fourth Edition, 2010]

Paperback. xxv + 306 pages. $26.00. ISBN-13: 978-0823227105


Reviewed by Evelyne Payen-Variéras

Université Sorbonne Nouvelle-Paris 3


The Doom of Reconstruction chronicles the history of the liberal republican movement, “a small, elite group that met regularly from 1870 to 1872 and considered themselves an organization” [xix]. In the words of Charles Francis Adams Jr., these men were “editors, economists, politicians and men of business—few in number […] but wielding an enormous power through the press” [24]. Andrew Slap argues that their venture into politics should not be equated with the anti-Grant campaign led by Horace Greeley and the Liberal Republican party after the Cincinnati convention of May 1872. The movement took shape in 1870, when a group of Republicans in Missouri successfully rose against the candidate and the platform of the regular Republican Party, in the name of reconciliation with the former Confederates and civil service reform. The Missouri liberals received the support of the German-American leader Carl Schurz and of the American Free Trade League. They were joined by the editors of several Midwestern and Eastern newspapers, as well as Charles Francis Adams and his sons, and the movement was launched at a meeting in New York on November 22, 1870. By the time of the 1872 presidential election, however, the founders of the movement were sorely disappointed: some of them half-heartedly supported Horace Greeley, while others were so resentful of Greeley’s nomination that they went back to the fold of the Republican Party and endorsed Grant.

The Doom of Reconstruction emphasizes the volatility of party affiliations in the early Gilded Age. It is meant as a contribution to the ongoing critique of the assumptions and methods of the so-called “New political history” of the late 1960’s. Slap’s narrative succeeds in giving the reader a vivid sense of the fast pace of time in politics, and makes a convincing case for the fundamental instability of the party system in the early Gilded Age. Most of the liberal republicans had been involved in the Free Soil party or had been anti-slavery Democrats before joining the Republican party in the 1850’s, and they expected that the battles over Reconstruction would yield another overhaul of the existing political parties. The fluidity of party lines appears most forcefully in Slap’s gripping account of the events that led to the choice of Horace Greeley by theCincinnati convention in the spring of 1872. Slap shows how the politicians and newspaper editors who called the convention tried to bring in outsiders to strengthen their assault on the Republican Party: Greeley was the enemy of the free traders of New York, but his New York Tribune was an influential newspaper. Greeley and his friends were also possible allies against a more dangerous outsider, Supreme Court Justice David Davis, who supported reconciliation with the South, had a strong following among Illinois Democrats and was also endorsed by a Labor Reform Convention advocating labor legislation. In the end, even the influential newspaper editors lost control of the decisions of the delegations, and the Cincinnati convention nominated Greeley instead of the historic leaders of the movement, Charles Francis Adams and Illinois Senator Lyman Trumbull.

Slap’s work does not completely alter the traditional view of the liberal republicans, although he is more sympathetic to his subject than John Sproat’s Best Men.(1) Shunning psychological and sociological interpretations of the liberal republicans’ motives, Slap highlights their long-standing commitment to classical republican ideology. He shows that the liberal republicans used the same language against “Slave Power” in the 1850’s as in their post-Civil War campaigns against corruption and the spoils system. Their conviction that principles should take precedence over political expediency did not necessarily make them naive and impractical: men like Carl Schurz, Lyman Trumbull, or Samuel Bowles, of the Springfield Republican, were also pragmatic politicians. However, Slap’s blaming the liberal republicans’ failure on their “lack of political talent” [xiii, 127], or on “a combination of mistakes, rivalries and bad luck” [xxv] is not very convincing. The demands of his narrative, his fascination with the republican rhetoric and his extensive use of quotations make it difficult for Slap to address the relations between the liberal republicans and the regular Republicans, whose rhetoric and platforms were very similar, as well as the problems raised by the emerging labor groups in key Midwestern states likeIllinois. The book tends to overlook the analysis of the debates and disagreements within the movement, as well as the fact that these well-educated notables also represented different regions. The editors of the Springfield Republican and the Cincinnati Commercial opposed Charles Francis Adams Jr’s views on the railroads [105-106]. Likewise, the advocates of revenue reform did not always see eye to eye with the free traders. The internal strife that plagued the movement during the 1872 campaign was probably not a simple story of disappointment and betrayal.


(1) John G. Sproat. "The Best Men": Liberal Reformers in the Gilded Age. New York: Oxford University Press, 1968.





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