"Radicalism" in the United States owes its origin to the "Radical Reformation" of 16th- and 17th century Europe and the mixture of civil rebellions and millenarian movements going back in human memory to earliest times. Indeed, much of American radicalism reflects the belief in a Golden Age before hierarchies, and contains an Old Testament-style rebuke of existing authorities as evil usurpers.
Indian rebellions against European colonizers, notably "King Philip's War" in 1675, might be taken alongside the transplanting of Pietist colonies (like the Ephrata colony, established west of Philadelphia in 1733) as the precursors of political radicalism. The many volumes of Ephratan hymns, a veritable poetry of collective life and apocalyptic anticipation, are arguably the first published texts of American radicalism. But Thomas Paine's antimonarchical Common Sense (1776) is the first widely read document and the first with direct bearing upon the fate of the incipient nation. The revolution that it inspired was radical in effect only for white colonists; slaves and Indians would have fared better had national consolidation and territorial expansion been halted.
Paine's life nevertheless characterized the fate of radicalism in another important way. His attack on wrongful colonial authority and the need for free elections gained him the enmity of ungrateful American conservatives, forcing him from postrevolutionary public life. His return from political activity in Europe later found him shunned even by old friends like Thomas Jefferson for his unabashed atheism and his concern for the increasing divide of wealth and poverty in the new republic.
The burden of radicalism had already passed on to the direct action of Daniel Shays's followers, whose rebellion in Massachusetts in 1786 sought to redress economic privilege. Fifteen citizens were sentenced to death (two were actually hung), a small figure compared to the victims of racial pogroms directed at real and potential uprisings by nonwhites. Hundreds of followers of Tecumseh and The Prophet were slaughtered in 1811, thousands more to come in the process of seizing Indian lands. The continuing casualties of slavery included Gabriel Prosser in 1800, Denmark Veysey in 1822, and Nat Turner in 1831, who led slave rebellions, all crushed. Black fugitives had joined with surviving Indian peoples in many locations, together defending communities for several decades in the Seminole Wars, which were fought to several brutal conclusions by future president Andrew Jackson, among others. In matters of race as of civil insurrection against wealth, ruthlessness was the standard treatment for radicals.
Radicalism nevertheless found new outlets in the twin sites of the early labor movement and the perfectionist social movements of the 1830 to the 1850s. Urging shorter hours, free public schools, and free land in the West, early workers' movements also made educational points articulated best by intellectuals George Henry Evans and Frances Wright: that racism, like class exploitation, wounded all hopes for freedom. The contrary vision of a "white republic" in which class would remain fluid as race would stand as absolute marked the corruption of labor movements by politicians and a succession of blue collar demagogues.
The great reform movements of the mid-nineteenth century--woman's rights, abolitionism, and spiritualism--began from a different standpoint. Social class as such concerned them less than the vision of universal citizenship and multidimensional improvement. Meeting in Seneca Falls in 1848, the first woman's rights convention declared a revolutionary principal afoot. Half the human race would hereafter speak rather than accept silently the indignities and handicaps of submission. Closely linked with this movement through outstanding personalities and ordinary footsoldiers of reform, abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass declared the human right to expropriate wrongful "property." Spiritualism, an often misunderstood link between the movements and a larger population of sympathizers, grew from a rejection of patriarchal Calvinism and a belief in the oneness of human spirit with surrounding nature.
The outbreak of Civil War eclipsed every movement but war itself--and emancipation. Black and white abolitionists as well as the radical Women's National Loyal League demanded that President Lincoln set out emancipation as the war's goal. As Lincoln responded with the Emancipation Proclamation, what Du Bois called the largest "general strike" in history soon followed: African Americans abandoning "their" plantations and opening the way for Union victory. Disappointment followed. Republican "Radicals," never as trustworthy as the Abolitionists and organized women had hoped, laid out a vision of a postwar South in which their party could rule by crushing the slavocracy. But they did not offer freed slaves the means to reorganize the new southern society themselves, and in the end (by 1876) the "radicals" had abandoned African Americans to what Du Bois called "a new capitalism and a new enslavement of labor," a model for imperial expansion across the planet.
In this great saga, real radicals had several more hands to play. The first American followers of Karl Marx, mostly German immigrants, set out plans for a radicalized labor movement with (as many hoped) a special place for racial egalitarianism. Intermittently, for the next half-century, African Americans, Mexican Americans and Asian Americans would find that thin section of socialists and labor radicals ready to take on race issues with special urgency. The American-born members of the International Workingmen's Association (organized in the United States 1866-1873), led by Victoria Woodhull, embraced Marxism along with antiracism, woman suffrage, free love, and spiritualism, putting up a ticket of herself and Frederick Douglass for president and vice-president in 1872. This movement was swept away in postwar conservative reaction, arose in different form following the national railroad strike in 1877, and re-emerged in the labor and populist movements of the 1880s to the 1890s.
The Knights of Labor, more reformers than unionists, nevertheless briefly mobilized a half-million working people during the middle of the 1880s, including thousands of women, Mexican Americans, and African Americans (Asian Americans were excluded). Their hope to halt the advance of capitalism and create the guidelines for industrial democracy was foiled by industrial barons, aided by political authorities, the press--and by the new and determinedly exclusionary American Federation of Labor. Repeatedly thereafter, unions formed on less exclusionary lines were swept aside, well into the twentieth century.
Populism (its constituent movements known as the Farmers Alliance) revived multiracial radicalism in other forms. Great cooperative institutions in the South and challenges to the two-party system in South and West seemed to shake the profit system. A Colored Farmers Alliance in the South swept in tens of thousands of African Americans, and African-American voters threatened to tip the balance toward populism in Louisiana and elsewhere. Lynchings, voter fraud, and generalized terrorism met these challenges, and a section of populism (led by Tom Watson, erstwhile courageous support of black rights) itself turned to racism. Brave socialist efforts to halt the Spanish-American war and the American slaughter of Filipino nationalists were made in vain. A large and influential Socialist Party, founded and led after the turn of the century by Eugene V. Debs, created a constituency of working people only to be crushed by the repression of President Woodrow Wilson's government after 1917. The emerging modern liberalism and conservatism, well into the 1940s, assumed racial boundaries as proper, and their leaders with but few exceptions cooperated in punishing egalitarian movements. World wars, fought under the banners of emancipation, subtly aimed at reapportioning regions of economic influence. Genuinely radical movements struggled against overwhelming odds to change the agenda.
Intellectuals like W. E. B. Du Bois, labor activists such as A. Philip Randolph, and advanced figures within such labor movements as the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) proposed drastic changes in society's racial orientation as well as its economic-political character. But a thorough emphasis on racial egalitarianism did not emerge until the 1920s, when a defeated American Left looked abroad to forces shaking the colonial world.
Communists, too closely tied to Russian leadership but heroic in their own local circumstances, struggled to build an antiracist movement. In part, they succeeded amazingly--at least until the Cold War--in building unions devoted (if only abstractly in racial and often gender terms) to egalitarianism and industrial democracy. They also spurred a radical interracial culture, from films to cabaret music to literature, which flourished through the middle of the 1940s.
The cold war chilled radicalism, as liberals joined with conservatives to detach social justice and the redistribution of wealth from a welfare state program. Civil rights radicalism, never quite crushed as labor radicalism had been, revived only by direct action, from the Montgomery Bus Boycott to the lunch-counter sit-ins to the appearance of Black Power during the 1960s, with leaders stretching from Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X to Stokely Carmichael. The antiwar movement, environmentalism, feminism, Indian, Chicano, Asian and still later, the gay movements, all added new dimensions to radical claims. A municipal reform movement brought African-American figures with long records of radical alliances to power locally during the 1970s and the 1980s. But by the 1980s, the recuperative power of capitalism had overwhelmed resistance in most quarters. Radicalism again consisted, as it had during other low periods, largely of support for revolutionary movements abroad, from Africa to Central America; and these movements too were almost uniformly defeated, or in the end domesticated and their radical plans set aside.
By the close of the century, radicalism was dispersed and institutionally weak. But new immigrant populations (most notably, from the Dominican Republic and Haiti) showed signs of a radical sentiment urgently needed to reawaken movements damped down by defeat and disappointment.