Saturday, November 19, 2005

Antiwar Democrats

You won’t read much about politics here on Signalwriter. Too uncivil. But I can’t resist a historical opportunity. Listening to conservative talk shows on radio here in Houston over the past few weeks, commentators have had difficulty characterizing Democrats who are violently against the ongoing “war in Iraq.” In one broadcast conversation, between Sean Hannity and former Speaker Newt Gingrich, Gingrich was asked if he (as an historian) had ever seen anything like this sort of opposition.

He mentioned the British appeasement of Hitler and the Nazis prior to World War II. Speaker Gingrich has not dug deeply enough into history, nor had Mr. Hannity.

“Copperhead” is the term they are looking for. It’s a good old American term for the antiwar faction of the Democratic party during our Civil War. While you can easily Google the word, the most accessible explanation is in the James M. McPherson book, Battle Cry of Freedom: “…virtually all those who denounced and resisted the militia draft were Democrats.”

Not only did these Democrats lead the resistance against the then-new draft laws, “The ‘copperhead’ faction of the northern Democratic party opposed the transformation of the Civil War into a total war – a war to destroy the old South itself” and the evils of slavery.

As a group, copperheads vilified President Abraham Lincoln, ranted incessantly against Unionist war aims, accused generals and troops of awful ravages against Southern slaveholders – and you wouldn’t believe the language they used in their newspapers between 1863 and 1865. This segment of the Democratic party even nominated a General, George McClellan, to run against Lincoln in the 1864 election. (Note the engraving above, from the NY Historical Society.)

With good reason, this violent, nasty opposition afforded War Democrats and Republicans the chance to question the loyalty of those who opposed Lincoln's policies, either military or civil (for example, the suspension of habeas corpus). It was not until years after the Civil War that the Democratic party lived down the association.

So if, by some chance, you’re looking for a collective noun to describe some of this over-the-top antiwar activity, “copperhead” should do nicely.

Historical Saturday, y'all.

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