LINCOLN AND THE COPPERHEADS —Yesterday and Today
By David A. Harper
Democrats and Republicans, left and right, are separated by many issues but opposition to war has been one of the most basic principals of the Democratic left in the USA since the party was first formed circa 1800. It first became vitriolic when the Civil War started. Activists hurled hateful words about and attempted to sabotage the war effort in the North. Lincoln, a Republican, was called, among other things: liar, monster, despot, fiend, ignoramus, monkey, etc. (Sound familiar?)
Anti-war protestors disrupted recruiting and some of the press spread false rumors in their support and magnified Confederate successes and minimized Union successes in the field. In the South such action would have been considered seditious and therefore it did not happen. In the North, those opposing the war and the newspapers supporting them were called “Copperheads.” They did much damage to the war effort both psychologically and physically.
Lincoln was unsure how best to handle this problem. Mindful of First Amendment rights he was handicapped in a time of war while his opponent had no such restrictions (familiar?). On the subject he said: “Must I shoot a simple soldier boy who deserts, while I must not touch a hair of a wily agitator who induces him to desert?”
Against this backdrop Lincoln did illegally override the Constitution a number of times. His governing principal was that a nation must be able to protect itself against expression that causes insubordination or actually obstructs the raising of armies. When the Copperhead press deliberately printed a lie saying that the Lincoln administration had decided to draft (familiar?) 400,000 men it caused draft riots in New York that had to be put down by the army. As a result Lincoln ordered the New York newspapers, the Journal of Commerce and the World to be closed and had their owners imprisoned. General Burnside, military commander in Ohio, also had the Chicago Times shut down. Lincoln illegally suspended the writ of habeas corpus three times during the war. Fortunately there was no ACLU then.
One of the leading Copperheads, former congressman Clement Vanlandigham was arrested on General Burnside’s orders after making a speech against the war and denouncing “King” Lincoln in very unsavory terms. He was tried by military tribunal and sentenced to two years imprisonment. Lincoln decided to commute his sentence to “banishment” to the Confederate states. He survived the war and even ran unsuccessfully for Governor of Ohio. Interestingly he died in 1871 when he accidentally shot himself with a gun he thought unloaded.
He was defending a client accused of murder and intended to prove that the man who had been killed had killed himself accidentally while taking a gun out of his pocket. In demonstrating this to his colleagues in a hotel room he shot himself and died from the wound. The defendant was found not guilty and so it could literally be said that the lawyer gave his life for his client!
General U. S. Grant was also bitter about the copperheads as he had to use troops from the front to guard prisoners in the north from copperheads who planned to release and arm them. In his memoirs he wrote, “The copperhead disreputable portion of the press magnified rebel successes and belittled those of the Union army. The North would have been much stronger with a hundred thousand of these men in the Confederate ranks and the rest of their kind thoroughly subdued, just as Union sentiment was in the South.”
Today, First Amendment rights and the ACLU protect all those who wish to damage the war efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan and attack US Presidents with lies and innuendo. Leaks that damage the US image abroad are somehow considered acceptable, unless of course created by a foreigner. The recent leaks produced by the Australian editor in chief of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, have been attacked as damaging to the war effort and his arrest has been proposed. But has anything done more damage than the USA’s own press in plastering Abu Ghraib pictures all over the world? Or hammering away at the illegality of the Guantanamo prison and the failure to give dangerous terrorists held there habeas corpus rights?
As Walt Kelly’s Pogo famously said, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”