- Lincoln and the Democrats: The Politics of Opposition in the Civil War by Mark E. Neely Jr.
Understanding northern Democrats during the Civil War era has always been a problematic task. Understudied, they do not fit neatly into a Civil War narrative centered on emancipation—it is easy to forget, for example, that Democrats represented approximately 45 percent of the white northern electorate. They complicate the idea of a unified North marching in lockstep, standing as a reminder that northern war aims varied widely. Historians, most notably Frank L. Klement, in The Copperheads in the Middle West (1960), and Jennifer L. Weber, in Copperheads: The Rise and Fall of Lincoln's Opponents in the North (2006), have typically cast northern Democrats as the foil to Lincoln and the Republicans, emphasizing the extremes of the party's notorious and vocal Copperhead peace wing. In Lincoln and the Democrats: The Politics of Opposition in the Civil War, Mark E. Neely Jr. pushes back against that characterization, arguing "that the threat of the peace wing has been magnified as much as threefold above its real strength" (4). Neely instead seeks to understand northern Democrats on their own terms, restoring a view of the Democrats as the "loyal opposition," not agents of "Copperhead subversion and conspiracy" (4).
Neely's account of northern Democrats "is concerned mainly with political history in its old-fashioned preoccupations," which means a focus on elections, voting, candidates, and platforms (5). In particular, Neely draws extensively from northern newspapers, relying on thirty-nine [End Page 334] mostly Democratic state and local organs. By no means is Lincoln and the Democrats a comprehensive overview of the party's activities during the war—this is not a chronological retelling of the ups and downs of the party's electoral fortunes (for that, Joel H. Silbey's 1977 A Respectable Minority: The Democratic Party in the Civil War Era, 1860–1868 will likely remain the standard account). Rather, Neely takes a more thematic approach, using five succinct chapters to address different questions about northern Democrats and Civil War politics, including the nature of wartime political opposition and the ways in which the war affected partisanship. None of this is to diminish Neely's contribution. As he rightly points out, "We simply do not understand the Democrats, study them enough, or make much of an attempt to see the Civil War through their eyes" (85).
The first chapter explores the idea of northern Democrats as the loyal opposition by focusing on the problem of mobilization during wartime. Neely demonstrates the boundaries of partisan rhetoric, showing how Democrats carried their fair share of the heavy lifting of financing the war and raising troops, and that they were not the shrill peace men they are often made out to be. "The noisy rhetoric" of partisan life, Neely contends, "has all but deafened historians to the low murmur of steady non-partisan work for victory" (44). In the second and third chapters, Neely challenges the stereotype that northern Democrats extensively used campaign appeals to northern racism to win elections, or that the party was dominated by its peace wing. For example, Neely argues that a backlash against the Emancipation Proclamation does not explain the Democratic victories in the midterm elections of 1862. Rather, Neely says, it was the failure of Lincoln and the Republicans to effectively organize or anticipate the activism of Democrats—activism that Neely claims predated Lincoln's preliminary proclamation. Chapter 3 examines several gubernatorial campaigns in 1863, and Neely reminds us that northern Democrats nominated only one bona fide peace candidate for governor during the war, Thomas H. Seymour of Connecticut. Other well-known and supposed peace candidates, such as Clement Vallandigham of Ohio and George Woodward of Pennsylvania, ran in actuality as martyrs to public liberty in the wake of the Lincoln administration's suspension of habeas corpus. Neely maintains that during the presidential election of 1864, race and slavery were not as central to George...