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  • The Fire in the Rear
  • Charles W. Calhoun (bio)
Jennifer L. Weber. Copperheads: The Rise and Fall of Lincoln’s Opponents in the North. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. xi + 286 pp. Figures, notes, bibliography, and index. $28.00.

Few would dispute that in all of American history, the Civil War marked the severest test ever of the nation's democratic political institutions. The roots of the sectional crisis that led to war lay deep in the origins and evolution of the nation's social, economic, and racial order, but the proximate cause was the refusal of large numbers of citizens to accept the victory of a particular political party at a peaceful and fair election. The nation's founders had been highly suspicious of parties, and according to Adam Smith in No Party Now: Politics in the Civil War North (2006), antipartyism persisted through much of the nineteenth century, at least as a potent rallying cry against one's partisan opponents. Even so, as Richard Hofstadter demonstrated in The Idea of a Party System (1969), Americans had also come to embrace parties as essential bulwarks of republican government. And yet, after the Republican victory in 1860 large numbers of Southerners sought to dislodge their states from the Union rather than submit to Republican party rule, which they believed threatened their way of life. President Abraham Lincoln and his allies recognized instinctively what this rejection of their party's triumph meant. They cast the secessionist project not merely as an attempt to dissolve the indissoluble Union but most fundamentally as an assault on republican government itself, a vast conspiracy against what Lincoln called "government of the people, by the people, for the people."

That the outcome of an election sparked the Southern rebellion and the ensuing civil war inevitably raised apprehension regarding the viability of the system of partisan conflict in the loyal portion of the nation. It was with no little irony that in fighting to preserve republican institutions, Lincoln and the Republicans felt enormous pressure to wage the struggle without themselves abusing those institutions. As Lincoln put it, "We can not have free government without elections; and if the rebellion could force us to forego, or postpone a national election, it might fairly claim to have already conquered and ruined us" (p. 198). But Lincoln also feared what he called "the fire in the rear" (p. 12). [End Page 530] He knew that maintaining an open political system in the "loyal" section ran the risk of giving license to men who sympathized with the nation's enemies and who could undermine the government's war effort. The actions and influence of these Northern antagonists are the subject of Jennifer L. Weber's new study, Copperheads: The Rise and Fall of Lincoln's Opponents in the North.

Two central and intertwined questions have run through the historiography of the Copperhead phenomenon: how real or significant a threat did these Northern dissenters pose to the Union war effort and hence to the nation's survival? And to what extent and with what justification did the Lincoln administration and other Republican officials violate civil liberties to contain the perceived menace? The first book-length scholarly treatment of the Copperheads appeared in 1942, shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. In The Hidden Civil War, Wood Gray decried the "defeatism" of the Copperheads, whose activities, he argued, served the Confederacy's aims as surely as if they had been outright allies. The same year, the popular historian George Fort Milton published Abraham Lincoln and the Fifth Column, which similarly condemned the traitorous Copperheads and praised Lincoln as a model defender of democracy, although Milton bore no love for the Radical Republicans on Lincoln's left flank.

The nationalist orthodoxy confirmed by Gray's work came in for its most serious challenge from Frank L. Klement, who devoted most of his career to debunking the idea that the Copperheads represented any real danger. Launching his work in the 1950s, when many Americans recoiled at the political smear tactics of Joseph McCarthy and other communist baiters, Klement argued that the Copperheads' activities, especially their alleged participation in treasonous anti-Union secret societies, were...


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pp. 530-537
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