- "Gentleman George" Hunt Pendleton: Party Politics and Ideological Identity in Nineteenth-Century America
Historians have long lamented the scarcity of primary source collections related to Civil War–era Democrats, particularly members of the Copperhead wing of the party. Many of the most prominent and interesting party leaders failed to leave large collections of personal papers. Among them, George Hunt Pendleton of Ohio also left no cache for historians to mine. This lack of primary material, according to Thomas S. Mach, has resulted in little scholarly interest in Pendleton's life. Historians have generally relied on the negative things his opponents said about him. Thus, Mach concludes that current historical understandings of Pendleton are "at best incomplete and at worst simply inaccurate" (1).
Mach's new political biography of George H. Pendleton is a welcome addition to the literature on politics during the Civil War. In Mach's view, Pendleton's life provides not only an optimal view of the Democratic party during the Era of Party but also stands as "a case study of the longevity of Jacksonian principles and their political adaption during some of the most critical periods in the nation's history." (1) Pendleton, in short, was a committed Democrat who carried Jacksonian principles forward from the antebellum period through the Civil War and into the Gilded Age. Along the way, he reinterpreted Jacksonianism to meet the changing needs of new times and circumstances.
The son of a one-term Whig congressman, Pendleton rejected his father's party but inherited his Whiggish penchant for reform. Still, Pendleton pursued Jacksonian rather than Whig objectives. Throughout his career, Pendleton opposed franking privileges for congressmen, he argued that more transparency in government could be accomplished by having cabinet members appear before Congress on a regular basis, and in the latter stage of his career he successfully championed merit-based civil service reform.
Readers of this journal will be most interested in Mach's discussion of party politics during the Civil War. As a young congressman in the 1850s, [End Page 227] Pendleton opposed disunion, both because of his devotion to the Constitution and Union and because he knew that secession would weaken the Democratic party. During the secession winter, Pendleton called for compromise, condemning the extremists on both sides. Constitutional issues, in Pendleton's mind, could not be solved by force. Consequently, he opposed any coercion of the South and called for adoption of the Crittenden Compromise. If Congress would not accept a compromise with the South, Pendleton argued that they ought to allow the southern states to depart in peace. Pendleton's opposition to coercion revealed his continuing commitment to state's rights and limited government, but, unlike Jackson, Pendleton was unwilling to use force to preserve the Union.
Mach argues that Pendleton initially charted a moderate course in the conflict. He always supported the troops even when he did not agree with how they were being employed, and he appeared to offer conditional support for a limited war to restore the Union. Still, his adherence to Jacksonian principles—strict constructionism, elevation of the ordinary white Americans, and opposition to consolidated power, not to mention his sympathy with slavery and the South—kept Pendleton from supporting the war effort as Lincoln was waging it. After Lincoln proclaimed emancipation, Pendleton became increasingly obstructionist.
One of Mach's most significant contributions is his classification of the Democratic party. Mach argues that Democrats who actually sympathized with the South made up a small minority among the party; Pendleton was part of a loyal and legitimate opposition and check to the Lincoln administration and its policies. Mach divides the Peace Democrats into three factions: peace-at-any-price men—men like Alexander Long who were willing to accept disunion to end the war; Extreme Peace Democrats, like Vallandigham and Pendleton, who believed that coercion was unconstitutional but that some form of aggression was necessary after South Carolina fired on Fort Sumter; and Moderate Peace Democrats like S. S. Cox...