Fred Barnes Reviews Jennifer Weber’s Copperheads

Executive editor of the Weekly Standard Fred Barnes recently reviewed Jennifer Weber’s new book Copperheads: The Rise and Fall of Lincoln’s Opponents in the North.  He provides a very thorough overview of the history of the Copperheads and Weber’s argument.  As I was reading I was waiting for the analogies with Democratic opposition to the war in Iraq.  Barnes doesn’t disappoint as he makes the standard argument at the very end of his review.

Weber draws no analogy with Democrats today. She sticks to history. But I think the analogy is inescapable–not that Democrats are unpatriotic or treasonous. But like the Copperheads, antiwar Democrats have grown in numbers as victory in the war–in Iraq now–has faded from sight. They’ve weakened the president’s tools in combating terrorists and made that effort more difficult. And Democrats today have offered no real alternative, merely a seemingly irresistible impulse to retreat from Iraq.

Something similar was true with the Copperheads. "They never offered a coherent alternative to Lincoln’s plan–war–nor did they ever acknowledge the Confederates’ own resolve to gain independence," writes Weber. On that last point–the South’s rejoining the Union–talks with the South would have been worthless since Southern leaders were insistent on secession. So, too, I suspect, would be one-on-one talks (favored by Demo crats) with America’s enemies now, such as North Korea and Iran.

I have one quibble with Weber’s otherwise wonderful book. She labels the Copperheads "conservatives." But were they? They were soft on slavery. They were not patriotic. They fomented violent protests. They interpreted the Constitution in a way that would have crippled a wartime president. They hated the war more than they loved the Union.

Does that qualify them as conservative? I think not.

First, I have little patience with comparing Democrats with those who opposed Lincoln’s policies.  There is political opposition in every war and in a democracy it is absolutely necessary.  Barnes’s comments raises the question of under what conditions is opposition justified during wartime.  Was Lincoln’s own strong opposition ("Spot Resolutions") to American aggression against Mexico justified?  It seems to me that there has actually been very little "opposition" to the war among Democrats; there has been, however, a great deal of questions surrounding the president’s rationale for the war and especially the handling of the situation on the ground in Iraq.  If Barnes is being critical of Democrats he is certainly mild in tone, which I suspect has much to do with the fact that he acknowledges that the opposition to the war is justified.  As to the criticism that the Democrats have not offered a viable alternative to the president’s "policy", all I can say is that perhaps there is no alternative.  The incoming secretary of defense and Colin Powell have recently alluded to that possibility. 

2 responses... add one

In response to Barnes’ review:

To be accurate about the origins of “conservative,” it was not Weber who originated the term conservative. The Democrats proudly labeled themselves conservatives to describe their blend of patriotism and protest against racial equality.

Barnes’ “quibbles” reveal a fundamental misunderstanding about race in the Civil War North. Conservative (as in “conservative Democrat”) referred to preserving a racial hierarchy, in addition to the country! Of course, these became increasingly contradictory goals. (Reference the political debates in the North, summer and fall 1862)

That is an obvious weakness in Barnes’s otherwise decent review. His comment that the Copperheads, “hated the war more than they loved the Union” smacks of presentim. I figured someone would eventually point that out.

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