One of the most important undercurrents of the Civil War was the role the strong Democratic minority played in criticizing Lincoln’s Republican administration, the Radical Republican Congress, and the war effort in general. But Democrats did not provide a united front or bulwark of opposition to the government and the Union cause, rather far from it.
In fact, it was in large part the contentious, but ultimately loyal, Democratic opposition that put pressure on Republican President Abraham Lincoln and his administration to succeed and make wise military and political decisions. Dissent was an important factor, but ultimate loyalty to the broken nation and the Union cause was the highest form of patriotism.
While some Democrats focused on the perceived civil rights abuses of the administration, others became the most militant flag-wavers, joining the military en masse. These “Jacksonian” Democrats saw the confrontation between the Union and the Confederacy as a battle between “patriots and traitors,” as Illinois Democrat and famous Lincoln debate partner Stephen A. Douglas said just before the war. Staunch and enduring patriotism was at the heart of the 19th century Jacksonian creed.
Gods and Generals director Ron Maxwell explores some of the Northern Democrat opposition in his new movie, Copperheads. Copperheads were generally the “peace” democrats during the war who were highly suspicious of the cause, but the movie’s lead character, an upstate New Yorker named Abner Beech, is not among their number. He is more closely aligned with the Jacksonians, as were many of the country-dwelling folks of that period.
The film explores how the war was a battle for the American soul, a soul that remained very much divided during and after the war.
Notable antebellum America historian Eric McKitrick explained in Political Parties in American History: 1828-1890 how this energetic opposition, instead of weakening the Union, gave it an edge over the one-party rule of the Confederacy. McKitrick said, “…the presence of an organized party of opposition, performed a variety of functions in mobilizing and managing the energies needed for sustaining the Union war effort.”
McKitrick continued, “The absence of such a system in the Confederacy seems to have more than a casual bearing on the process whereby Southern energies, over and beyond the course of military events, became diffused and dissipated.”
The collapse of the Whig Party in the 1850s, initiated by the Compromise of 1850 and made complete by the ruinous Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, is well-known, but the disintegration of the Democratic Party had equally profound consequences for the Union.
In the period just before the war, there was a massive upheaval in party politics, devastating the old battle lines between the Democrats and the Whigs. Former free-state Whigs and Democrats started to band together under the “Republican” banner in general opposition to the slave states, or the “Slave Power” as some called it. Early Republican Party formation started in the West where party ties were weakest and spread to the more calcified East.
Old fights over economics and the size and scope of government moved to the sidelines as the Union neared complete dissolution.
For instance, the famous editor of the New York Tribune and former Whig turned staunch anti-slavery Republican, Horace Greeley, actually tried to enlist Abraham Lincoln’s future rival, Stephen A. Douglas, in the Republican cause to run for Illinois senator in 1858.
Douglas declined, but like many of the other Jacksonian Democrats, when he realized that pro-slavery forces had been unleashed and that America was rapidly becoming a slave republic, he responded with brutal, militant ferocity. As pro-slavery radicals like George Fitzhugh of Virginia were advocating slavery for 19 out of 20 people, black and white, and the Dred Scott Supreme Court decision essentially made slavery legal everywhere, many like Douglas began to realize that the free-states were utterly surrounded and the foundations of the country were being upended.
Other Jacksonians took a similar track. Francis Preston Blair, one of the most prominent members of President Andrew Jackson’s “Kitchen Cabinet” and editor of the famous Jacksonian organ, the Washington Globe, left Democrats to form the Republican Party.
Though he was aging and sickly, and opposed many of the old Whig economic ideas of industrial development and tariffs that Lincoln supported, Blair became a chief Lincoln adviser when the administration needed him most.
When Blair’s son informed him that Lincoln might pull his troops out and withdraw from Fort Sumter, he marched over to the White House. He told Lincoln that “It would be treason to surrender Sumter,” and that recognition of secession’s constitutionality would lead to his “impeachment.”
Contrary to popular belief, it was Blair and not Lincoln that contacted General Robert E. Lee to head the Union Army. He, like many Democrats at that time, felt a deep connection to the South but felt so strongly about the preservation of the Union that he was willing to wage terrible war against it once backed into a corner.
In contrast, Greeley, who absolutely believed slavery was abhorrent and wished to end it forever, said of the South, “Let them go in peace.”
Not so with Jacksonian Democrats.
Once Fort Sumter had been attacked in April of 1861, most Northern Democrats rallied to the cause. Historian Jean H. Baker said in Affairs of Party: The Political Culture of Northern Democrats in the Mid-Nineteenth Century, “Overnight a singular change occurred. Antiwar in April, thousands of Northern Democrats were volunteering by May. If supporting the South had been a badge of nationalism in 1860, fighting the Confederacy became one by late 1861.”
Baker continued, “…like revivalists in evangelical assembly, young men converted from civilian to soldier, from Democrat to first Infantry, by signing the muster rolls while neighbors cheered and the band played ‘America.'”
One Democratic newspaper stated, “Now none but traitors deserving the gibbet will be found sustaining the Southern rebels. Those who are not for the Stars and Stripes are against them.”
This ethic has continued to resonate with Americans long after the Civil War.
Ronald Reagan displayed this Jacksonian attitude during the Cold War when he ditched the policy of détente and drew a firm line of opposition to the Soviet Union.
Reagan called the USSR an “Evil Empire,” pointing to the depravities of life under Communism. Americans, notably the “Reagan Democrats,” not only drew a line in the sand, but took aggressive action to build up the military and wage numerous small-scale wars as a part of the “Reagan Doctrine.”
Most recently, the atrocities committed on September 11, 2001, in which thousands of Americans were brutally killed by those who held a radical, anti-American Islamist ideology, prompted Americans to go on the warpath. Attacking the symbols of American power, the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, were clear examples that the enemy was attempting to upend the foundations of American civilization.
Though this clash is clear to Americans with a Jacksonian outlook, it has been muddled by those with a different philosophy.
It must be noted that even though many Jacksonian Democrats initially opposed the conflict with the slave states in the lead up to the Civil War, were at best ambivalent and sometimes outwardly hostile to abolition, and deeply disliked President Lincoln, it was ultimately the swelling of Union ranks with these rough men of iron-will that preserved the United States as one nation and put an end to the institution of slavery.
Jacksonians turn to war when they believe that vital American interests are at stake and against enemies that they believe threaten American liberties and the foundations of the country. Once set off, Jacksonians see conflict ending in total victory or defeat with little in the middle. A simple, but important set of principles to understand whenever American leaders decide to let slip the dogs of war.