Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Jordan Bloom at The American Conservative hips us to the surprising fact that there is going to be a film about the Copperheads, that is, about the Northern Democrat political movement that opposed continuing the Civil War, and especially once the Emancipation Proclamation had been issued. The film, titled Copperhead , apparently focuses on an upstate New York town and family divided by Copperhead-ism in the face of pressure to support the war. It would be misleading to label the larger movement “pacifist,” as Bloom does, or pro-Confederate, which many of their opponents at the time did. They were dissenters against the war. I suppose some of those labeled Copperheads were genuine pacifists or at least generally anti-war, and I am certain some were genuinely pro-Confederate, but nothing I have read indicates that these types dominated the movement. However, since the film is not zeroing in on the movement’s most well-known and politically significant leaders, such as Clement Vallandigham, it may be that the variety of Copperhead-ism in consideration here partakes of more pacifist rhetoric than was typical—that seems to be what the trailer is suggesting.

So I know long-time pomocon commenter Robert Cheeks will be eager to see this film, since, as he recently revealed here, he happens to be a member of the Ohio town that is Clement Vallandigham’s birthplace, a town that is currently debating whether to erect a monument to the man (Robert is for it), and I know my Christopher Newport U. colleague Jonathan White, author of Abraham Lincoln and Treason: The Trials of John Merryman will be also. If you’re in an educate-me-mood, go here , to about 35 minutes in, for part of a fine White lecture that discusses the Vallandigham’s arrest for criticizing the war.

If I thought, as the trailer and Bloom suggest, that the film would be primarily about political differences in wartime tearing apart a small town, or about the fate of dissenters (such as the Loyalists!) during popular American wars, I would be just as eager to see it. Those are potentially great subjects. By all means let’s extend America’s cinematic history interest beyond the battlefield and the Oval Office, and beyond dominant narratives and sympathies.

But I confess to being a bit wary, for a great deal depends on this film’s peculiar screenwriter, and whether he has let the actual history and the actual differences Americans had on the subject constrain his ideological motivation, or whether that motivation is entirely running and framing the show.

For more amazing to me than the prospect of a film about the Copperheads, is the fact that its screenplay has been done by Bill Kauffman! Now it is based on a novel by one Harold Frederic—does anyone here know it?—so that might be the key thing. Or we might also consider the director, Ronald F. Maxwell, of Gettysburg and Of Gods and Generals fame. But Bill Kaufman is a man with a rather pointed agenda, one that the covers of his books reveals quite well:

kaufman book image

Kauffman is a guy with apparently new-leftish roots, but who who celebrates historic Republican isolationism, and toys with the idea of secession.

second kaufman bk image

He tries to bring together opponents of American “empire” left and right, the better to formulate a new sort of “isolationism.” He is a fan of the anti-Federalists, and wrote a book on one of them, Luther Martin, I suspect because the hard-drinkin’ Martin best fit Kauffman’s taste for the ornery . Of course the TAC folks and many of the Porchers lap up his schtick.

The problem is, whereas an ornery character might be an enjoyable in a bar or in a piece of fiction, the actual Bill Kauffman espouses an ideology and displays a temperament that are pretty poisonous.

For a sense of this, see this take-down I once did of an essay of his , which built upon an earlier argument of mine that Bob Dylan committed a moral evil by releasing his hate-legitimating “Masters of War.” Kauffman’s line that really scandalized me was this one:

“When the Masters of War . . . . . . requested the presence of American sons at the blood orgies of 1917, 1941, 1950, and 1964, it was the Upper Midwest, with its Non-Partisan Leagues and retro-Progressives and Sons of the Wild Jackass, that brayed “No!” Where are their offspring?”

Ugh. Note especially the condemnation of even our fighting WWII as a “blood orgy.” Well, here is the less outraged portion of my response:

The key point is that the blanket-damnation of “Masters of War” only did and only does makes sense if using a word like “empire” in the careless way of too many Porchers makes sense. . . . [America] doesn’t and didn’t deserve damnation, at least not from anyone not named God, and especially not from remarkably un-peaceful “peace” advocates who seem to find their moral purpose in life by clinging ever more tightly to deluded notions of “empire” the further we get from their hoary 1890s Leninist (See Songbook #5) provenance. I can see why Kauffmann thinks he might be able to win some of these types over to his neither left-nor-right “isolationist” stance . . . Still, there is something sick-making about the more general Porcher openness to this denunciatory style regarding America’s wars and war-preparations. This style came out of a sick politics (i.e., it is far more rooted in Lenin than in Jefferson) and has been helping along our descent into a sick culture. It is hateful.

So let us hope that the director’s or novelist’s hand, or the angels of Kauffman’s better nature, have kept his usual instincts at bay here. To the extent the film shows us that the Copperheads were a mixed bag, many of them motivated in large part by race-prejudice, and shows us their opponents had compelling reasons for opposing them, even if many of these succumbed to the temptations of simplistic denunciation and persecution, we’ll have a valuable film, and reason to be thankful that Kauffman’s isolationist motive helped fuel the project. But to the extent we see the Copperheads primarily framed as victims, even if with perfect historical faithfulness to the incidents selected , and their opponents framed as thoughtless patriot conformists, we will know that we are watching propaganda.

Jordan Bloom titles his article “We Only Like Pacifists When We Agree with Them.” I think he should read my pieces on Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Masters of War” — for then he might admit that there are few real (that is, consistent) pacifists, now or at any time. And he might begin to see why so many of the generally anti-war types have rather un-pacifistic anger-expression issues, indeed, hate-indulgence issues. That is, he might begin to notice the links between Kauffman’s charmingly ornery and apparently homey “isolationism,” and the coldly hating Marxism that messed up otherwise good folks like Dylan back in the day. As I said in the essay on “Masters of War,” posing his style of thought against that of Raymond Aron:

Once you let one of those “imperialism” or “gold/oil-is-the-reason” or “power-elite” narratives get going in your head . . . . . . you become allergic to careful thought, which in part, is thought that takes care to be just to others. In this song Dylan is not just, nor any sort of “peacemaker.”

As for the Copperheads themselves, I think they will remain primarily important to us for thinking through how dissenting groups in wartime ought to be handled, both in party-politics terms and especially with respect to civil liberties. I am eager to learn about the Copperheads who were more admirable, who avoided the demagogic spirit of leaders like Vallandigham or the racist opposition to the Emancipation Proclamation, if there were significant numbers of these. Comparing such folks to later war-dissenters in American history could be most instructive. But sorry, Kauffman’s involvement raises my suspicion that this film will mis-educate us about the Copperheads as much as it will kindle our interest in them.

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter First Thoughts Posts

Related Articles