When dissent becomes obstruction

In the US Civil War, 'Copperheads' in the North nearly defeated Lincoln's effort to save the Union. Today's Democrats are similarly guilty.

Dissent in wartime is as American as apple pie. There is not a single war in US history that did not face opposition from some part of the citizenry. But at some point, dissent becomes something else altogether – obstruction of the war effort.

The most egregious case of this occurred during the Civil War when "peace Democrats," called "Copperheads," nearly succeeded in defeating President Lincoln's attempt to save the Union.

It's a largely forgotten element of the Civil War, but it bears striking – and ominous – similarity to the obstruction we see in Washington today over the Iraq war. Indeed, as Democrats in Congress this week imposed withdrawal deadlines, it's clear that Copperhead syndrome is alive and well.

The Copperhead is, of course, a poisonous snake, which is how the Civil War-era opponents of the peace Democrats portrayed them: Confederate sympathizers and obstructers of the Union war effort. But "Copperhead" was also a contemporary term for the penny, which at the time bore the likeness of Lady Liberty. Peace Democrats often rendered these pennies into lapel pins to portray themselves as defenders of states' rights and civil liberties.

Self-image aside, Lincoln criticized the Copperhead effort as "the fire in the rear." Some historians have dismissed the Copperhead threat as, according to one author, "a fairy tale," a "figment of Republican imagination," made up of "lies, conjecture and political malignancy." But a fine new book, "Copperheads: The Rise and Fall of Lincoln's Opponents in the North," by journalist-turned-academic-historian Jennifer Weber, shows that the Northern anti-war movement was far from a peripheral phenomenon.

Copperhead obstruction then...

The Copperheads exploited the North's widespread antiwar sentiment.

They actively interfered with recruiting and encouraged desertion. Indeed, they generated so much opposition to conscription – including armed resistance in some places and the infamous draft riots in New York City – that the Army was forced to divert resources from the battlefield to the hotbeds of Copperhead activity in order to maintain order. Many Copperheads actively supported the Confederate cause, materially as well as rhetorically.

The Copperheads were particularly dangerous because of the substantial influence they exerted on the Democratic Party. During the election of 1864, the peace Democrats wrote the party platform, and one of their own, Rep. George Pendleton of Ohio, was the party's candidate for vice president. Until Adm. David Farragut's victory at Alabama's Mobile Bay, Gen. William Sherman's capture of Atlanta, and Gen. Philip Sheridan's success in driving the Confederates from the Shenandoah Valley in the summer and fall of 1864, hostility toward the war was so profound in the North that Lincoln believed he would lose the election.

Fortunately for the country, the turn of events on the battlefield permitted a coalition of Republicans and "war Democrats" to reelect Lincoln in 1864. Of particular importance was the fact that Union soldiers voted overwhelmingly for Lincoln, abandoning the once-beloved Gen. George McClellan because of the perception that he had become a tool of the Copperheads.

...and Copperhead obstruction now

Today's Democratic Party seems to have inherited the mantle, if not the name, of their Copperhead forebears. Like the Copperheads of old, today's Democrats put the entire blame for the war and its conduct on the administration. While the Copperheads of old assured the Union soldiers that the Rebels could not be defeated, today's Copperheads assure us that the Iraqi insurgents are invincible.

The Copperheads of old described Lincoln as a bloodthirsty tyrant, trampling the rights of Southerners and Northerners alike. And they portrayed Union soldiers as instruments of his tyrannical administration. Invoking the USA Patriot Act, Guantánamo Bay, and Abu Ghraib, today's Copperheads – from lawmakeres to bloggers – call President Bush a tyrant and a terrorist. Some have even suggested similarity between US soldiers serving in Iraq and Nazis in World War II. Rarely do they censure the enemy in such terms.

Like the Copperheads of old, today's Democrats offer no viable alternative to their respective president's policy except to "end the war now." And just as former Copperheads preferred Lincoln's failure to saving the Union, the current ones would rather see Bush lose than the country win in Iraq.

Of course, rhetoric is one thing. An action to obstruct the war effort is another. With the recent shameful vote in Congress to hamstring the commander in chief's authority and ability to conduct the war in Iraq, the Democrats have assumed Copperhead status by moving from the former to the latter.

The bill they passed is a disgrace, but it is certainly in the best Copperhead tradition. It is a variant of what some call the "slow bleed approach": tie the president's hands while avoiding the responsibility that would go with an action that is within Congress's constitutional authority – cutting off spending for the war.

The principle that once Congress funds a military force, it has no further authority to direct or limit its employment was established during the administration of President Adams and the Quasi-War against France (1798-1800). Congress's action in this case is clearly unconstitutional.

What helped save Lincoln politically was the fact that there were "war Democrats" who contested Copperhead control of the Democratic Party. Sadly, Copperhead behavior has become institutionalized in today's Democratic Party and among a disturbingly high proportion of that party's voters. Democrats who can challenge the Copperhead influence are few and far between.

The Associated Press called last week's vote in the House to order the troops home by next year "a triumph" for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. She must be so proud.

Democrats may well pay a high price

But Democratic Party leaders should heed a cautionary note. The late 19thcentury Democratic Party paid a high price for the influence of the Copperheads during the Civil War, permitting Republicans to "wave the bloody shirt" of rebellion and to vilify the party with the charge of disunion and treason for years after the war.

The actions of the Copperheads radically politicized Union soldiers, turning many Democrats into lifelong, stalwart Republicans. Many Union soldiers came to despise the Copperheads more than they disdained the Rebels. As the Democrats were reminded for many years after the war, the Copperheads had made a powerful enemy of the Union veterans.

Americans are clearly dissatisfied with the progress of the Iraq war. But most Americans do not want to see the United States defeated in Iraq. And there are encouraging signs that the US troop surge in Baghdad is working. Because of the perception that defeat – not victory – is the goal of today's Copperheads, the Democratic Party may well pay the same price as its predecessor did after the Civil War.

Mackubin Thomas Owens is a professor of national security affairs at the Naval War College. The views expressed here are his own.

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