Two Against Lincoln

A review of Two Against Lincoln: Reverdy Johnson and Horatio Seymour, Champions of the Loyal Opposition (University Press of Kansas, 2017) by William C. Harris

In a speech before the Senate in 1863, James A. Bayard of Delaware stated that “The truth will out, ultimately…though they may be voted down by the majority of the hour, though they may not be known at first—the great truths will not triumph, with a little energy and a little perseverance.” Bayard had for two years relentlessly attacked the Lincoln administration for its legal gymnastics regarding the Constitution, and he believed that in the future, Americans would come to view the Lincoln administration as a watershed in a downhill slide to despotic government. Bayard later resigned from the Senate after taking Charles Sumner’s “Iron Clad Oath,” a vocal though defeated and marginalized critic of the Republican war effort.

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Defeated and marginalized summarizes the entire collection of Lincoln opponents described as “Copperheads” by the Republican press. The reason is possibly tied both to Lincoln’s assassination in 1865 and the process of reconciliation after the War. Lincoln was martyred, his constitutional abuses chalked up to wartime necessities, and the burgeoning Lincolnian America solidified by the “Gilded Age.” But even long after the War, few historians spent much time studying Lincoln’s “fire in the rear” and those that did often regurgitated the partisan attacks leveled against them by the Republican Party both during the conflict and in the more militant phases of congressional reconstruction. For many Americans, men like Clement Vallandigham and illusions to the “Knights of the Golden Circle” conjured up images of “treason” and misguided opposition to a just cause. The Copperhead’s principled defense of “The Union as it was and the Constitution as it is” was left to the dustbin of American history, or worse described as the New York Times called it in 1864, “Copperhead charlatanry.”

Frank Klement resurrected the reputations of the Midwestern “Peace Democrats” in several monographs during the 1960s, but those volumes represented almost the entirety of scholarly research on the Copperheads for most of the twentieth century.  Jennifer Weber revived interest in the Copperheads with her 2006 publication of Copperheads: The Rise and Fall of Lincoln’s Opponents in the North. While this tome has several flaws, notably the emphasis she places on race being the central theme of Copperhead opposition, it nevertheless forced the historical profession to reconsider Lincoln’s wartime opponents as a viable and principled collection of men.

William Harris’s Two Against Lincoln focuses on the actions of two “loyal opponents’ of the Lincoln administration: Reverdy Johnson of Maryland and Horatio Seymour of New York. Johnson is a little known United States Senator who sniped at the administration once taking his seat in 1863. His background as a former Whig and his familiarity with Lincoln adds to the story. Johnson spent much of his time in the concluding years of the War defending his fellow “Northern” conservatives against charges of treason by the Republican dominated Congress, attacking military interference at polling places across the North, but particularly in his home State, and in denouncing Lincoln for his “utter unfitness for the presidency.” He also gave one of the more important speeches in favor of the proposed amendment to abolish slavery, one that laid equal blame for the difficulty in ending slavery on virulent abolitionist of the North and staunch pro-slavery “fire-eaters” of the South.

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Harris portrays Johnson as a man without a party and a moderate stuck in the middle of a nasty political war that spilled into Reconstruction. Johnson did not believe secession to be legal, nor did he think the Southern States had physically left the Union, but he bristled at the efforts of the radical Republicans to impose their political will on the South. He voted against Andrew Johnson’s impeachment and sealed the political deal that kept the president in office. Harris additionally argues that it was Reverdy Johnson’s work in defense of five men charged under the Ku Klux Klan acts in 1871 that established federal interpretation of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments for a generation. Harris concludes that:

Like many former Whigs in the border states and elsewhere, Johnson’s staunch Unionism was based on his belief in national progress and the greatness of American institutions. Although often opposed to Lincoln’s policies and conduct of the war, Johnson held a view similar to that of the president on America’s future and its transcendent purpose in fighting to prevent the destruction of the republic.

Thus to Harris, Johnson was neither a “Copperhead” nor a secessionist as contemporary critics claimed, but a loyal defender of the Constitution who differed with the Republicans and the Lincoln administration about war powers, the prosecution of the War, and the policies of Reconstruction, but not in the preservation of the “Union.”

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