The recent dustup over the presence of a “pro-secessionist and neo-confederate” activist on the staff of Senator Rand Paul raised the danger that some oddball extremists interested in refighting the Civil War were worming their way into mainstream politics from the fever swamps of the far right. Nevertheless, most observers dismissed the story as insignificant and saying little if anything about mainstream conservative opinion. They are right about that, but yet another story indicates that there is a serious problem that leading conservatives must address lest this lunacy continue to spread.
Earlier this week, Politico noted that one prominent conservative activist has gotten into the movie endorsement business. Richard Viguerie, the head of ConservativeHQ.com, emailed his supporters to express his delight with Copperhead, a new film that has yet to go into general commercial release but which is available on demand in some cable systems. It is, he says, the movie “that every conservative needs to see.”
“[W]hile Copperhead is about the Civil War, believe me, it will hit close to home for every conservative fighting to preserve our Constitution and our American way of life,” Viguerie wrote. “Because Copperhead is about standing up for faith, for America, and for what’s right, just like you and I are doing today. In fact, I’ve never seen a movie with more references to the Constitution, or a movie that better sums up our current fight to stand up for American values and get our nation back on track.”
Suffice it to say that if conservatives agreed with Viguerie that would not only be dead wrong; it would mark the effective end of the modern conservative movement that William F. Buckley ushered into existence in the 1950s. Anyone who wishes to identify contemporary concerns about the unchecked growth of government with northern opponents of Abraham Lincoln, as this dishonest and dreary film does, is consigning the movement to certain death.
In its two tedious hours, Copperhead tells the story of the most reasonable citizen of a small village in upstate New York in 1862. Its hero Abner Beech claims to be a supporter of the U.S. Constitution and deplores, as many conservatives do today, the willingness of the federal government to give itself power and to treat its opponents roughly. For this belief, his neighbors ostracize him. But he is undaunted and eventually wins many of them over while his leading opponent in town, who happens to be the most unreasonable if not downright crazy character in the film, winds up killing himself.
That might sound like a promising plot line, but the problem here is that in 1862 arguments about federal power were not theoretical disputes about legislation. The real-life versions of people like the Beech character (and his abolitionist antagonist) were focused on the efforts of the president to not only defend the existence of the republic but to prevent the spread of slavery on American shores.
All wars are terrible and few have been as horrific as the Civil War in terms of casualties and the scale of destruction. But to brand that war, of all conflicts, as unjust or not worth the sacrifice of so many Americans is the moral equivalent of saying that slavery wasn’t so bad. Copperhead is so boring that it’s doubtful that it will ever find much of an audience. But its chief failing is that it is fundamentally dishonest about its subject. It is true that many in the north didn’t like Lincoln or the war. But it is a lie to represent their views as having nothing to do with racism.
The film attempts to portray the dispute as simply a matter of Democrats versus Republicans and one man’s effort to make his views heard. But most northern Democrats supported the war even if they hadn’t voted for Lincoln. Only those elements of that party that were drenched in hatred of blacks and hostile to the very notion of emancipation considered the war illegal. Copperheads were a minority of the Democratic Party and their activity often bordered on what any reasonable observer would consider sedition in time of war and sought to obstruct recruitment into the Union Army.
Filmmaker Ron Maxwell attempts to get around this problem by portraying Beech as not only reasonable but actually against slavery. When he and his friends say they won’t fight for Lincoln, real Copperheads would have said they wouldn’t fight for blacks (though they invariably used the n-word when they said it).
Contrary to the argument in the film, what Lincoln had done did not undermine democracy. Secession was itself fundamentally undemocratic since it was based on the idea that those states that didn’t like the outcome of an election could use their displeasure to destroy the Union.
Maxwell made Gettysburg, a somewhat plodding 1991 film version of Michael Shaara’s classic book The Killer Angels about the great battle. Though that movie had some fine moments, it was still more pageant than drama. But Gods and Generals, the sequel he made more than a decade later, was more unfortunate in its source material, a dreadful novel by Shaara’s son Jeffrey that treated the southern cause as justified rather than merely tragic as his father had portrayed it. The director has doubled down on that morally bankrupt conclusion in “Copperhead” in which those who oppose the war are seen as the voices of conscience rather than intolerance.
Contemporary observers that see parallels between the battles being fought today over measures taken by the government to fight the republic’s current enemies should tread very carefully. The NSA metadata mining is nothing when compared to Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus or imprisonment of secessionists. But for 150 years there has been a consensus that rightly understood that Lincoln’s actions were crucial at a moment when a failure to act would have ensured the dissolution of the union. As the war gradually became one dedicated to the eradication of slavery as much as the preservation of the union, opposition to it has correctly been viewed as indefensible.
If the point of the film were a morality tale about the virtue of dissent, one would be hard-pressed to think of a worse example than the Copperheads. It is an axiom of history that one shouldn’t take figures out of their historical context and judge them by the beliefs of our own day. But one needn’t view the Copperheads in that manner to understand that even in their time they were viewed as a vicious element determined to destroy the country rather than lift a finger against slavery or rebellion. A moral universe where a Copperhead is the good guy and an ardent abolitionist is the villain is not one any American should seek to live in. If Abner Beech thinks the cure of war is worse than the plague of slavery, there is no reason why anyone living in 2013 should not view such utterances as both absurd and hateful. One can only wonder what would make anybody make such a film, let alone treat it as a model of political thought.
I can think of no better way to discredit the libertarian trend that seeks to pull back America from the world and cease an active defense of the country against Islamist terrorism than to identify it with opposition to an American secular saint and the war against slavery. Were conservatives as a whole to listen to Viguerie’s conclusion they would be validating the smears of racism that have been wrongly hurled against the movement by liberals. Nothing could be more antithetical to the values that conservatism actually seeks to defend than the message this disgraceful flick upholds.
Neo-confederate revisionist trash like Copperhead shouldn’t be ignored. It should be actively denounced as an insult to Americans who descend from the slaves that Beech didn’t think worth freeing and to the memory of those who, as Lincoln said, “gave their last full measure of devotion” to ensure that American democracy would “not perish from the earth.”