John Bushnell Forsyth
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Date of Graduation
Master of Arts (MA)
Department of History
Gabrielle M. Lanier
John J. Butt
The antiwar movement during the Civil War, led by the Peace Democrats and their more virulent cousins, the Copperheads, was remarkable from many perspectives. First, their civil disobedience and political dissent largely remained well within constitutional boundaries, and the voting booth was their preferred battleground throughout the war. Second, during the unprecedented Civil War, at least unprecedented from an American perspective, executive wartime authorities expanded with the crisis, often abridging civil rights under the auspices of war. Third, power lay mostly in the hands of the Radical Republicans, both at the national and state level, and the determination of what constituted acceptable and unacceptable dissent was theirs to make, often to the severe disadvantage of the Democrats. Last, confronted with vote gerrymandering, vote rigging, voter intimidation, arrest without warrant and incarceration without trial, the Democrats behaved with restraint throughout, notwithstanding the aberration of the Sons of Liberty and possible Confederate collusion in 1864. Pledged to a party platform of peace and immediate reconciliation with the estranged South, the Democrats remained unwavering from 1861-1865 in their opposition to Abraham Lincoln and the war.
The following is their story. Their rise and fall followed the trajectory of one man, Clement Laird Valladigham, and on him they relied for direction, inspiration and both thick and thin prospects of success. To him was attributed much, and when he was arrested, tried and exiled to the South in 1863, the population of the North was attentive. Labeled as martyr and as a traitor, dependent on party affiliation, Valladigham remained in the national spotlight until his last, great failure in November of 1864.
The Copperheads, and Valladigham, remain relevant today. Throughout the Civil War, they were obdurate protesters of what they saw as constitutional abuse and usurpation, and their protests continue to serve as a model for how to protest a war, as well as how not to.
Forsyth, John, "Free speech or sedition: Clement L. Valladigham and the Copperheads, 1860-1864" (2020). Masters Theses, 2020-current. 61.