GALLMAN: The Cacophony of Politics (2021)

The Cacophony of Politics: Northern Democrats and the American Civil War by J. Matthew Gallman. University of Virginia Press, 2021. Cloth, ISBN: 978-0-8139-4656-6. $35.00.

When Roy Franklin Nichols penned the final chapters of his formidable classic, The Disruption of American Democracy, he wrote that “the Democratic party seemed in desperate straits. The war which it had striven to avoid had apparently destroyed the last shreds of its power as a national party.” It faced “a long, uphill struggle for survival.”

The Cacophony of Politics explores the terrain after the point where Nichols stopped. But J. Matthew Gallman has not written a sequel. Political historians such as Nichols focused on party leaders and insiders. Gallman casts a wider net as he strives to reveal the myriad actions and opinions of white Northern men and women who disdained the Lincoln administration and participated in the “ongoing public conversation about power and policy” (8). Rather than the highly structured institutional history of a once-national party, such as Nichols might have crafted, this book reflects a modern impulse to frame political history from a cultural perspective.

A number of heretofore obscure persons play roles here—Durbin Ward, an Ohio soldier, who warned that Democrats must show their allegiance to the Union by supporting the war; Jane Standard, a politically sophisticated Illinois farm wife, who corresponded with her unhappy enlisted husband; and Henry and Sarah (Bell) Waller, whose son Willie was arrested while trying to recruit for the Confederate army. Readers of Gallman’s previous books will not be surprised to find that he writes about Philadelphians—for example, the outspoken Democrats, Charles and Edward Ingersoll—using the rich collections held by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

Gallman gives due attention to influential Democrats. He gleaned important material at the Huntington Library in California, notably the papers of Samuel L. M. Barlow, a key behind-the-scenes operator, who allied with Manton Marble, editor of the New York World, to rebuild a legitimate opposition party. They were assisted by Ohio Congressman Samuel S. (“Sunset”) Cox. But the party’s most arresting personalities were the bitter-enders, including Chauncey Burr, who edited an often strident monthly, The Old Guard; and, above all, Ohio Congressman Clement L. Vallandigham, an outspoken antiwar orator who promoted himself as a principled defender of the Constitution.

Shorn of its once-powerful Southern wing, the Democratic party provided war-weary Northerners with a vehicle to register their distress about lengthening casualty lists, conscription, and infringements of civil liberties. When the war went badly, as it certainly did in 1862 and the summer of 1864, Democratic support surged. The party did not, however, offer a cohesive alternative. While some saw the war as a hopeless undertaking and called for peace on almost any terms, many others wanted the Union restored and claimed that better leadership could bring it about.

Gallman’s Cacophony reports that most Northern Democrats were not traitorous Copperheads: that is, fifth-column pro-Confederates who sought to subvert the Union cause. He thinks the rank-and-file took their cue from leaders who understood the necessity of continued war. But he recognizes that the peace wing had a following, especially in the Midwest, and it put the party in an awkward spot as the 1864 elections approached. His opponents, Abraham Lincoln quipped, needed to “nominate a Peace Democrat on a war platform, or a War Democrat on a peace platform” (239).

The quandary proved insoluble. Democrats selected George B. McClellan, the deposed military commander, but saddled him with a platform that denigrated the war effort as “four years of failure” (282). Even so, he ran a competitive race. Less than three months before ballots were cast, Lincoln was convinced he faced defeat. Union military victories in Atlanta and the Shenandoah Valley enabled the president to regain the upper hand, but McClellan held him to wafer-thin margins in several key states. As Gallman rightly insists, timing mattered. His interpretation of the 1864 election corroborates historian Joel Silbey’s 1977 volume, A Respectable Minority: The Democratic Party in the Civil War Era, 1860-1868.

Gallman tends to absolve Democrats of playing the race card. Their ranks included former Whigs such as Reverdy Johnson and Robert C. Winthrop, who gave primacy to the Union cause and distanced themselves from those who stirred racial phobias. But Democrats widely accused Lincoln of prolonging the war by insisting on emancipation, and party publicists often predicted that hordes of former slaves would overrun the North. Gallman is left to argue that white Northerners generally, not just Democrats, were racially prejudiced, and that even while some Democrats engaged in racial scaremongering, others were more likely to scapegoat white abolitionists for having caused the war in the first place.

Nobody can accuse Gallman of writing about people who might enjoy popular appeal today. “Northern Democrats,” he concludes, “were on the wrong side of history again and again” (323). When they didn’t oppose the war to preserve the Union, they complained about it. And even though some found it expedient late in the war to reject slavery, Gallman notes that modern readers would find their ideas about race “appalling” (322).

The tale that unfolds here differs markedly from James M. McPherson’s uplifting and widely read narrative, Battle Cry of Freedom, which celebrates a Republican commitment to Union and racial amelioration, thereby infusing a moral dimension into political give-and-take. For Gallman, the Civil War era’s partisan politics were “fundamentally messy, and often inconsistent” (3). Democrats never competed for the moral high ground; their presence illuminated a political culture with more coarse than noble features.

Daniel W. Crofts, Professor Emeritus of History at The College of New Jersey, was awarded the University of Virginia’s Bobbie and John Nau Book Prize in American Civil War Era History forLincoln and the Politics of Slavery: The Other Thirteenth Amendment and the Struggle to Save the Union (University of North Carolina Press, 2016). His essay, “Sidney George Fisher and the Coming of the Civil War: How Southern Overreach Alarmed a Conservative Philadelphian,” appears in the December 2021 issue of The Journal of the Civil War Era.

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HULBERT: Oracle of Lost Causes (2023)

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